While the old nursery rhyme proclaims that girls are “made of sugar and spice and everything nice,” history demonstrates that girls are made of stronger stuff. “Girlhood (It’s Complicated)” showcases how girls have been on the frontlines of change and how they have made an impact on all aspects of American life.
200 Years 200 Objects
Spanning a timeframe of more than 200 years and showcasing approximately 200 objects, including some never-before-seen artifacts, the exhibition examines the ways American girls, from Helen Keller to Minnijean Brown to Naomi Wadler, have spoken up, challenged expectations, and used their voices to effect change.
Among the highlights are a 1781 sampler stitched by 13-year-old Betsy Bucklin, a makeup table from 1820, an 1850s gym suit, Helen Keller’s touch watch, the 1959 graduation dress worn by Brown, one of the Little Rock Nine, following her expulsion from Central High School and Isabella Aiukli Cornell’s 2019 red prom dress symbolizing her activism related to Indigenous women and decorated with tribal insignia representing her citizenship in the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.
“Girls’ lives are often imagined as idyllic, empowered, and uncomplicated,” said Anthea M. Hartig, Elizabeth MacMillan Director, and the first former girl to lead the museum. “Throughout American history, girls have resisted attempts to be defined and have used their voices to effect change. Yet, this is not an exhibition about ‘girl power’—if anything, this exhibition demonstrates that historically, girls have been denied power and agency. What it means to be a girl—and a woman—has continuously been debated and negotiated but has always been part of the national conversation.”
“Girlhood (It’s Complicated)” Five Story Sections
With a design inspired by zines, the 5,000-square-foot gallery features five-story sections: Education (Being Schooled), Wellness (Body Talk), Work (Hey, Where’s My Girlhood?), Fashion (Girl’s Remix), plus seven biographical, interactive stories. Artist Krystal Quiles created the custom murals and illustrations featured.
The exhibition’s companion website gives visitors the opportunity to experience many of the objects and stories featured in Girlhood virtually and offers the unique opportunity to explore a selection of historical artifacts as high-resolution, narrated 3D scans. Highlights include a “bloomer” gym suit from 1858, designs from fashion futurist Rudi Gernreich, 1970s embroidered jeans, and the red prom dress.
“Girlhood (It’s Complicated)” was developed by the National Museum of American History in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. The exhibition will tour the country through SITES beginning in 2023, following its Washington, D.C., run that ends Jan. 2, 2023. It is part of the Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative, #BecauseOfHerStory.
The American Women’s History Initiative represents one of the country’s most ambitious efforts to collect, document, display, and share the compelling story of women, deepening understanding of women’s contributions to the nation and the world. It amplifies women’s voices to honor the past, inform the present and inspire the future. More information about the initiative is available at womenshistory.si.edu.
“Girlhood (It’s Complicated)”
All images and video courtesy of the National Museum of American History.