If you’re involved in raising a daughter in the United States, you’ll have heard of American Girls. And if you’ve heard of American Girls, you’re probably aware that there are Historical girls and Girls of the Year.
Each is a doll and also a character in a series of accompanying storybooks. But Girls of the Year are only available for one year, while their Historical counterparts stick around until the company decides to retire them.
I was mildly surprised to find out that one of the Historical girls -- Julie Albright -- has the same birth year as me. Julie (the character) and I both turned 48 this year, though she preceded me by a few months: she’s a Taurus and I’m a Leo. I grew up in the interval between Vietnam and the fall of the Berlin Wall, between the Summer of Love and the Apple IIe, between the Beatles and Wang Chung.
And so did Julie, whose name peaked in popularity in 1971, when it was #10 in the United States. (It is still in the top hundred. My name, Robert, peaked between 1920 and 1940 but was still in the top five circa 1971).
It feels odd to think of that era as “historical”. The term usually reminds me of dressed-up town centers or places like Colonial Williamsburg. Yes, significant history took place during the 1970s -- Watergate, busing, recession, the oil embargo, the non-ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, the bicentennial, the death of Elvis Presley. But history is being made all the time; it is not quite the same thing as being “historical.”
Partly I’m surprised because I don’t think of life during the 1970s as being eye-poppingly different from life today. Families went on vacations in station wagons rather than minivans, but these are just permutations on a theme. Kids stocked up on yo-yos, bouncy balls and collectible cards, as they do now. Pokemon didn’t exist, or the internet. In place of the internet, we had metal lunchboxes, preferably with Marvel Comics characters on them. There you go: the 1970s were the time before internet. But so were the sixties, fifties, forties and every other era since the origins of time.
I asked my seven-year-old, Heidi, what she thinks about the times described in the Julie books and in what ways they seem different from hers.
Although she took note of Julie’s cassette tape recorder, record collection and other obvious date-stamps, it wasn't the technological rewind that made the strongest impression. She said Julie’s childhood seemed “exciting, because she had lots of challenges.” In particular, she added, schools back then didn’t let girls play certain sports.
This is part of the main storyline of the first Julie book -- she’s great at basketball, but Coach Manley doesn’t want girls on the team. I won’t give away the ending, except to say that it involves Title IX.
Advocacy is a theme in the later installments, too. Fifth-grader Julie defies the status quo and runs for student council president, a post usually reserved for sixth-grade boys. She helps a deaf friend stand up to teasers and tormenters, and works to end an unfair detention system at her school. And all of this while adjusting to her parents’ divorce. If I’m making Julie sound like a Girl Power stick figure, I’m not being fair: the writer of the series has created a complex character. She has moments of doubt and despair, but is stubborn enough to keep pushing.
So there’s one angle on the seventies: an era when entrenched attitudes still kept women from realizing their potential, though things were starting to change thanks to organized campaigns, legal action and something called Feminism. That’s true about the times I remember, and in that sense they were certainly historic.
Still not sure why they’re “historical,” though -- the fight’s still on.