The Girls' History and Culture Reader: The Twentieth Century: The 20th Century




The Girls' History and Culture Reader: The Twentieth Century provides scholars, instructors, and students with the most influential essays that have defined the field of American girls' history and culture. A relatively new and energetic field of inquiry, girl-centered research is critical for a fuller understanding of women and gender, a deeper consideration of childhood and adolescence, and a greater acknowledgment of the significance of generation as a ...

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The Girls' History and Culture Reader: The Twentieth Century provides scholars, instructors, and students with the most influential essays that have defined the field of American girls' history and culture. A relatively new and energetic field of inquiry, girl-centered research is critical for a fuller understanding of women and gender, a deeper consideration of childhood and adolescence, and a greater acknowledgment of the significance of generation as a historical force in American culture and society.


Bringing together work from top scholars of women and youth, The Girls' History and Culture Reader: The Twentieth Century illustrates girls' centrality to major twentieth-century forces such as immigration, labor, feminism, and consumerism. Themes in this pioneering volume include girls' use of fashion and music, their roles as workers, their friendships, and new ideas about girls' bodies. While girls in the twentieth century found new avenues for personal ambition and self-expression, especially at school and in the realm of leisure and popular culture, they continued to wrestle with traditional ideas about feminine identity, socialization, and sexuality.


Contributors are Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Rachel Devlin, Susan J. Douglas, Miriam Forman-Brunell, Kyra D. Gaunt, Mary Celeste Kearney, Ilana Nash, Mary Odem, Leslie Paris, Kathy Peiss, Vicki L. Ruiz, Kelly Schrum, and Judy Yung.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252077685
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 12/15/2010
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Pages: 360
  • Sales rank: 1,463,155
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author


Miriam Forman-Brunell is a professor of history at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and the author of Babysitter: An American History and other works. Leslie Paris is an associate professor of history at the University of British Columbia and the author of Children's Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp.

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The Girls History and Culture Reader

The Twentieth Century


Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07768-5


As young teenagers in our new country, my three sisters and I searched for clues on how to look as if we belonged here. We collected magazines, studied our classmates and our new TV, which was where we discovered the Miss America contest ... Even the small and inane set of options these girls represented seemed boundless compared with what we were used to. We were being groomed to go from being dutiful daughters to being dutiful wives with hymens intact ... If one good thing came out of our watching this yearly parade of American beauties, it was that subtle permission we all felt as a family: a girl could excel outside the home and still be a winner. —Julia Alvarez, "I Want to be Miss América"

Born in New York City in 1950 to Dominican parents, Julia Alvarez was raised in the Dominican Republic from infancy until age ten. The family returned to the United States in 1960, following Julia's father's involvement in a failed attempt to overthrow the Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo. Back in New York, she and her three sisters struggled linguistically and culturally to assimilate, contending with racial discrimination and a lowered standard of living. For Julia, the Miss America pageant represented another challenge to her shaky sense of her own beauty and American identity. Yet she and her sisters also found in the pageantry of femininity a point of entry into American adolescence, whether in resisting their mother's wishes by shaving their legs or dreaming of college educations.

Twentieth-century girlhood took many forms, reflecting the nation's diversity, its divisions, social changes, and the particular circumstances of individual girls' lives. The experiences of white and black girls in segregated schools, of girls in rural areas and those in large cities, of new immigrants and girls who traced their American heritage for generations—all were appreciably different. Girls' varied lives and expectations reflected their particular racial, class, ethnic, and regional backgrounds, their divergent legal statuses, age and generational cohorts, as well as individual family circumstances. Across these differences, girls shared many commonalities. The Alvarez sisters were typical of twentieth-century girls in sensing new avenues for their personal ambition and self-expression, especially in the realm of leisure and popular culture. At the same time, they shared with other American girls the challenges of persistent traditional ideas about feminine socialization and sexuality. As girlhood became an important locus of debate about gender relations and American values, girls' pathways were increasingly politicized in the twentieth century.

