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Witnessing Girlhood

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Witnessing Girlhood

By: Leigh Gilmore and Elizabeth Marshall

Podcast Interview

Leigh Gilmore and Elizabeth Marshall discuss their book Witnessing Girlhood: Toward an Intersectional Tradition of Life Writing with Hannah McGregor, Associate Professor of Publishing at Simon Fraser University. Listen here. This interview originally aired on Simon Fraser University's Research Hub at the Faculty of Education, Spotlight Series. To see the original, go here. You can listen to other episodes of the SHCY podcast by visiting the podcast website, or you subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

This review was originally published in Girlhood Studies 14, no. 1 (Spring 2021): 134-138:

In Witnessing Girlhood: Toward an Intersectional Tradition of Life Writing, Leigh Gilmore and Elizabeth Marshall explore how authors across various life writing genres use the child figure in their works to critique and reframe passive femininity as it is structured through gender ideology and rape culture and the ways in which it becomes scripted onto different bodies and consciousnesses. Across an introduction, four chapters, and an epilogue, Gilmore and Marshall analyze how life writing texts such as memoirs, autobiographies in graphic form, and picture books use “the figure of the child witness.” Doing so, raises an important question: "When those conditions [for telling their story and having it heard], when justice from authorities and institutions is denied, and when the impossibility and necessity of bearing witness coincide, how do women use the figure of the child in life
writing, or other allied testimonial performances, to seek justice
?" [pg. 3, emphasis added]

This encourages readers to understand the different methods that authors use to explore gendered trauma and call upon readers to witness injustices committed at the intersections of race, gender, and age. Gilmore and Marshall’s framework of understanding gendered trauma as inherently associated with the traditionally feminine ideal of passivity is an important focus of this book’s argument. Their analysis connects the threads of silence, resistance, and gendered passivity to re-traumatization and the relegation of individuals to an always-already victim status.

In their introduction, Gilmore and Marshall assert that the book’s main goal is to discuss and analyze how “the adult employs the child in life writing to foreground previously silenced narratives and obscured images that rely on complex and compelling interplay among adult authors, childhood experience, and audiences” (11). The narrative choices that the authors use here provide them with unique opportunities to revisit and reconsider traumatic events and memories. This looking back aspect, as I would call it, provides a way for adult authors not only to call attention to the injustices and traumas many of them experienced during childhood but also to relocate and reclaim agency that was taken from them because of their status as child or youth at that time. As Gilmore and Marshall acknowledge, legal limitations associated with age are often used “to limit access to full personhood” as well as “to prolong vulnerability to state violence and control” (4). Being young, then, is more than just a material stage of life becoming imbued with legal ideologies that discriminate against children and teens. The texts that make use of this reflective narrative technique make up, for the most part, the first three chapters of the book. Chapter four then, in incorporating biographical books, bridges the gap between personal reflection and collective contemplation; this dynamic approach carries on into the epilogue. As they conclude their book, Gilmore and Marshall employ the last two chapters to discuss how the interplay mentioned above is used by adult women authors to attend to children and their societal status while still challenging assumptions about silence and its associations with femininity. 

Gilmore and Marshall focus on women of color and their use of girlhood in their life writing to address the intersections of race and gender in chapter one, “Girls in Crisis: Feminist Resistance in Life Writing by Women of Color.” In their introduction, these authors attest to how “women of color are bypassed as experts in favor of other authorities (usually white male elites).” Thus, they “begin by centering women of color as experts on the complex traumatic institutional inequalities they experience starting in childhood” (5). Discussing the narrative techniques used in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Rigoberta Menchú’s I, Rigoberta Menchú, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Gilmore and Marshall acknowledge how women of color have created this tradition of resistance in life writing by illustrating their intersecting oppressions and the silencing that develops from these oppressions. Across these autobiographies, Gilmore and Marshall trace the “range of strategies, especially around sympathy” these authors use “to create authoritative and gendered critiques for diverse audiences” (14). They argue that Jacob, Menchú, and Satrapi avail themselves of these strategies to encourage readers to observe the gendered, racialized experiences the women face on the authors’ own terms, rather than simply seeing them as women—or girls—perpetually in need of rescue. These texts work to destabilize and resist notions of gendered violence as generalizable since, as these texts exemplify, “girlhood is a testimonial site through which feminist political critique and self-representation flow toward other women imagined as empowered subjects” (37). Ultimately, Jacobs, Menchú, and Satrapi employ sympathy to prepare informed readers who can condemn gendered violence and oppression.

Gilmore and Marshall take up this framework of resistance in chapter two, “Gender Pessimism and Survivor Storytelling in the Memoir Boom: Girl, Interrupted, Autobiography of a Face, and Nanette” to discuss “life writing and performance in which the temporality of gendered coming of age is interrupted by trauma and in which pessimism about gender is made visible” (39). They define gender pessimism as the paradox felt by women
and girls who feel empowered in many ways but are also carefully reminded that they are actually “just” (40) women and girls. They then elucidate how Susanna Kaysen (Girl, Interrupted), Lucy Grealy (Autobiography of a Face), and Hannah Gadsby (Nanette) “challenge orthodox ideas about the unrepresentability of trauma, using literary memoir and autobiographical performance to shift the burden of being the target of a diagnosis that pathologizes gender and anger and places it, instead, onto the structures that sustain white male privilege” (41). Thus, Gilmore and Marshall identify how Kaysen, Grealy, and Gadsby call out institutional responses to mental and physical health that further, rather than alleviate, trauma, as each woman describes how these institutions silenced or shamed her into a passive, feminine subject. “Viewed through our analysis of gender pessimism,” Gilmore and Marshall assert, “the recurring cultural fascination with both girlhood passivity and aggression represents a failure to acknowledge histories of trauma” (62). Ultimately, they highlight how these women refuse to accept responsibility for trauma inflicted upon them by a hetero-patriarchal system.

