Joan Brumberg

ALBANY, New York (WOMENSENEWS)–Cindy Caruso, an Albany resident who recently toured the “New York State Girls” exhibit with a friend and their 9-year-old daughters, said she found the toys and clothing from bygone eras poignant, because it’s become so difficult for girls to enjoy their childhood now.

“Girls are being exploited so much, it’s hard to be naive,” Caruso said, citing the sexually explicit message sent to girls by teen popmusicians. “It seems that little girls have to grow up so fast.”

That is exactly the kind of thought-provoking effect organizers hoped the exhibit will have on everyone who sees it; men as well as women, boys as well as girls. One of the exhibit’s organizers, Tana Fileccia-Flagg, says it sends one message especially loud and clear: “I think girls have come quite a way and still have quite a ways to go.”

“Girls’ history has gotten lost in women’s history and children’s history,” said Ruthanne Brod, supervisor of the exhibit, in a telephone interview. “Nobody has really focused on girls. We thought that this would be an opportunity to do something really different and reach out to all sorts of organizations that work with girls.”

Rare Subject for Museum

Believed to be one of the few times a major museum in New York has considered the role girls have played in the state’s industry, education and culture, the unpretentious, living-room-sized show is on display here until June 30 at the New York State Museum.

The New York State Office of Children and Family Services is also funding a traveling show, based on the museum exhibit, of folding display panels that can easily be stowed in a vehicle and quickly set up. Expected to be ready this summer, the traveling exhibit’s schedule has not been decided. Organizers expect that it will tour schools, community centers and regional offices of the Girl Scouts around the state.

To coincide with the exhibit, organizers conducted a series of related programs for children and parents that started last fall and continued into the spring: a workshop for mothers and daughters that explored their special relationship; two classes on preserving family photographs and memorabilia and a workshop on children’s games, with an emphasis on what the museum called “games with a girlish slant.”

The exhibit was the effort of the museum and the offices of Gov. George Pataki. Fileccia-Flagg, former assistant director at the state’s Division for Women, said organizers originally envisioned the project as a straightforward chronology of girls’ history in the state that would examine their participation in work, recreation and education.

Organizers quickly realized that wouldn’t work, because most vintage photographs of girls did not depict them accurately. Photographs of girls laboring in early factories, for example, showed them smiling and happily posing next to their machines, in scenes presumably staged by their employers. In fact, the history of girls in the state’s labor movement is both proud and tragic. Girls participated in strikes, but also died horrible deaths in unsafe conditions, as during the 1911 fire in New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Company.

Artifacts in Closet

Organizers instead focused on the themes of education, recreation, labor and rites of passage through displays of artifacts that mixed different periods within each category. The word went out to schools and agencies that worked with girls and artifacts came pouring into the museum. Several were lent by individuals who dug deep into closets and attics for mementos of their own girlhoods or family histories.

Among the objects on display: an elaborate satin gown worn by a Latina girl for the coming-of-age ceremony known as the Quinceanera, a Girl Scout uniform from the early 1900s and a corsage of sugar cubes that would have been worn to a Sweet 16 dance or a prom a generation ago.

“As we looked through the different artifacts and as we began pulling all this together and thinking about it, we realized that in the past, girls were prepared for their role (as homemakers) and currently, girls can choose what they want to do,” Fileccia-Flagg said. “So it was really just very interesting how things have changed.”

Nothing in the exhibit illustrates that better than contrasting posters depicting the “Girl’s Bill of Rights,” lent by New York chapters of Girls Inc., the national advocacy organization for girls based in New York City. According to the 1945 version, a girl has “the right to training for her future all-important job of homemaking and motherhood.” The 2000 version avows that girls have “the right to prepare for interesting careers and gain personal independence.”

However, people viewing the exhibit need to realize that it was “revolutionary to even have a concept of a Girl’s Bill of Rights in 1945,” said Joyce Roche, president and chief executive officer of Girls Inc. While the modern version projects a message of choice for girls, the vintage bill of rights has “a foundation of leadership and caring in them,” said Roche, who has seen the exhibit.

Girls’ History EmergesEven the academic view of girls has evolved in recent decades, said Joan Jacobs Brumberg, the Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow and professor of history, human development and gender studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. A noted scholar on girls, Brumberg is the author of “The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls,” and “Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa.”

Brumberg said that the history of girls has been subsumed under the category of “women’s history.” In the 1980s and early 1990s, girls were studied mostly from a social and cultural perspective that didn’t take into account their special needs, separate from those of adult women or male children, she noted.

In the last 10 years, however, an advocacy movement for girls has taken off, fueled by books such as Mary Pipher’s 1994 “Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls,” and groundbreaking gender-equity studies such as the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of University Women’s 1992 report, “How Schools Shortchange Girls.”

“All this contemporary girl advocacy has heightened the interest in the history of girls,” Brumberg said. In some ways, she added, that advocacy is an idea come full circle: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the 19th-century feminist, used to give a lecture entitled “Our Girls,” in which she warned about the obstacles to healthy mental and physical development that girls faced in the 1800s.

As they learn about that time, visitors to the exhibit circle around four glass showcases of artifacts and photographs stretching back a century or more. On display are toys such as a china tea party set, which isn’t dated exactly, but is at least 100 years old; embroidered samplers that demonstrate the instruction girls received in domestic arts, also dating back at least a century; and small clay pots, used as toys for Iroquois girls expected to learn a woman’s tasks.

Planning for the exhibit took months, and early on, organizers realized they could never include every ethnic group in the state in the exhibit, so they selected several that have played especially prominent roles, such as African Americans, Native Americans, Latinas and Asians.

Darryl McGrath is an Albany, New York reporter who writes often on politics and child welfare issues.

For more information:

New York State Museum–
“New York State Girls Exhibit Opens Oct. 15 at State Museum”:

New York State Division for Women:

Girls Inc.: