Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women, by Carol Dyhouse
More than a century ago, ‘modern’ girls began to outrage respectable opinion – now the day of the doormat is long gone
Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women
“Waves of anxiety, horror stories and panic . . . have accompanied social change affecting women from Victorian times,” says Carol Dyhouse towards the end of her spirited, skilled analysis of attitudes towards young women over a period of roughly 120 years. (Young Englishwomen, that is; the special case of Ireland, with its additional burdens of religion and nationalism, is outside the scope of this study.)
Girls en masse have constantly found themselves the focus of a lot of attention and apprehension as restrictions in one sphere after another were challenged, overthrown and, in some instances, reinstated, albeit in a different form.
Trouble is the word, and it’s considered here in all its varieties: asking for it, getting into it, being beset by it, stirring it up and trying to evade it. Trouble and social conditioning are intertwined, as new ideas surface, rebellion against old-style expectations breaks out and rearguard action is initiated to preserve the status quo.
From about the 1890s onwards “modern” girls outraged susceptible beholders by gadding about on bicycles, by appearing at suffragette demonstrations, by driving ambulances, by affecting short skirts and cigarette holders, by going in for jazz and cocktails, by instating Hollywood as an idol, by gaining degrees from universities, by cocking a snook at supposed “womanly feeling and propriety”. Some, at any rate – the ones most strongly endowed with gumption – went in for these or similar acts of defiance. The purpose of Girl Trouble , however, is not so much to single out the reasonable rebels against absurd social prescriptions as to take the whole female population between the ages of 12 and 25 (say) and examine the ways in which it was held to constitute a social problem at different times.
There is plenty of contemporary material to draw on. Key accounts, such as Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth , give an idea of what clever Edwardian girls were up against. New women, revolting daughters, sweet (or not so sweet) girl graduates, wayward girls, “poor girls weak in mind and character”: all these were subjected at times to approval, ridicule or abomination.
The whole thing started early. Once girls had ceased to sit at home gluing seashells to boxes or crocheting pillow lace, the way was open for dire patriarchal predictions and gloomy forecasts about the future of the nation. If it wasn’t the white slave trade getting a boost from girls on the loose – or loose girls – it was gynaecological deficiencies arising from too much reading. Conservative voices from every quarter joined in the dismal chorus of disapproval. A spate of shocking anti-feminist works of fiction culminated in ASM Hutchinson’s This Freedom of 1922, surely one of the worst novels of all time. As late as 1948, the educational writer Sir John Newsom put forward a revised curriculum for girls’ schools with cooking and housewifery at its centre. And, writes Dyhouse, such backward-looking strategies had an impact. Enter the Woman’s Home Journal , frilly-petticoat-friendly 1950s.
Throughout the period covered by Girl Trouble , you find recurring chicken-and-egg situations. Was pioneering feminism a product of social change, or did social change result from feminism? Were girls unsettled by widening opportunities
or did widening opportunities derive from female perceptions of existing injustices? Was it true that too much learning would rot the female brain? Where does sexual vulnerability end and sexual emancipation begin? Critics of feminist advancement could never decide whether education made girls undersexed or oversexed, or which was worse. What seems indisputable is that girls and their behaviour have always spread alarm among conservatives of an older generation and that girls were in a special category as far as signs of the (declining) times were concerned.
By the 1970s – following the anarchic, up-for-it 1960s, with their emphasis on hedonism and youth – “profound shifts in culture, language and social expectation” had occurred, spurred on by the new women’s liberation movement and other forms of social agitation. As Dyhouse puts it, “strong girls were in fashion”. Feisty girl heroines had begun to crop up on cinema and television screens, she goes on, but she doesn’t mention books, particularly girls’ books, in which active and resilient heroines had always loomed large and worked a tremendous effect on readers – books enshrining a whole string of strong girls, from Kate Crackernuts to Dido Twite, via Evadne Price’s Jane Turpin.
Aside from this missing strand, though, Girl Trouble presents a well-nigh comprehensive, and timely, overview of change and challenge relating to the position of women in English society, coming right up to the present day and forming a cautiously optimistic conclusion: the outlook is favourable, despite “the ever-present possibilities of backlash, reaction and new oppressive forces”.
If it’s not entirely an original undertaking – many others have tackled the overthrow of female underdogdom, from a variety of angles – Girl Trouble is uniquely succinct, informative and entertaining. On the question of what constitutes a feminist, for example, Dyhouse quotes Rebecca West’s celebrated observation of 1913: “People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” Fortunately, whatever setbacks should occur in the future, no one can doubt that the day of the doormat is long gone.
Patricia Craig is the author of a memoir, Asking for Trouble, about being expelled from a convent school (Blackstaff, 2007). Her most recent book is A Twisted Root: Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland (Blackstaff, 2012).