Girls: A History of Growing Up Female in America

The idea for this book came to me on May 24, 1994, at about 1:21 p.m. I was standing on the corner of Broadway and Twentieth street when the words—Girls! A History of Growing Up Female in America—suddenly popped up in my brain. Now, it is not unusual for words, ideas, and images to spontaneously show up in my brain. Some leave soon, some stay. Some are useful, some are not. Some make me laugh, some depress me. Others inspire me. The words—Girls: A History of Growing Up Female in America—electrified me.

I looked for information in many places—museums, archives, libraries, historical sites. I studied historical letters, diaries, memoirs, advice books, magazines, newspapers, official documents, paintings, pictures, advertisements, song lyrics, poems, novels, and cartoons.


Here is some of what I found: a Navajo Creation Story about a baby girl that explains the beginnings of the universe and of human beings; an account of an expedition in 1598 that included girls and established the first Spanish colony in what is now New Mexico; a passenger list from a ship that sailed from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony with the names of 21 girls, who were under the age of 15, included the five Hull sisters— Joan, Temperance, Elizabeth, Grissel, and Dorothy; a journal entry that Elias Ball made on June 30, 1756, in which he recorded his purchase of six slaves, including Belinda and Priscilla—both age 10; a 1834 advice book for girls with this advice about jumping rope, “It is healthy exercise, and tends to make the form graceful but it should be used with moderation. I have known instances of blood vessels burst by young ladies;” a memoir by Harriet Hanson with the account of how in 1836 when she was 11 years old she participated in a “turnout”, or a strike at a textile mill in Lowell, Mass; and oral histories including one by Alice Sue Fun who talked about growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the early 1900s, and one by Andreita Padilla who was raised by her grandmother in La Paloma, New Mexico, and one by Sheyann Webb who recorded her experiences of being eight years old and getting involved in the civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama.


I also read about Elizabeth Murray who talked about growing up in the Bronx. Her father was addicted to drugs and had AIDS. Her mother died of AIDS. Elizabeth was left to raise herself. For a time she lived on park benches and the street. But she stayed in school, graduated at the top of her class, and received a four-year college scholarship from the New York Times. When she was homeless, says Elizabeth, “I started to grasp the value of the lessons I was learning living on the streets. I knew, after overcoming these obstacles, next to nothing could hold me down.”Girls: A History of Growing Up Female In America has 131 pictures and I traveled to many archives and took some photographs myself in order to get compelling images, some of which have never been published, including pictures of: a baby girl sitting on a pile of pillows getting an electric permanent wave to curl her hair; 19th century paper dolls of Topsey and Eva St. Claire, two characters from Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe; and a picture of the four Crisman sisters, each of whom staked out her own homestead, built a shelter, and survived on the prairie.


I also included a picture of me as a little girl and my sister with the hope that you, the readers, will put a picture of yourself in the book, too. My hope is that you will engage with this history and relate your personal stories and images to the stories and images that I included in Girls: A History of Growing Up Female in America. Like Kay Althoff did when she saw the picture of the baby girl getting an electric permanent. “I remember having that done to me!,” she exclaimed. “It was hot, smelly, messy. Torture, pure torture.” Or Janet Schulman did when she saw the picture of the newspaper girls “My brothers had paper routes,” she said. “But I wasn’t allowed to, even through I really wanted one.” Or Jennifer Sheridan’s eleven-year-old niece did when she read Girls and excitedly discovered that her “Granny Hindy” whose full name was Hilda Satt
Polachek—was in Girls. The story of growing up female in America is not one girl’s story but many girls’—Native American; colonial, slave; immigrant, pioneer; rich, middle-class, and poor. It is the stirring story of ordinary and extraordinary girls who found ingenious ways of making do and performed incredible feats of derring-do.

I wrote Girls: A History of Growing Up Female in America because the fact of being born female in America matters, and it always has. For most of American history, it meant fewer rights, freedoms, and opportunities. It meant stereotypes, jokes, and teasing. Nevertheless, many girls faced growing up female with vigor. Countless numbers of girls confronted their fears, overcame obstacles, spoke their minds, cherished their friends and family, contribute to the world around them, and left a legacy that can educate and inspire all of us.