Smithsonian 'Girlhood' exhibit features Margaret Sanger, transgender star Jazz Jennings

Jazz Jennings, a transgendered teenager and coauthor of the book 'I Am Jazz.'
Jazz Jennings, a transgendered teenager and coauthor of the book "I Am Jazz." | YouTube/Jazz Jennings

The Smithsonian Institute has unveiled a new “Girlhood” exhibit at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., stating that Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger’s legacy is “complicated” and that sometimes gender is not revealed at birth. 

On Friday, the National Museum of American History opened its “Girlhood (It’s Complicated)” exhibit which will run until Jan. 2, 2022.  

The 5,000-square-foot gallery on the museum’s second floor showcases “unexpected stories of girlhood, engaging the audience in timely conversations about women’s history.” The exhibit features sections such as “Education (Being Schooled),” “Wellness (Body Talk),” “Work (Hey, Where’s My Girlhood?)” and “Fashion (Girl’s Remix).”

The exhibition will go on tour throughout the country through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service from 2023 through 2025.

The exhibition was unveiled as the museum marked 2020 as the “Year of the Woman” in celebration of 100 years of women’s suffrage. 

The museum launched two exhibitions as part of the “Year of the Woman” initiative, also including the “Creating Icons: How We Remember Women’s Suffrage” exhibition. 

“The history of girlhood is not what people think; it is complicated,” an online description of the exhibition explains. “Young women are often told that girls are ‘made of sugar and spice and everything nice.’ What is learned from history is that girls are made of stronger stuff.”

“They have changed history. From Helen Keller to Naomi Wadler, girls have spoken up, challenged expectations, and been on the frontlines of social change. Through their lives, what it means to be a girl — and a woman — has always been part of the American conversation.”

Among the women highlighted in the exhibit’s “Talking about Sex” subsection is the controversial founder of what is now today known as Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the nation’s largest abortion provider.

Pro-life advocates have long voiced concern with Sanger’s advocacy for eugenics to control populations in certain minority communities and voiced concern about how abortion has disproportionately impacted the African-American community. Sanger also once spoke to a female group aligned with the Ku Klux Klan.

“A national worry about young women's sexual expression has informed and motivated much advice, instruction, and popular discussion about girls' bodies and what they should and should not do with them. That concern also led the federal government to launch a national campaign for sex education in the 1910s,” the museum’s online exhibit reads.

“This same fear, when paired with racial prejudice about underage immigrant mothers, led to some of the most disturbing practices in American history regarding the sterilization of girls.”

The museum’s description states that Sanger, who was a writer, nurse and activist, “advocated for girls to know and control their own bodies — but only certain girls.”

“Sanger believed that women who were poor or who had mental disabilities should not have children, in order to promote a ‘healthy’ society,” the description reads. “While eugenics was popular in Sanger's time, today such ideas are offensive for devaluing certain lives. How do we reckon with this important but complicated historical figure?”

In 2015, a group of black pastors protested outside of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery to demand that the taxpayer-funded museum remove its bust of Sanger. Her bust was featured in an exhibit that honors civil rights icons like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.

In another subsection titled “Not Checking All the Boxes,” the National Museum of American History states that “sometimes gender isn't revealed at birth.” 

It highlights the story of an “intersex” boy named Ryan, who for years was called by a female name.

“He never performed activities expected of a girl, which made him an outcast in his social circles. Sports became an important outlet for self-expression, especially softball,” the exhibit reads. “In 2014, after decades of struggling with his gender identity, he legally changed his name to Ryan and transitioned to male.”

The exhibit goes on to say that Ryan’s story shows how “checking boxes as male or female is limited.”

“Those boxes could never fully capture the complex realities of one's gender and sexuality,” the museum states.

A subsection titled “Embracing Yourself” features transgender reality TV star Jazz Jennings, the star of the TLC reality series "I Am Jazz.” Jennings first received national attention during an interview with ABC News’ Barbara Walters in 2007 at the age of 6 in which Jennings was referred to as "one of the youngest known cases of an early transition from male to female."

“By embracing themselves, girls break barriers every day to change our culture's definitions of girlhood. For many, these rules just don’t fit,” the Smithsonian description of Jennings reads. “Jazz Jennings is one of those girls. She shares her girlhood with millions of Americans on television and reminds us that girls can be assigned male at birth and that girlhood comes in many forms.”

“Jazz always knew she ‘was a girl trapped in a boy's body.’ As a toddler, she felt a roar of emotions at not being able to communicate what she was experiencing. Jazz’s family listened, learned, and supported her. Together, they work to support all transgender children through the TransKids Purple Rainbow Foundation.”

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