Girls talk back on questions of body autonomy

“Has someone else ever made a decision that affected your body?”

This is one of the questions the creators of the exhibition Girlhood (It’s sophisticated) requested guests to think about. The exhibition workforce invited audiences to share their ideas with one another and with us by handwritten postcards close to the tip of the present. The exhibition, which opened in October 2020 to commemorate the anniversary of girls’s suffrage focuses on the historical past of gender roles and the social development of girlhood from 1800 to the current. The thematic exhibition explores politics, training, work, wellness, and style and argues that girlhood is political. Girls and individuals who recognized as feminine have traditionally had a political voice, even when they’ve usually been neglected.

The curators of the exhibition selected to focus on ladies aged about 10 to 18. We hope that guests stroll away fascinated about how girlhood has a historical past. The meanings of girlhood have by no means been fastened and Americans have debated these meanings all through the nation’s historical past. Indeed, the mission of the National Museum of American History is to empower folks to create a simply and compassionate future by exploring, preserving, and sharing the complexity of our previous. As historians, we don’t need to reconstruct entrenched gender binaries, however quite provoke a considerate dialogue of gender as having an extended and complex historical past. There has been rather a lot of private and non-private dialogue about ladies, their our bodies, and what roles they need to play in society, as demonstrated for instance by the flood of recommendation literature within the late 1800s and early 1900s. Those conversations, nevertheless, have steadily excluded ladies’ voices regardless of how a lot ladies have formed these debates. We see this neighborhood bulletin board as a method to handle that exclusion.

Since we debuted the Talk Back playing cards within the fall of 2021 some 15,000 guests have shared their ideas and experiences with us. Their messages have, amongst different issues, interrogated the which means of “girl power,” delved into the best way work shapes ladies’ lives, and wrestled with the restrictions of gown codes—all subjects that we plan to discover in additional element in future weblog posts.

Two photos of the Girlhood exhibition
Two images exhibiting the Talk Back part of the exhibition.

This 12 months, particularly because the leak of the draft opinion on Roe v. Wade, guests have had a lot to say in response to the query that started this weblog: “Has someone else ever made a decision that affected your body?” What guests, principally feminine, have shared is broader than the subject of reproductive rights. Visitors to the exhibition handle the numerous methods during which feminine our bodies, and particularly ladies’ our bodies, are the topic of regulation, surveillance, and criticism. In different phrases, women and girls have shared the methods during which tons of folks, apart from themselves, make selections about their our bodies. But additionally they have shared techniques for speaking back, making change, and supporting one another.

In the combo of nationwide dialogue about Roe v. Wade (1973) and Dobbs v. Jackson (2022), we’ve seen robust emotions, transferring experiences, and rather a lot of pointed statements in regards to the human proper to make well being selections concerning one’s personal body. The sidewalk in entrance of the Supreme Court isn’t the one public venue the place folks can have a voice and debate the difficulty. They are additionally doing it wholeheartedly and actually on the museum! The National Museum of American History is a non-partisan, public, and secure house to talk about these points.

What follows is a sampling of the responses. Many of the playing cards mirror the unruly aesthetic of ’zines (quick for community-produced, self-published magazines) with illustrations as their main kind of expression. The Talk Back playing cards have provided an area for public protest distinctive to the museum. Unlike on the National Mall, audio system don’t want a allow. Unlike in a newspaper, writers may be any age to specific their opinions. Unlike on social media, the museum hosts a broad cross part of guests sharing the identical house. The experiences and concepts shared on the playing cards are intergenerational. They span ages. Sometimes older folks converse on to youthful ones, and vice versa. Sometimes guests signal the playing cards with names and ages and social media handles. We’ve redacted final names and social media handles to guard writers’ anonymity and eliminated expletives on two playing cards.

Dress codes topped the record of solutions to the query. Many ladies have been “dress coded.” Americans have regulated, critiqued, and managed, what ladies put on at college, in public, and typically at dwelling. We had been impressed by a chunk by New York Times recommendation columnist Philip Galanes, who famous the prevalence of gown coding ladies within the United States, saying, “I often hear from girls that their parents and schools obsess over what they wear and how they look. Whether this is positioned as minimizing the temptation for boys to behave badly . . .  or just commenting nonstop . . . the message is the same—and all wrong: Women’s bodies are community property.”

Three cards where visitors shared experiences related to dress codes. The central card includes a drawing of a girl and the message: "Dress codes at school made me want to hide my body."
Three playing cards sharing experiences round gown coding.

Girls additionally famous that they expertise excessive ranges of body shaming, principally associated to body weight and form. Most who shared their experiences additionally persistently provided encouragement to readers to be themselves.

Three cards where visitors shared messages and drawings encouraging others, with messages like "boys they should keep their mean opinions to themselves . . . because honestly girls could care less about boys opinion. Always be yourself. "
Girls don’t let ladies down. These three playing cards show the methods during which ladies attempt to raise one another up.

