Annie Thorn is senior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. This week, Annie reflects on what her American Girl doll taught her about American women’s history.—JF
My first big purchase as a child was an American Girl doll. For those who aren’t familiar, American Girl dolls are about 18 inches tall and come dressed in clothes from a particular moment in American history. There’s a book series about each one too, explaining each girl’s adventures. Each doll cost about $100 each, which felt like a lot more money back when I was in first grade. I remember saving up for what seemed like forever, putting my hard-earned cash from Christmas cards and 50-cent allowances in a plastic blue piggy bank. Out of all the American Girl dolls out there I decided to buy Molly, whose story was set on the American home front during World War II. I didn’t know much about World War II back then, other than the fact that The Chronicles of Narnia took place during that time. I mostly liked Molly because she had glasses. In elementary school there weren’t a lot of other kids with glasses so Molly made me feel less alone.
I was also part of an American Girl book club growing up. It was a mother-daughter book club, and the ladies who organized it knew my mom through church and Bible Study Fellowship. Every few weeks, we read about a different American Girl. Then, at the end of each month we would go on a field trip with all the other mothers and daughters. The month we read about Felicity, a colonial Virginian daughter of patriots with a loyalist best friend, we rode horses and imagined what it would be like to live in a time before there were cars. After reading about Addy, a girl born into slavery who escapes to freedom with her mother during the Civil War, we visited a museum that taught about the underground railroad in Michigan. Samantha grew up in a proper Victorian household at the turn of the 20th century, so after reading her books we dressed up and had afternoon tea at the Henderson Castle. After reading about Julie, who took a stand for women’s rights in the 1970s by playing on her school’s boys basketball team, we ate fondue, tie-dyed shirts and watched The Brady Bunch.
Some girls brought their dolls on the monthly field trips, but my mom wouldn’t let my sister and I–no matter how much begging we did. Not everyone has $100 to spare on an American Girl doll, she reminded us. Some girls might not have one, she said, and we don’t want them to feel left out. My mom has always been good at that–thinking about things that might make other people feel left out or less-than and then making sure not to do those things. My mom’s also always been pretty good at teaching her kids the importance of history.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint a specific time in my life when I started loving history, but I think it might’ve all began with that American Girl book club–and my mom, who signed me up for it. Through it I learned that there are hundreds of different worlds–real worlds, not fictional ones–hidden in the past just waiting to be discovered. As we read new books each month I discovered that there are a whole lot of people who existed decades, centuries before me and lived lives that were very different from my own. But at the same time, I found girls in the past that looked a lot like me too. Going on field trips every few weeks taught me that history could be adventurous and fun and exciting. It could feed my imagination and take me places I’ve never been before.
Just about anyone could tell you that young girls should know a thing or two about history. But from my personal experience, I would argue that girls need to learn history. They especially need to learn women’s history. They need to find girls in the past who think and act and see the world in a different way than they do. Then, when they disagree with the girl sitting next to them in class or on the other side of the lunch room, they can imagine walking around in her shoes. But girls also need to look into the past and see other people just like them, to be reminded that they’re not alone. They need to see strong and mighty women who fought to make the world a better place–women like Harriet Tubman, Katherine Johnson, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Susan B. Anthony and so many more. As a future educator, I look forward to introducing my students to some of these women–these inspiring and empowering American girls.