In the 5th grade, my aunt gave me two complete sets of the American Girl Felicity and Josefina books. At the time, my elementary school social studies course was steeped in colonial and Revolutionary War history, and I had become a frequent viewer of PBS’s Liberty’s Kids. Still, it was Felicity Merriman’s travails in revolutionary Williamsburg that cemented my love of the era. I read Josefina’s books about life in early 19th century New Mexico with slightly less gusto but still finished wanting more. I quickly requested all of the American Girl books from the Baltimore County Public Library and began falling asleep every night flipping through the American Girl Catalog. I wanted a doll, and while Felicity was my fast favorite, I knew I would happily take any of them. That Christmas, I woke up to a Molly doll under the tree. She sits on my windowsill to this day.
Fifteen years after being given my first American Girl book, I am a Ph.D student in History. While my interest in the Revolutionary War has long since given way to an interest in African American history and the War on Drugs, much of what I gained from American Girl stuck with me. More than anything else, the American Girl books showed me that girls and women should be in the forefront of American history. Surrounded by boys interested in military and political history, the American Girl books made history both engaging and relevant to my own experiences.
In recent years, American Girl has discontinued many of the historical dolls, including my favorites Molly and Felicity, and has rebranded the remaining dolls under the name “BeForever.” By discontinuing many of the historical American Girl dolls and books, an introduction to historical fiction for very young readers (the American Girl books are for ages 7 and up) is being lost. While the American Girl books may not depict everyday experiences, they center girls in historical narratives and make clear that history happens to women, too. The American Girl books were radical because focusing on women and girls in history is radical in and of itself. As the American Girl brand focuses much more on individualized dolls instead of their historical series, girls lose an accessible introduction to history that did not shy away from subjects often seen as controversial and inappropriate for children.
The American Girl Books served as my introduction to a history that was often violent, problematic, and full of pain. The book series depicts young girls as actors with agency in their own lives. The subjects of the American Girl Doll and book series include politically active revolutionary era tomboy Felicity, formerly enslaved Addy, and Kit, who struggled financially during the Great Depression. At the same time, the American Girl books are not without their problems. Beyond the stories of hardship, the books often focus on the lives of upper middle class and wealthy girls. The books all follow a similar trajectory, in which the girl confronts and overcomes a major problem. This both asserts the power of women and girls to make change and implicitly gives girls the idea that structural historical problems could be overcome with enough effort. Even though the American Girl books promote the importance of the individual, they also created a feminist revision of history for young girls by promoting the agency of girls and encouraging interests that were non-gender normative. While the American Girl books promote feminist ideals, the dolls in the series, priced at over a hundred dollars, are prohibitively expensive for many families. Even dolls like Addy and Kit, who represented girls with less privilege, have dresses and a myriad of accessories. While this phenomenon can be read as a commodification of painful history, it also made history interesting and accessible to young girls.
As Mattel retires the historical doll series, they take away an opportunity for young girls to discover history that embodies feminist ideals, female agency, and uncomfortable narratives in American history. The American Girl books are designed for young reading levels but also don’t shy away from many of the horrors of history. Instead of glorifying history, the American Girl books glorify the strength of girls and women in overcoming trauma and struggle both in American history and in their personal lives.
I have searched the internet and toy stores far and wide to come up with American Girl alternatives. Of course, if you are looking for inexpensive dupes for the American Girl dolls, Target’s “Our Generation” collection will do just fine. If you are frustrated with the lack of diversity in the recent American Girl of the Year selections, the HeartstoHearts line is taking great strides towards diversifying its doll collection. But what about girl-centric toys focusing on history? If you search through the history-related toy selection at Toys-R-Us, you’ll find trivia games and Lego-like building projects and pirate ships. A Google search for Civil War toys reveals a wide array of toy soldiers, civil war muskets, and soldier uniforms, but scant toys specifically designed with girls in mind. Of course, girls can and do play with these toys. But by slowly retiring their historical doll selection, American Girl did not just limit their own selection, but decimated almost all history-related toys for young girls. As I searched countless websites and catalogs for Revolutionary War era dolls, the only references I found were to American Girl’s Felicity. Even places like the Smithsonian and National Geographic, stores that emphasize learning in many of their products for children, only had history-related games. The website A Mighty Girl sells plush dolls and figurines of famous women in American history. While they are certainly valuable, these dolls are not interactive and don’t include the same kind of books and accessories that the American Girl dolls were known for. This is not to say that girl-centric history toys unilaterally do not exist, but they are certainly not in the mainstream. The discontinuation of the historical American Girls dolls has led to a void.
Toys for girls interested in STEM have become increasingly popular in recent years. The Lottie Girl dolls are interested in robotics, astronomy, and archeology. Their accessories include both clothes and scientific equipment. The Mc2 dolls are similar, as they include dolls with science accessory kits as well as larger experiment kits and journal sets for girls to use themselves. These toys are incredibly important but are also evidence of our larger cultural emphasis on the importance of STEM.
Unfortunately, the humanities disciplines are also still overwhelming dominated by men. A 2007 study by Robert Townsend, “What the Data Tells Us About Women Historians,” shows that about 35% of history department faculty members are women. Approximately 8% of Bancroft Prize winners, one of the most prestigious prizes in American history, have been women. Similarly, about 11% of Pulitzer Prize in History winners have been women. A recent study published in Slate by Rebecca Onion and Andrew Kahn, “Is History Written about Men, by Men?” showed that 75.8% of history books on the New York Times Bestseller list were written by men. Even as women make strides in the historical profession, the books that people read and laud with awards overwhelmingly have male authors. Men are still writing history and in many cases centering other men in the history they write. As superfluous as the American Girl dolls and books seem to many people, losing one of the only female centered introductions to history for women matters. How can women write history when they are not introduced to history in a way that puts women and girls at the center of the American experience? Of course, male dominance in STEM fields is much larger than that in History and in other humanities disciplines. But that doesn’t mean young girls (and their parents) interested in educational toys should be limited to STEM-focused options. The decline in the historically centered American Girl dolls and the rise of educational STEM-focused dolls for young women show a clear gap in the market that could and should be filled with history-focused dolls for young girls.
Historical fiction faces a similar problem, although it is far less dramatic. When it comes to introducing children to slavery and African American history, many children’s books tiptoe around the traumas of the period, including the recently pulled A Birthday Cake for George Washington by Ramin Ganeshram. However, book series for older children like Dear America, which was reintroduced in 2010, keep young women firmly centered in historical narratives. Classic historical fiction for children—like Across Five Aprils and Johnny Tremain—is often focused on both men and war, but other classics, such as Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, center both girls and people of color in their own story. Newer fiction like Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming and Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer also focus on the experiences of girls of color. However, the majority of these novels are significantly longer and targeted at a higher reading level than the American Girl books. While female-centric historical fiction does exist, it is often aimed at older children.
The future for history-loving girls isn’t entirely bleak. Even as American girl discontinues the historical doll series, they are introducing new products to attract customers. They have introduced a new doll, an African American girl living in 1960s Detroit. They have partnered with Amazon to introduce four live action American Girl films, two of which will be centered around historical dolls. American Girl has the potential to introduce a new generation of girls to both history and American Girl through the media of their choice. Even if the live action movies don’t prove successful, STEM-focused doll and toy series for girls prove inspirational. Maybe the way forward isn’t reviving the American Girl historical collection but by creating historical dolls and toys in the image of the Mc2 or Lottie Girl doll series. Maybe it is true that American Girl needed to adapt its brand to a new generation of girls, but instead of discontinuing the educational elements of their product line they could adapt their products in ways that provide 21st century education and introduction to history for young girls.