On the surface, girls were marginal to American political and social life. After all, they did not vote or set national policy. However, over the course of the century, girls were an increasingly empowered group in several respects. First, girls' expectations of enfranchised adulthood expanded as women gained voting rights, greater reproductive control, and a wider range of opportunities in paid employment. Second, girls benefited from a new rights discourse that allowed girls of all classes greater opportunities for education and leisure. Early-twentieth-century reformers worked to make longer periods of formal education mandatory, to restrain children from entering into the labor force until their teens, and (especially in the case of girls) to protect girls from early sexual experiences. From the midcentury onward, first civil rights reformers and then feminist activists enjoyed some success in expanding rights to racial minorities and to girls. Reforms did not, in fact, protect all children—many minors, for instance, were sexually active, some willingly and some not—but the expansion of children's civil rights gave girls a more influential voice, if not direct access to power. And as Julia Alvarez's memoir suggests, increasing numbers of girls were inspired to look beyond their parents' aspirations: in her own case, a path that took her to college and beyond. While middle-class girls benefited most from a new ideal of protected childhood, many others in varied circumstances resisted the restrictions they faced as girls.

Girls were at once protected and exploited, restrained and adventurous, relatively unseen and highly exposed, complex realities that are illuminated in The Girls' History and Culture Reader. Bringing together influential scholarship that places girls at the center of historical analysis and that offers critical insights into the historical experiences of girls, the essays in the chapters that follow showcase the diverse ways in which age and gender intersected in the lives of twentieth-century girls, explore thematic concerns that have shaped historical research on American girlhood, and illustrate a range of methodological approaches to girls' history. Collectively, these chapters trace a number of pivotal issues: girls' patterns of socialization and education, their historical experiences of work and play, their practices of consumption and production, the relation between girls' lived realities and discursive representations of idealized girlhood, girls' efforts to balance adults' expectations with their own quests for personal autonomy, girls' negotiation of their bodies and sexual identities (which were also the subject of particular adult anxiety and fascination), and their sense of themselves both as girls and as members of broader communities.

Girlhood is never merely a biological stage. Rather, as these essays collectively make clear, it is a period of life whose meaning and endpoint have been made in particular historical contexts. The term encompasses both cultural constructions of girlhood and girls' own lived experiences. The parameters of girlhood have been defined as much by legal designations, social practices, girls' degree of biological maturation, and broader ideological and political forces as by actual age. Over the course of the twentieth century, for example, the ideology of protected childhood exerted increasing force, such that older adolescent girls were more likely to attend school instead of working full time for pay. Parents wielded less control over girls' social lives as dating practices moved outside the home. Better nutrition and changes in girls' patterns of work and education led to the earlier onset of puberty. The very terminology of girlhood also shifted in meaning in the twentieth century. In the early years of the century, middle-class older adolescents and young women chose to see themselves as adventurous "girls" instead of virtuous "young ladies." Second-wave feminists of the 1960s and 1970s decried the use of the term "girl" as a means to diminish grown women. By the end of the century, however, numerous girls and young women who identified the dual discrimination they faced as females and as children recuperated the term "girl" in their cultural productions. In other words, while many long-standing adult ideas about girlhood persisted, these ideas were continually challenged and reinterpreted, both by adults and by girls themselves. The Reader aims to deepen our understanding of these varied processes in shaping girlhood, as well as the import of generation as a historical force in American culture.

Girls' History Scholarship

The field of girls' history is itself relatively young. It owes its most significant scholarly debt to women's history and gender history, connected fields that have since the 1960s made gender a central category of historical analysis, and that have made possible remarkable access to women's lives in varied historical contexts. However, gender historians have traditionally privileged the adult years of the life span without reflecting extensively on the significance of age. Girls sometimes appear in passing in book chapters on women's early education or socialization, but more often as a preface to rather than as the focal point of scholarly work. While in monographs girls appear as the subjects of first book chapters meant to anchor the historical experiences of grown women, in women's history textbooks girls are usually only supporting characters: the objects of women's reform efforts, for instance, or the subjects of adolescent courtships.

