Cincinnati Museum Center exhibit celebrates impact of ‘Girlhood’ on US history

A new exhibition coming to Cincinnati Museum Center explores how girls have used their individual and collective voices to impact politics, culture and life overall in the United States throughout the country’s nearly 250-year history.

“Girlhood (It’s complicated)” includes more than 200 objects from the Smithsonian that showcase the diversity of girls’ experiences in the U.S. from its founding in 1776 through modern day.

The display brings to the forefront the stories of girls from different walks of life and time periods, including many who during America’s first 131 years couldn’t vote.

Even though they didn’t benefit from the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 during their lifetimes, that didn’t mean they didn’t have strong voices in society, said Elizabeth Pierce, president and CEO of Cincinnati Museum Center.

Girlhood It's Complicated Banner

Pierce noted that “Girlhood” aims to position girls throughout history as being resilient figures and “agents of change” in the world around them through their willingness to stand up and speak out.

“The exhibition invites much-needed dialogue about society’s expectations of our youth and serves as a lens for our today and our tomorrow,” she added. “In reconsidering our nation’s history through the eyes and lives of young women, we can inspire a more equitable and empathetic future for everyone, from the start.”

“Girlhood” examines the impact of young women through five areas: news and politics, education, work, wellness and fashion. It does so in part by telling stories of specific young women – some household names, others lesser known. 

The layout of the space is an ode to magazines and “zines,” a type of self-published periodical often written by and/or featuring women.

One of the historic names mentioned is Minnijean Brown, a member of the Little Rock Nine. As a teenager in 1957, Brown walked alongside eight other Black students to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.

More than 60 years after Brown, Naomi Wadler became famous for a walk of her own. The then-elementary school student from Alexandria, Va., was one of hundreds of thousands of protestors who took part in the March for Our Lives gun control rally in Washington, D.C. in 2018.

A dress worn by Brown and the now-famous yellow knight scarf Wadler wore during her speech in the nation’s capital are among the presented artifacts.

The collection of pieces – which also includes things like a make-up table from the early 1800s and a gym suit from the turn of the 20th century – largely come from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History collections.

The project received additional support from the Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative, precursor to the Smithsonian American Women’s Museum.

Other voices experienced through “Girlhood” include that of Veronica Mendez, who’s story aims to highlight how cultural rites of passage and coming-of-age ceremonies like quinceañeras can be an opportunity to challenge societal expectations.

The exhibit also depicts the impact of Title IX on girls’ athletics through people such as skateboarder Cindy Whitehead. She became a prominent figure in the sport as a teen in the late 1970s.

In 2013, Whitehead created the “Girl is NOT a 4 Letter Word” brand of equipment and apparel to promote girls in skateboarding. One of Whitehead’s skateboards is on display.

Cindy Whitehead skateboard
The bottom of a Cindy Whitehead skateboard

Among the featured videos are footage of student-led school walkouts over social justice issues and a compilation of U.S. government-produced sex education films from 1919 to 1957. Also featured are murals and illustrations by artist Krystal Quiles based on a series of culturally significant photos.

While the exhibition has a national focus, CMC partnered with local organizations to provide a regional perspective on girlhood as well.

Among the organizations to be included are Central Ohio Women in the Trades, Girl Scouts of Western Ohio, Girls on the Run, Girls Rock, Lighthouse Youth & Family Services, Regional Youth Leadership, Robert O’Neal Multicultural Art Center and Saturday Hoops.

“Girlhood (It’s complicated)” opens at Union Terminal on Oct. 14, just a few days after International Day of the Girls.

It’s free with general museum admission thanks to financial support from Always, Aussie, My Black is Beautiful, Olay and Secret.

Cincinnati Museum Center

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