It’s International Women’s Day, and many commentators take this opportunity to look back on the history of women to gauge how far we have come over the years. But it is often what is yet to be written that is most interesting, which made my mind turn to the history of girlhood.
Modern women’s history, as a separate branch of history, developed at the same time as the second wave of the women’s movement, starting in the 1960s. It began at the same time as social history, with its goal of giving voice to the silenced in history. Since then, it has gained traction to become an established area of study. There have been many methodological and philosophical debates within women’s history over the past half century, including important distinctions between feminist women’s history and gender history.
Many ages and stages of women’s lives have been studied: widows, mothers, married women and even single women have various journal articles and monographs to their credit.
But one stage of a woman’s life is still vastly under-researched, and that stage is the earlier years of girlhood. Although some work has been done on the history of childhood, gender is still not highlighted in many works. And the intersection of ethnicity, race, sexuality, disability and class for girls is even less well understood.
Both the academic journals Girlhood Studies (co-edited by McGill’s Claudia Mitchell) and the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth were launched only five years ago, in 2008. It’s fair to say that the history of girls is yet to be written, and that even their present is less well-researched than that of older women.
It’s interesting, then, to see that girls are fast becoming a focus of interest for some charities. International non-governmental organizations in particular seem to have “discovered” girls. Plan Canada has launched its Because I am a Girl project, and Care Canada is explicitly focusing on girls and women as agents of community change.
In Canada, a number of national organizations are also focusing on girls, including the Canadian Women’s Foundation, the Belinda Stronach Foundation and the YWCA of Canada.
One of the only charities to focus solely on girls is Girls Action Foundation, founded in 1995 and based in Montreal. In the foundations’s own words, it exists to “lead and seed girls’ programs across Canada.” This foundation has just released a brief commissioned by Status of Women Canada on the main issues facing girls in Canada, of which I am one of the co-authors.
I’m happy to say there is some good news to celebrate. Girls in Canada are gaining ground in education, with more graduating from high school and often on time. They are also smoking less and there is a decline in teen pregnancies. Each of these improvements helps set girls up for success in the future.
Unfortunately, Canadian girls are still facing some serious challenges, especially when it comes to mental health and everyday violence and abuse that can touch their lives. Too many girls suffer from problems related to negative body image, depression or self-destructive behaviour, and too many also suffer from bullying, unwanted sexual attention or dating violence.
Girls who are indigenous, racialized, immigrant or live in rural areas face even more challenges and barriers than others, although it is encouraging to see that they also often show some signs of heightened resiliency. There is still much work to be done to ensure all Canadian girls can reach their best potential.
On this International Women’s Day, it’s important to realize that our girls today will all too soon become women in the future. And as important as the future generation of women is, remember, we can still learn from the past. If the history of girlhood is indeed waiting to be written, I sincerely hope the wait is not too long.
Lee Tunstall has a PhD in history from the University of Cambridge. She is an adjunct assistant professor in the faculty of arts at the University of Calgary and co-author of the recently released Beyond Appearances: Brief on the Main Issues Facing Girls in Canada.
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