The essays in the Reader, by speculating on what is particular to girls' experience of gender and age, demonstrate how dynamically these categories have operated to shape female experience. Issues that might seem of greater relevance to adult women than girls —such as sexuality, work, community relations, and politics—also resonated centrally in the lives of girls, but age significantly shaped girls' perspectives and their relative access to power and opportunity. We might ask, for example, to what degree new ideas about girlhood and womanhood were co-constructed during various waves of feminist activism, or how girls' age shaped their experience of gendered cultural paradigms such as the emergence of "compulsory heterosexuality" in the early twentieth century or the so-called "sexual revolution" of the 1960s. Standard periodizations of women's history (and American history more broadly) have tended to be less informative about these specific generational distinctions, subsuming girls into stories about women's pasts.

Nonetheless, the field of twentieth-century girls' history owes a significant debt to women's history scholarship and to feminist scholarship more generally. Some pioneering historians examined the early years in women's lives. For instance, the realm of consumer culture, in which older girls and young women found some degree of autonomy, was an early site of scholarly inquiry; Kathy Peiss' 1986 Cheap Amusements examines the lives of older workingclass girls and young women in New York City, while Beth Bailey's 1989 From Front Porch to Back Seat, a history of twentieth-century courtship and dating, explores the transition from girlhood to womanhood in the context of the rise of heterosociality, youthful peer cohorts, and consumer culture. In bringing together histories of older girls and young women, these authors showcased the important commonalities between girls of sixteen and women of twenty; however, younger girls' experiences of commercial culture and courtship remained mainly outside this scholarly purview.

Similar concerns energized other feminist scholars who began to pursue more specifically girl-centered research agendas. For instance, girls' emotional lives were the focus of research across disciplinary divides. In an influential study published in the early 1980s, psychologist Carol Gilligan pursued questions about American girls' moral development; later that decade, Joan Jacobs Brumberg historicized anorexia nervosa in her examination of girls' refusal to eat. Much "girls' studies" research developed in fields that were more contemporary in their orientation, such as cultural studies, media studies, and sociology. Communications studies scholars in particular were influenced by cultural studies scholar Angela McRobbie, who had conducted ethnographic research on British girls' youth cultures of the 1970s, and by British cultural studies scholar Carolyn Steedman, whose 1987 memoir of her own working-class girlhood was simultaneously theoretical and autobiographical. A number of historically oriented scholars, including Wini Breines (1992) and Susan Douglas (1995), infused histories of midcentury white girls' cultures with autobiographical elements drawn from their own adolescences.

By the 1990s, Miriam Forman-Brunell among other scholars described a realm of "girls' culture" deserving of its own field of inquiry. Literary scholar Lynne Vallone described nineteenth-century "girls' culture" as a central space of female definition. Expanding on this theme, Sherrie Inness suggested influentially that the new interdisciplinary field of "girls' culture" offered a means of understanding gender and society more broadly. Other scholars blurred the boundaries between history and literature in their research on girls' peer cultures, their play, and participation in popular culture. Whether in history, literature, or media studies, scholars explored themes (such as girls' friendship networks and their uses of mass culture) that more traditional scholars considered frivolous or unserious. Through their individual scholarship and in recent encyclopedic works such as Girlhood in America (2001) and Girl Culture (2007), these new scholars showed how such research offered a unique lens through which to assess girls' political identity and cultural agency.

Over the past two decades, historical work on girls has also been strengthened by the new children's history, which has focused extensively on age as a category of historical analysis and, to varying degrees, has considered children's gendered socialization. This literature initially focused primarily upon boys, but has expanded dramatically since the 1990s, allowing girls' history scholars to make use of many new synthetic histories of twentieth-century childhood and youth. As this scholarship makes clear, childhood provides a unique vantage point from which to reflect upon broader twentieth-century forces, including the growth of cities, the rise and fall of the industrial economy, the meaning of modern citizenship, the rising importance of formal education, class tensions, and civil rights and feminist activism.

