The National Museum of American History Celebrates Girlhood With New Exhibition

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Before 2020 became the dystopian reality that we seem to live with every day, the Smithsonian Institution had declared this year as the “Year of the Woman,” anticipating the centenary of women’s suffrage.

Nothing could have prepared us for an aggressive pandemic with no cure on the horizon, a life between mask and hand sanitizer, and the absence of hugs and affection. However, the Smithsonian has decided to move forward with its celebration, opening the “Girlhood (It’s Complicated)” exhibit at the National Museum of American History on October 9.

“The history of girlhood is not what people think; it is complicated,” reads the description of the show. “Young women are often told that girls are ‘made of sugar and spice and everything nice. What we learn from the past is that girls are made of stronger stuff. They changed history.”

In a 5,000-square-foot gallery, the curators have organized the visual retrospective on the power of the once-named “Second Sex” into five sections: Education (Being Schooled), Wellness (Body Talk), Work (Hey, Where’s My Girlhood?), and Fashion (Girl’s Remix).

According to American University’s digital platform, Girlhood director and chief curator Kathleen “Kathy” Franz, the exhibition’s narrative focused on “girls’ political voices over time.”

“I was so inspired and delighted to serve as the project director/lead curator for this exhibition,” says Franz, who is also an associate professor and distinguished historian in residence in American University’s Department of History. “It was a privilege to work with the large, creative team of curators, project managers, collection managers, and designers to create something unique, new, and powerful to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.”

The exhibition covers more than 200 years of American childhood and displays approximately 200 objects. It examines all the ways American girls, from Helen Keller to Minnijean Brown and Naomi Wadler, have spoken out, challenged expectations, and used their voices to effect change.

Highlights include a 1781 sampler sewn by 13-year-old Betsy Bucklin, an 1820 makeup table, an 1850s gymnastics suit, Helen Keller’s touch clock, the 1959 graduation dress worn by Brown, one of the Little Rock Nine, and Isabella Aiukli Cornell’s red graduation dress for 2019, which symbolizes her activism for Native American women.

“Girls’ lives are often imagined as idyllic, empowered and uncomplicated,” said Anthea M. Hartig, the Smithsonian’s Elizabeth MacMillan Director. “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.”

The exhibition sheds light on stories like Ryan Englekirk’s and his journals documenting a child’s efforts to understand gender identity, zines, historical photos and social media, and more.

The design features custom wall-sized murals and illustrations by artist Krystal Quiles, based on historical photos. Among the eight exhibition videos are an animated entrance experience, a make-up video, footage of historic student-led school walkouts, and a compilation of US government-produced sex education films from 1919 to 1957, the AU explains.

Visitors are invited to use social media to answer several questions posed at the exhibit’s exit using @amhistorymuseum and #GirlhoodHistory. The exhibition’s companion website features additional content, including detailed 3D scans of twenty rarely displayed fashion pieces featured in the show, allowing the public to zoom in to see the smallest details.

“Girlhood (It’s Complicated)” will tour the country beginning in 2023, following its Washington, DC, run that ends on 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 women’s compelling story, 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