- American Girls and Global Responsibility: A New Relation to the World during the Early Cold War by Jennifer Helgren
In this thoroughly researched and soundly-written book, Jennifer Helgren uncovers the role played by young girls as international citizens in the years following World War II. Helgren argues that American girls discovered and cultivated their new internationalism through organizations like the Girl Scouts, the Camp Fire Girls, and the Y-Teens of the YWCA, as well as through schools and magazines like Seventeen. As the years passed, these girls revealed the critical ways that age and gender can shape and define citizenship. They showed how the cultivation of personal relationships could be an integral part of world citizenship. And they projected a benign image of American benevolence at a time when American influence around the world was on the rise.
Based on research done in the archives of America's largest girls' organizations and in the annals of Seventeen Magazine, Helgren shows how girls exercised profound agency in their changing world. They shaped America's international image through their activism and found new avenues for entrance into civil society. By embracing their roles as peacemakers and as future homemakers, they engaged in world affairs and civil defense. They found license to attend world peace conferences and advocated for the UN. They worked to combat prejudice and to define peace as being rooted in tolerance. As Helgren argues, the pages of Seventeen did not just carry stories about fashion and makeup; they also presented a new image of the girl-activist who stood in opposition to the fatalism and acquiescence of the adult world. American girls worked to create a space for "the global imaginary" (10) of peace, while organizations like the Boy Scouts found themselves burdened with the increasing militarization of the Cold War.
At the same time, Helgren is careful to point out that America's girls were shaped by their nation's gendered expectations of what their citizenship should look like. They were useful tools in the national effort to address the rising fear of delinquency in 1950s America. Their staid hopefulness offered a counter to their nation's nuclear anxiety. They offered a manageable, feminine, vision of service, nurturing, and tolerance to the world. They provided a path for reconciliation with Japan and Germany. And they served as a foil for global concerns over America's increasing military strength and presence in the world. Crucially, [End Page 1449] while girls found access to the world of global politics, their activities nonetheless "reinforced normative gender roles" by envisioning them as nurturers, peace-makers, and consumers.
American girls used a wide variety of tactics in order to participate in world politics and to be positive emissaries for America's mission abroad. They established pen-pal relationships with girls all over the world. These letters and the friendships that they built helped to construct a benevolent image of America abroad. They conveyed the message that Americans respected other countries and were not driven by military designs. They simultaneously made it possible for girls to speak candidly about the American experience to pen pals who became real friends. Girls also participated in the sending of material goods to friends and organizations abroad. By showing the wealth that American girls ostensibly enjoyed, they helped to promote the idea that everyone could "secure the American teenager's standard of living if their countries followed the American plan" (101). These gifts reinforced gender roles for the girls and their recipients (tying all girls together by their shared love of shopping) and they served as a means for rebuilding foreign demand for American goods. But the image of the ideal American girl was not intended just for global consumption; it became a touchstone for what defined femininity at home as well. Magazines like Seventeen and American Girl promoted the idea that internationalism and civic responsibility defined girlhood in these years. They argued that a cosmopolitan American girl should understand other cultures, eat...