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History chair Jennifer Helgren’s new book explores gender, race and Camp Fire Girls  

“If we don’t understand the diversity of our own world, we’re not well equipped to connect with people and to act as responsible citizens as we get older.” -Professor Jennifer Helgren

Before becoming chair of the history department at Pacific, Professor Jennifer Helgren was a grad student struggling to find a dissertation topic (relatable). She was passionate about United States history and women’s rights but wasn’t sure where to start researching.  

Then, an unexpected blast from her past presented unlikely inspiration.

“I came across some of my old Camp Fire stuff in the process of moving from one apartment to another,” Helgren said. “Having been a Camp Fire Girl in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the organization was quite influential in my own experience. But of course, as a child, I wasn’t thinking about, ‘How feminist is this organization? How did they define race and whiteness and the middle class?’”

Researching Camp Fire’s origins

The more Helgren dug into the Camp Fire Girls as a potential research focus, the more material she found to explore the cultural shifts happening throughout United States history—and to contextualize her own association with the group.

“It started to make sense, what my own youthful experiences with Camp Fire’s origins were,” said Professor Helgren. “You have to write and research about stuff that you’re passionate about, but it also has to matter beyond it being something interesting in your own life. Youth organizations are really significant spaces for how we identify and understand citizenship roles and how they are gendered and raced.”

Gender Studies Colloquium book talk

Professor Helgren has continued to research youth organizations in the U.S. throughout her career, most recently in a book released in December 2022 titled, “The Camp Fire Girls: Gender, Race and American Girlhood, 1910-1980.” She shared insights from her book earlier this semester at the biannual Gender Studies Colloquium, a research series from Pacific’s Gender Studies Program.  

Pacific students, faculty, staff and guests gathered virtually for the Spring 2023 Gender Studies Colloquium on February 14.

At the event, Helgren discussed Camp Fire Girls’ complicated legacy: Camp Fire’s founders were progressive educators who invited girls of all backgrounds to join, but also created what Helgren calls a “false sense of cultural universality” by centering experiences of white American girlhood.

“What the book ends up doing is tracing how complicated that concept of essential feminism is through the years. It’s not the same kind of intersectional feminism that we think about today,” explained Helgren during the conversation. “It didn’t center the voices and experiences of overlapping and concurrent forms of oppression.”  

Exploring youth organizations in the classroom

In sharing her scholarship at Pacific, Helgren says it’s been interesting to observe how students respond to the history of youth organizations and start forming their own lines of inquiry.

“The most common response is, ‘Huh, I never really thought about these organizations as shaping our gender expectations or our gender roles, at least not to the extent that they do,’” Helgren said. “I had a student who was an Eagle Scout a few years back who got interested in analyzing the way leadership is taught through Scouts. That was an interesting paper.” 

Professor Helgren says that in many ways, her students teach her as well. She encourages students to bring their own experiences to her classes and be part of the discussion.

“Because of the topics that students want to talk about and the current events coming up, sometimes I have to sit back and say, ‘Tell me a bit more about that,’” said Helgren.

Professor Helgren with a student at Pacific’s Phi Beta Kappa Society initiation ceremony in 2018.

Why take gender studies and history courses?

While gender studies and history courses can be challenging and out of students’ comfort zones, Professor Helgren encourages students of all majors to broaden their academic horizons and try taking a class.

“If we don’t understand the diversity of our own world, we’re not well equipped to connect with people and to act as responsible citizens as we get older,” said Helgren. “But I also think that these classes help us understand ourselves and help us understand how we relate to others in the world.”

University of the Pacific offers a minor in gender studies for students interested in how gender intersects with definitions of nationality, race, ethnicity and class. Learn more about the Gender Studies Program.

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