In her book, American Girls and Global Responsibility: A New Relation to the World during the Early Cold War
(Rutgers University Press, 2017), Jennifer Helgren
traces the creation of a new internationalist girl citizenship in the first two decades following World War II by uncovering the activism of girls organizations including Camp Fire Girls, YWCA Y-Teens, and the Girl Scouts. Helgren shows how anxieties about nuclear warfare led educators, psychologists, and government groups to encourage girls to develop their “natural” skills as nurturers and caretakers and become homemakers to the world. These organizations taught girls to understand their responsibility to their family, nation, and globe as united, and girls between 10 and 17 years old promoted democratic education, global citizenship, and intercultural tolerance. Using girls’ essays in magazines like Seventeen
alongside their personal letters, pen pal exchanges, and oral histories, Helgren demonstrates that girls internalized an internationalist ethos that fostered seemingly contradictory ideas--they reinforced traditional gender roles while offering a political model of girlhood and challenged American racism while simultaneously promoting a benign image of America’s new global power. During the Second Red Scare, this internationalist identity came under attack as conservatives claimed that the YWCA and Girl Scouts had been infiltrated by communists, and in response these organizations were forced to limit their defense of multilateral cooperation. By the late 1950s, however, the groups learned how effectively balance their American and international aims by integrating their activism with state-sponsored programs like the People-to-People Program established under President Eisenhower. By analyzing this moment of international experimentation and hope about a new, peaceful world system, Helgren demonstrates the ways that gender and age combined to form a new category of citizenship for America’s girls.
Chelsea Gibson is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Binghamton University. Her research explores the reception of Russian terrorist women in the United States before 1917.