Chandler on Helgren, 'The Camp Fire Girls: Gender, Race, and American Girlhood, 1910–1980'
Jennifer Helgren. The Camp Fire Girls: Gender, Race, and American Girlhood, 1910–1980. Expanding Frontiers: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Series. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2022. Illustrations. xi + 355 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8032-8686-3; $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4962-3308-0.
Reviewed by Montana Chandler (Texas Tech University) Published on H-Environment (May, 2023) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58601
Jennifer Helgren’s The Camp Fire Girls: Race, Gender, and American Girlhood, 1910-1980 is a vital and exciting contribution to environmental and children’s history. Centering her research on the youth organization Camp Fire Girls, its programming, and its membership reveals how the organization responded to the ever-changing landscape of gender scripts, civil rights, and the growing autonomy of girls. Using internal organization documents, oral histories, memoirs, and “girl created documents,” Helgren argues that the organization gave some girls the opportunity to practice model citizenship in their communities and the outdoors while also excluding racial minorities through an inaccurate image of universal girlhood and individual club’s adherence to local racist practices (p. 12).
The Camp Fire Girls includes an introduction, nine chapters, and an epilogue, yet what is perhaps most helpful in the organization of this book is Helgren’s breakdown of the organization into the following categories: before World War II, World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, and the 1960s and 1970s. The organization lends itself to Helgren’s argument as she is able to contextualize how the organization sought to advance middle-class white girls’ lives through their entrance into the world while also still maintaining the home within the first four chapters. Additionally, Helgren uses this section of the book to explore the racial tropes and middle-class lifestyle skills the Camp Fire Girls employed in their celebration of girlhood and community. The chapters that center on the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War serve as a transition into the last third of the book while also addressing topics that may not fit as nicely in the other sections, including religion and a patriotic effort to stop fascism. Finally, in her focus on the decades of the sixties and seventies, Helgren explores the efforts made by the Camp Fire Girls to become a more inclusive and diverse organization and their unfortunate failure to retain and recruit members.
Helgren’s writing on the evolution of the Camp Fire Girls is clear and concise, which makes the monograph accessible to a variety of readers within the academy as well as those interested in the history of an organization that may have been a part of their lives or the lives of their mothers and grandmothers. Furthermore, Helgren’s ability to bring her historical characters and narrative to life speaks to her skill as a writer. Reading The Camp Fire Girls was an absolute pleasure thanks to her seamless blend of flowing narrative and intriguing analysis. Having been a Camp Fire Girl herself, Helgren exhibits passion for this topic throughout the book. On one hand, the care with which she approaches the girl created documents, such as diary and journal entries, scrapbooks, and health charts, speaks to her character as a historian. On the other hand, how she critically analyzes such documents regardless of her affiliation with the organization reveals her skill as a historian. As a final note on sources, I have to say I am intrigued by the term “girl created documents.” This is the first time I have encountered the concept and term, and I cannot think of a better way to characterize such sources. “Girl created documents” give ownership of such sources back to their creators and highlight girls' agency and autonomy.
The Camp Fire Girls succeeds in a multitude of ways beyond the central argument of the book. While I was initially concerned about the long periodization of the book, Helgren succeeds in paying adequate attention to the three eras of the Camp Fire Girls and highlighting their unique importance in the life of the organization. As someone with no prior knowledge of the organization, I was impressed with her ability to zoom into the personal histories of former Camp Fire Girls and then smoothly zoom back out to the larger narrative to create a well-rounded historical analysis of girlhood. Additionally, Helgren’s writing on the potential for same-sex coupling between girls and the fear of leaders reveals the constant tension found in homosocial spaces. There is a certain element of protection of girls’ purity within spaces like the Camp Fire Girls, but there is also a point at which the line between platonic and romantic or sexual become uncomfortably blurred for Camp Fire leaders. I found this analysis to be enlightening as well as integral in telling the story of the organization. Additionally, this section of the book gives way to a successful analysis of change over time as the Camp Fire Girls would later become leaders and advocators for the inclusion and support of their LGBTQIA+ members.
I have sung the praises of Helgren’s The Camp Fire Girls, and to round out my review I only have one critique of the book. As an oral historian myself, I would have liked to see Helgren use more of these personal histories and memories throughout the book. Helgren makes incredible use of her written documents, but I find her use of oral histories lacking. This does not necessarily take anything away from the book, but the inclusion of more personal histories and memories of the organization would have taken The Camp Fire Girls to the next level.
The Camp Fire Girls is truly a pleasure to read. From excellent analysis to captivating writing, Helgren’s addition to the scholarship on youth organizations, girlhood, and outdoor education and programming is invaluable. Accessible to both the academy and the general population, The Camp Fire Girls is a fantastic piece of scholarship that succeeds in a multitude of ways and is a significant contribution to the field.
Citation: Montana Chandler. Review of Helgren, Jennifer, The Camp Fire Girls: Gender, Race, and American Girlhood, 1910–1980. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. May, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58601This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.