Elevate Difference

The Girls’ History and Culture Reader: The Twentieth Century

The Girls’ History and Culture Reader: The Twentieth Century is an anthology of influential essays written by top scholars that have defined the field of American girls’ history and culture over the last thirty years. Girl-centered research is considered a relatively new and dynamic field of investigation that is believed to be critical for gaining a deeper understanding of women and gender, and a fuller appreciation of how generation influences American culture and society. Edited by Miriam Forman-Brunell and Leslie Paris, The Girls’ History and Culture Reader addresses twentieth century forces such as fashion, consumerism, immigration, civil rights, music, leisure and labor and how these factors impacted the lives of girls.

The twentieth century was marked by increased choice and freedom for women, which translated into change, albeit not identical, for their younger counterparts. With more opportunities in society, girls took part in sports, went to camp, pursued higher learning in greater numbers, became consumers and members of the labor force, and participated in pop culture like never before. However, their greater independence also meant increased scrutiny by older generations. Girls were still seen as innocents requiring protection in an increasingly predatory world, while their sexual curiosity and independence induced considerable anxiety.

For those of you who thought you had a good handle on the events that influenced women’s history in the twentieth century, you might glean some interesting new information from this book. I certainly did. For instance, menstruation was taught to girls in the 1900s devoid of any instruction on fertility. Instead, teachings were from a purely hygienic point of view, and unsurprisingly, had strong backing from companies manufacturing disposable sanitary napkins. Equally surprising was the fact that single mothers in the Los Angeles area were known to initiate juvenile court proceedings to bring their wayward daughters and their much-needed incomes home. However, the most astounding in this collection was the essay on mid-century psychoanalysis, which posited that a healthy Oedipal relationship between daughter and father was the pre-eminent path to sexual maturity. At its limits, it appeared to condone incest as an expression of a girl’s own desires.

My personal favourite in the collection was an essay by Susan J. Douglas on the acceptance of Black music in the 1960s, and how girls groups gave a voice to the struggles of young women and showed them the potential for strength in numbers. For all those fans of Nancy Drew, there is also a great essay on our favourite sleuth. Ilana Nash convincingly shows that while our heroine was a model of intelligence, independence and empowerment, her stories also reinforced patriarchal privilege and conservative gender ideology.

Although there is a focus on White middle glass girls, which the editors acknowledge, The Girls’ History and Culture Reader also contains compelling essays on the double bind of Mexican, Chinese, and Italian-American girls, who had to deal not only with the cultural constraints of their own homes but also with those of American society at large. While there is an essay on Black girls and the institutionalization of double dutch, the book falls short in providing an idea of how Black girls’ lives changed throughout the twentieth century.

This book is a great resource for anyone wanting to research the lives of girls in a specific decade of the twentieth century, as each essay ends with an extensive bibliography. This is also a great reference for fledgling authors wanting to create an accurate depiction of the lives of girls in the twentieth century. After reading this book, I came away thinking that twentieth century history should be revised to reflect the changes experienced by girls, an area thus far ignored.

Written by: Heather Leighton, March 27th 2011

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