The Girls' History and Culture Reader aims to set the strengths of these various modes of inquiry into conversation with one another: demonstrating how age matters as a category of analysis for gender history, offering interdisciplinary approaches to girlhood, and providing material for more historically grounded girls' studies scholarship in associated fields. The essays that follow share an interest in questions of individual and collective agency and the structures within which girls are raised. They seek to broaden understandings of what constitutes the political, what is entailed by employment and leisure, how sexualities are formed and experienced, the importance of peers, and how education and consumer culture have functioned at once as tools of adult-led socialization and as vehicles for girls' own sense of power.

The scholars whose work appears in this volume provide a range of approaches to the particular methodological challenges confronting girl-centered historical research. Put simply, most historical archives do not specifically collect materials on girls. This is a reflection both of girls' marginalization as subjects of historical research and of the paucity of information on girls in traditional forms of historical documentation. Twentieth-century girls generally had little access to public platforms such as newspapers or speeches, very few were polled, relatively few wrote about their experiences, and fewer still had those writings preserved, until quite late in the century. Those who did garner attention or left a historical record tended to be from a small, well-educated elite, or, alternatively, were the working-class objects of the legal system and subjects of middle-class reformers' efforts at charity or reform. To uncover girls' worlds and the institutions through which they were socialized, the authors of the essays collected in the Reader have utilized a wide range of sources. These include court records; the institutional records of organizations that oversaw girls; social science and ethnographic research; girls' personal diaries and women's oral history reflections on their youth; and the cultural realm of novels, music, magazines, toys, and school publications. Girls' history scholars also interpret a broad range of play activities as primary sources that elucidate girls' unique historical position and practices.

It is our hope that the Reader will help to facilitate the movement of girls as historical subjects from the margins to the mainstream. At present, little of this scholarship has permeated standard historical frameworks. In history college texts that introduce fields and characterize canons, girls still remain largely outside the scope of defining historiographic essays and authoritative Americanist anthologies. When twentieth-century girls appear in standard surveys of the United States, they generally do so only in passing; for example, histories of the Great Depression often include a brief mention of young 1930s film star Shirley Temple but say little about the politics of Depression-era girlhood, girls' experience of the decade, or how the category of youth or girlhood functioned ideologically in the New Deal era. Yet twentieth-century girls were representative Americans, particularly at the beginning of the century; 40 percent of Americans were under the age of eighteen in 1900 and 26 percent in 2000. A deeper consideration of childhood and adolescence, and a greater acknowledgment of generation as a historical force in American culture and society, can help to propel girls out of a room of their own and into standard historiographic essays, master narratives, and authoritative anthologies as a necessary element, not simply as an optional and charmingly girlish addition to the canon.


Excerpted from The Girls History and Culture Reader Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1. "Something Happens to Girls": Menarche and the Emergence of the Modern American Hygienic Imperative Joan Jacobs Brumberg....................15
2. "Putting on Style" Kathy Peiss....................43
3. Single Mothers, Delinquent Daughters, and the Juvenile Court in Early 20th Century Los Angeles Mary Odem....................64
4. The Adventures of Peanut and Bo: Summer Camps and Early-Twentieth-Century American Girlhood Leslie Paris....................84
5. First Steps: The Second Generation, 1920s Judy Yung....................109
6. "Oh the Bliss": Fashion and Teenage Girls Kelly Schrum....................135
7. "Star Struck": Acculturation, Adolescence, and Mexican American Women, 1920–1950 Vicki L. Ruiz....................160
8. Radical Notions: Nancy Drew and Her Readers, 1930–1949 Ilana Nash....................182
9. The Oedipal Age: Postwar Psychoanalysis Reinterprets the Adolescent Girl Rachel Devlin....................217
10. Imagined Bobby-Soxer Babysitters and the Uses of Girls' Work Culture Miriam Forman-Brunell....................242
11. Why the Shirelles Mattered Susan J. Douglas....................266
12. "Double Forces Has Got the Beat": Reclaiming Girls' Music in the Sport of Double-Dutch Kyra D. Gaunt....................279
13. Riot Grrrl: It's Not Just Music, It's Not Just Punk Mary Celeste Kearney....................300
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