In chapter three, “Visualizing Sexual Violence and Feminist Child Witness: A Child’s Life and Other Stories and Becoming Unbecoming,” Gilmore and Marshall analyze how Phoebe Gloeckner and Una “visualize witness” through their use of the graphics form in their respective stories to make sexual violence “seeable” (66). Emphasizing the connections between rape culture and the male gaze, Gilmore and Marshall consider how Gloeckner and Una’s use of visuals works to critique how seeing sexual violence is coded as taboo. Highlighting sexual violence and its traumatic consequences with visuals, Gilmore and Marshall assert, “offers an alternative jurisdiction” (85) through which Gloeckner and Una demand readers’ attention and recognition of the sexual violence perpetrated against them and, by extension, other women and girls, “ask[ing] us to look at and hear the child witness as reliable” (83). Hearing, witnessing, and testifying all become essential parts of the reparative work needed to address how societal structures institutionalize and perpetuate victim blaming, shaming, and silencing.

In chapter four, “Teaching Dissent through Picture Books: Girlhood Activism and Graphic Life Writing for the Child,” Gilmore and Marshall introduce biographical texts alongside the other forms of life writing already discussed. Focusing on two picture books, Junko Morimoto’s My Hiroshima and Michelle Markel and Melissa Sweet’s Brave Girl Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909, Gilmore and Marshall outline how these books address histories of trauma and violence by illustrating characters whose “coming-of-age” is structured “as coming-to-political consciousness” (87). Morimoto’s and Markel’s books focus on listening to girls’ and women’s stories and also on actively recognizing the truth lying within them. 

Gilmore and Marshall trace how these texts incite questioning focused on why and how these authors and their stories were silenced in the first place, rather than the stories themselves. As they emphasize in the “Epilogue. Twenty-First Century Formations: Child Witness, Trans Life Writing, and Futurity,” readers of and witnesses to these stories must ask questions about who gets left out and what is at stake in these. The epilogue discusses how asking these questions “[is] brought into sharp relief by the lived experience of trans children” (103). Analyzing Gayle Salamon’s The Life and Death of Latisha King and Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More, Gilmore and Marshall outline how texts about trans children and trans childhood take up testimonial witnessing to emphasize diverse kinds of girlhood trauma and also the different layers of ideologies and oppressions with which survivors must contend.

Throughout this book, Gilmore and Marshall assert that what makes these life writing texts unique is how they make use of adult authors and narrators to accompany, as they put it, child figures through trauma: “[a]ccompaniment is a gesture of care that insists on the possibility of ethical witness, imagines solidarities in the face of violence, and holds the space for the survivor signature: I am here” (111, emphasis in original). This book is an important contribution to the ways we think about, discuss, and acknowledge trauma and its effects on girlhood. Across various genres, readers are encouraged to recognize how the authors discussed rewrite understandings of their girlhoods by pushing against the idea that being a woman, being a girl, being feminine means being passive and being silent. These authors, Gilmore and Marshall argue, insist on and demand the recognition of how girlhood trauma becomes instilled with silence and how unacceptable this is. Overall, the patterns Gilmore and Marshall trace in these stories evoke responses focused on reflecting inwardly in order to act outwardly. Considering the intersections of race, gender, and age, this book expertly acknowledges and situates the kinds of narrative choices authors employ to reclaim the witnessing they were often denied in girlhood on the one hand, and, on the other, to call upon new, ideologically aware action that addresses passive gender ideologies. By affectively listening, Gilmore and Marshall argue, we can begin to address the injustices all survivors face.

Katy Lewis, Illinois State University

Leigh GilmoreAbout Leigh Gilmore

Leigh Gilmore is the author of Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives, winner of a 2018 Choice Outstanding Academic Title award. With Elizabeth Marshall, she is the co-author of Witnessing Girlhood: Toward an Intersectional Tradition of Life Writing (2019). A scholar of life writing and feminist theory, she is the author of the groundbreaking books, The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony (2001) and Autobiographics: A Feminist Theory of Women’s Self-Representation (1994) and co-editor of Autobiography and Postmodernism (1994). Her research appears in scholarly journals, including SIGNSFeminist StudiesWomen’s Studies QuarterlyBiography, and Profession, and in numerous edited collections. She has been Professor of English at The Ohio State University, Dorothy Cruikshank Backstrand Chair of Women’s and Gender Studies at Scripps College, and has held visiting appointments at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, Northeastern University, Harvard Divinity School, Brown University, and Wellesley College. She writes for The Conversation and WBUR’s Cognoscenti and appears frequently as an analyst of the #MeToo movement. She is currently writing a book on the #MeToo movement.

About Elizabeth MarshallElizabeth Marshall

Elizabeth Marshall is associate professor of Education at Simon Fraser University, where she teaches courses on children’s literature and popular culture. Her research interests include children’s and young adult literature, life writing, picture books, comics, and popular culture. Marshall’s interdisciplinary scholarship has appeared in numerous academic journals, including Feminist StudiesJeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures, Language ArtsThe Lion and The Unicorn, and Women’s Studies Quarterly. Marshall is the author of Graphic Girlhoods: Visualizing Education and Violence (Routledge, 2018) and co-author with Leigh Gilmore of Witnessing Girlhood: Toward an Intersectional Tradition of Life Writing (Fordham, 2019). Her current book project focuses on representations of alcohol and childhood in American visual culture.

This post is part of the SHCY Featured Books series, in which SHCY members provide written contributions on various academic topics pertaining to the history of childhood and youth.