Nancy Drew: The Case of the Changing Definitions and Ideals of Twentieth Century American Girlhood

Nancy Barbiaux

Abstract

These two descriptions, made eighty-two years apart, of a best friend vary in significant ways and reflect the changes in the ideals of twentieth century American girlhood. There is a shift from individual leadership and self-reliance to valuing the contributions of all team members. As the century progresses, beauty becomes more broadly defined and less important than loyalty. An analysis of the Nancy Drew novels and contextualizing them within the historical events of the twentieth century reveals the changing definitions of girlhood in twentieth century America and the ideals to which white middle class girls aspire. The historiography of girls in twentieth century America is elusive. It is difficult to ascertain the thoughts, ideas and preferences of children, because they are not generally part of the official historical record. With the advent of twentieth century professions like social work, we gain access to what adults observing children record, but little of the children’s own thoughts. Nevertheless, children’s history is a logical place in which to seek the historiography of American girlhood, yet the classics of children’s history prove insufficient. Philippe Aries’ 1962 groundbreaking work, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life was the first to assert childhood as a social construct rather than a biological category. But it is not helpful in this case because his sources were from French public schools that did not admit girls. Other drawbacks apply to Joseph Kett’s, 1977 work, Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present which focuses on the ways in which adults tighten their control over the events of childhood rather than the experiences of children themselves. David Nasaw’s Children of the City, 1986, addresses the correct time period and attempts to examine the experience of childhood from the point of view of the child. However, it relegates girls quite literally to the sidelines, watching over younger siblings, while boys take to the center of the street for play, or leave the block altogether to work selling newspapers or running errands.