Writers additionally shared detrimental relationships with docs, from a failure to hearken to pushing undesirable therapies onto them. Many of these had been girls reflecting on earlier moments of their lives however nonetheless residing with bodily and emotional ache.

Three cards where visitors commented on the lasting pain caused when doctors failed to listen to them. One reads: "Don't tell me that if my period is painful it is 'ALL in my head' (told to me by my female OBGYN in 1987)"
Three guests remark on the lasting ache when docs don’t hear.

As for reproductive rights, the Talk Back house has been animated by the political voices of folks figuring out themselves as girls, ladies, and LGBTQIA+ youth because the May 2, 2022, leak of the draft opinion on Roe v. Wade printed in Politico. Many guests gestured to the shortage of self-determination over feminine and trans our bodies generally as evidenced by gown codes, body shaming, and contraception. Others answered the query posed on the cardboard immediately, pointing to the Supreme Court and utilizing slogans which were unfold throughout varied media.

Three cards where visitors named people and groups who made decisions affecting their bodies, including the Supreme Court. One wrote: "Yes. Men who could not control their own bodies think they can control mine. Roe v. Wade. Keep women safe."
In an extended custom of activism, writers of these three responses named names.
Three cards where visitors shared popular slogans, including "Keep your LAWS off MY Body," "Right now, Pro Roe!, No uterus, no opinion."
Visitors additionally reiterated slogans from protests throughout Washington, D.C., and on social media.

A number of playing cards, lower than 10 in 10,000, supported putting down Roe v. Wade.

One card where a visitor shared a personal story about her mother and her mother's choice not to have an abortion. She expressed gratitude and ended with the word "LIFE."
This card options one of the few pro-life viewpoints shared. Yet, it nonetheless underscores the ache many ladies have confronted round reproductive rights and well being care.

A handful of respondents shared private tales and others acknowledged the dilemmas women and girls face however most well-liked alternative over no alternative.

Two cards where visitors shared their personal experiences with abortion. One person describes their struggle to obtain an abortion in 1969 and ends saying that "restrictions on abortion are wrong and girl-hating."
Personal tales had been widespread, and ages of respondents ranged from grownup girls to women.

And an amazing tidal wave of responses had been offended, exasperated, and dealing onerous to be heard, to affect the method. These public opinions will definitely reverberate throughout media and in these playing cards now that we’ve the ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson. At the museum, we might be monitoring the playing cards and hope that ladies, girls, and other people inhabiting feminine our bodies will hold speaking to one another and to us.

Six cards where visitors expressed their anger and frustration in response to the question, "Has someone else ever made a decision that affected your body?"
Girls have lengthy been advised that anger isn’t ladylike, however all through American historical past they’ve expressed their anger and critiqued points and legal guidelines that have an effect on them.

The gallery’s Talk Back part was crammed with experiences, protest, and opinions within the months and weeks main as much as the Dobbs resolution. Many of these had been offended and confirmed the lengthy historical past of disrespect for women and girls, and the overload of recommendation, censorship, and legal guidelines that they’ve needed to negotiate.

After the Dobbs v. Jackson resolution was handed down on June 24, the Talk Back gallery exploded with a recent spherical of feedback. The group of 186 playing cards collected the day or two after the choice revealed a really constant set of calls to acknowledge the choice as historic, a monumental overturning of a constitutional proper to body autonomy. The individuals who set pen to paper right here had been considerably unhappy or aggrieved, however overwhelmingly offended and loud. Some inspired ladies to not hand over, and to proceed to talk up. And whereas two playing cards spoke for the unborn, 184 amplified the emotions beneath. They tracked intently to nationwide polls that put the bulk of Americans on the facet of reproductive rights.

Three cards shared by visitors after the release of U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the case Dobbs v. Jackson. One person shared the message, "Aborto libre, seguro y gratuito para todxs ya!!!"
Three playing cards marking the Supreme Court’s resolution on June 24, 2022.

Did these voices make a distinction in gentle of the Dobbs v. Jackson resolution? Does it matter what guests, particularly ladies, girls, these recognized as females and their allies say in a museum exhibit on the nation’s historical past museum? Yes, because the historians who wrote these questions, we’re taking the quick and lengthy view. We really feel the anger and frustration. We wished to create an area the place folks might share their experiences, surrounded by the historical past of girlhood. We need them to see they’re half of an extended continuum of debate over girls and ladies’ our bodies, and half of an extended historical past of woman activism. Most importantly, these playing cards are the writing on the wall of historical past. They are folks asking to be heard. Every time ladies elevate their voices, they share their private and political beliefs, which within the case of body autonomy, are sometimes one in the identical. We ought to all hear.

Girlhood (It’s sophisticated) might be on view on the museum by the tip of 2022, then touring to places nationwide with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.

Girlhood (It’s sophisticated) acquired help from the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative.

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