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  June 17, 2002

Women's History Conference Comes to UConn
By Sherry Fisher

During the 1950s and early 1960s, teen magazine coverage of girls reinforced the ideal of the white American teenager, according to Kate Kruckemeyer, a research associate at Mount Holyoke College. Girls of color appeared only in the context of their "foreignness", and were from other countries.

"Generally, these articles and their accompanying photographs discussed foreign teen life, so that American teens could deal more knowledgeably with foreign exchange students, or were used to promote anti-Communist propaganda," Kruckemeyer says.

Kruckemeyer was speaking during a panel on the history of American girls' popular culture in the 20th century.

She was one of nearly 2,000 scholars and teachers of women's history and women's studies from the U.S., Canada, and 70 other countries who gathered at the Storrs campus June 6-9 for the 12th annual Berkshire Conference on the History of Women. A wide range of subjects was covered during 192 sessions, addressing women's history from around the world and throughout the centuries. Topics ranged from the current crisis in Argentina and the Israeli-Pale stinian conflict, to gender, labor and organization in early modern Japan, and Native American women's basketball.

"Having the conference at UConn was a major coup," said Susan Porter Benson, a professor of history, who coordinated the conference arrangements. "It's the major international conference in women's history. Since it began in 1973, it has been the venue in which to present work about women and gender.

"Senior scholars come back to the conference year after year," Porter Benson added.

The organization started in 1930 with a small group of women historians who felt marginalized by the American Historical Association. When there was a revival of the study of women's history in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the organization began to sponsor these conferences that are about women's history but are no longer just for women, Porter Benson said.

At UConn last week, conference participants packed a room to hear about the globalization of American girls' culture in the 20th century.

"While teen magazines are often dismissed as frivolous ephemera," Kruckemeyer said, "they frame the identities that U.S. culture validates: what the reader should look like, who her friends should be and what she should buy."

Kelly Strum, another panelist, examined the roots of teenage girls' culture using diaries, magazines, newspapers, and high school yearbooks.

"Although historians have traditionally described teenage culture as a post-World War II phenomenon, the period from 1920 to 1950 proved crucial in the formation of teenage girls as a separate group in the United States," said Strum, an assistant professor of history and news media at George Mason University in Virginia.

"Girls integrated various products, ideals, and messages into their lives in uniquely 'teen' ways," she said, "and in doing so, strengthened their emerging group identity and challenged age and gender boundaries, as well as prescriptions, for their lives."

Kimberley Roberts, who teaches at the University of Virginia, discussed the global popularity of the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

She said Buffy represents the "prototypical Hollywood Girl Power heroine. Her renown in America has not been difficult to figure. However, her vast popularity the world over is more perplexing. Buffy has become a global icon, with shows syndicated from Spain to Israel to Australia. What does her popularity mean for those who do not and cannot immediately identify with her particular version of southern California teenspeak?"

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