In creating Girlhood in America I discovered that life as a young girl in every decade of a century has more to teach than we could guess. Chasing a horse-drawn fire engine on a New York City street in 1915? We may have seen a black and white photo of it on Pinterest or in a coffee table book somewhere, but to hear about it from the girl herself? Rare.
You’ll read that story of chasing horse-drawn fire engines in Chapter 1 (The 1910s) of Girlhood in America.
Most stunning to me in Mary Ann Natley’s story, however, is her description of the chandeliers on the boat that took her family across the ocean from England to the United States in 1912, when she was five, and of tasting an orange, a delicacy she would learn, when the immigrant family settled in their tenement apartment and oranges were too expensive.
Two days a week for twenty years, I sat at the helm of a junior college classroom filled with women and men eager to write the stories of their lives, to savor and relive them, to chronicle them and understand them better. In the mid ’90s, when I started teaching memoir, the eldest students were born before 1920. These sharp, active people had amazing stories to write. I learned so much about times I could only imagine. Getting scolded for climbing trees wearing a skirt and bloomers? Watching mom rub the pain out of her hands after a long day working in the parachute factory during the war?
In the 1960s, when I was a young girl, change was all around—on TV (color TVs were coming to more houses), in music (I had a neon green transistor radio—cool!—and loved the Jackson 5), in food (TV dinners were a hit at home, and so were Space Food Sticks). In the 1980s I was starting my life in the adult world. Computers were being introduced at work, but email wasn’t even a wink in anyone’s eye yet. I saw fads coming and going: for kids—Cabbage Patch dolls, the Rubix Cube, Pet Rocks—for girls my age, big hair and ear cuffs.
Learning about times before mine taught me more about my own life than I would have guessed. And the young lives that followed mine? I had a lot to learn about the 1990s and 2000s, times when girl groups took off in the music scene and some girls had their own computers by the time they were eight years old.
For this book I provide fun facts for each decade at the start of every chapter, from the introduction of the summer candy that doesn’t melt, Pep-O-Mint Lifesavers, in the 1920s to robotic pets in the 2000s. Robotic pets, I could have guessed about, but the origin of the name of the candy that’s still around over a century later? Did you know that Life-Savers were named for the devices used in the Titanic disaster in 1912?
Suzanne Lang interviewed me for her KRCB radio show, “A Novel Idea,” to get some of the goodies about my inspiration for the book and what it took to create it. Listen to the PODCAST, and when you’re done, pick up your copy of the book for a whole lot more.
KRCB radio interviews Suzanne Sherman: Play Now