Sussex historian traces the pleasure, pain and panic of being a modern girl
From the chaste husband-seekers of the Edwardian era to the binge-drinking, sexually liberated ladettes of the new millennium, the past 100 years have seen major changes in the lives of young women in Britain.
But, as University of Sussex social historian Professor Carol Dyhouse asks in her new book published today (14 March) Girl Trouble, are girls better off today than they were at the beginning of the 20th century?
Professor Dyhouse, whose previous books include Glamour and Girls Growing up in Late Victorian and Edwardian England, turns to the not-so-distant past to examine how ‘the modern girl’ has regularly been seen as “both threatened by and threatening to a social order undergoing profound social change”.
She begins by looking at the public outcry over the white slave trade of Edwardian England, based on fears that young girls were being tricked, en masse, into prostitution, and linking this with the suffragettes’ campaign against patriarchal oppression. As Professor Dyhouse reveals, hysteria over the white slave trade was fuelled by the public’s thirst for salacious novels, movies and stage plays on the subject.
The First World War brought further moral panic and the rise of the ‘flapper’, a term used to describe a lively and flirtatious young woman out to turn any man’s head. To counteract such brazen behaviour, the Girl Guide movement was started to ‘train girls in character and responsibility’. But, says Professor Dyhouse, this was no match for an unstoppable brigade of female consumers hell-bent on pleasure.
Drawing on a wide variety of sources, including media coverage of scandals (such as the Profumo affair of the 1960s) and murder trials (the hanging of Edith Thompson), as well as works of literature and social commentary, Professor Dyhouse continues her lively journey in the company of the ‘good-time girls’ of the 1940s, the debutantes and 'teddy girls' of the 1950s and the ‘dolly birds’ and ‘beat girls’ of the next decade.
She also devotes chapters to the Women’s Liberation Movement and the emergence of ‘girl power’, thus reclaiming the term ‘girl’ from its belittling connotations, but observes: “There have been times over the last century and a half when feminism has gathered strength and power and other times when it has appeared less a political movement with clear-cut goals and more of a state of mind…”
Professor Dyhouse ends with cautious optimism for girls. While work and education opportunities have improved immensely, she points out that sexual double standards still distort and damage the lives of young women, and that history demonstrates the “ever-present possibilities of backlash, reaction and new oppressive forces”.
Notes for editors
Girl Trouble, ‘Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women’, by Carol Dyhouse, is published by Zed Books on 14 March 2013.
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