WMU News

Was Nancy Drew a fictional feminist?

March 7, 2001

KALAMAZOO -- What Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton and the Outdoor Girls were to our mothers, grandmothers and even great-grandmothers, the Broadway Ballplayers and Sammy Keyes are to adolescent girls today, says a Western Michigan University researcher.

According to a new book by Dr. Gwen A. Tarbox, a WMU assistant professor of English, these fictional characters all provide girls with influential role models and show that when it comes to being strong, standing tall and pursuing dreams, there's strength in numbers.

In her book, "The Clubwomen's Daughters: Collectivist Impulses in Progressive-era Girls' Fiction" (Garland, 2000), Tarbox looks at "girls' fiction" written from 1890 to 1940 and how it furthered the efforts of women to move out of the house and into careers and roles in the public domain. Tarbox notes that while this type of fiction mostly disappeared during the mid-20th century, it has recently begun reappearing on booksellers' shelves.

In the 19th century, a girl would most likely read novels focused on a young woman's pursuit of marriage and a family. That changed in 1886, when "Two College Girls" was published. Written by Helen Dawes Brown, a close friend and Vassar classmate of Harriot Stanton, the daughter of suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the heroines of this book pursued education and careers in traditionally male-dominated fields like medicine.

"Women in the 19th century found they needed to use creative ways to get the message of suffragism out to younger women and one of those ways to was to show professional women role models in fiction for girls," Tarbox explains. "With 'Two College Girls,' Brown gave her readers a taste of a kind of life which most of them had never considered. More importantly, she also started a revolution in girls' fiction that would span 50 years and alter the way young girls of this period viewed themselves, their peers and their cultural and economic opportunities."

Following the College Girls series, the next half-century brought two distinct waves of girls' fiction. Appearing around 1910, girls engaging in outdoor adventures appeared in series like the "Outdoor Girls," "Girl Scouts" and "Campfire Girls." The 1930s brought the evolution of the girl sleuth with the "Judy Bolton Mysteries" and, perhaps the most enduring of the genre, the "Nancy Drew Mystery Stories." The girls' fiction effort also crossed racial lines with the 1898 publication of

"Four Girls at Cottage City" by Emma Dunham Kelly-Hawkins, which features four African American female protagonists.

In addition to the gender of their protagonists, this fiction had one other striking similarity: it promoted the idea that as a group, women could accomplish more.

"These books really showed that the best way to achieve goals was as a collective," Tarbox explains. "Following the Industrial Revolution, middle class women would form collectives, such as literary, charitable or social groups, and these groups would often advocate on social issues. These clubwomen learned that only through the strength of numbers could they gain access to traditionally male pursuits and activities."

The collectivism ideal is obvious in the Outdoor Girls series where the heroines formed a club to experience such new activities as camping and hiking. Even in the early Nancy Drew novels, the protagonist relied on her two closest female friends, Bess and George, to help her solve mysteries and crimes in which the victims were most always women.

"The premise is that women help each other through difficulties," Tarbox explains, "and that collective activity was the platform on which ambitious women could launch successful forays into public life."

But that successful foray into public life gained by women was partly responsible for the disappearance of progressive girls' fiction for 60 years, Tarbox says. By the 1920s, girls were welcome in the public realm, but instead of being encouraged to be campers or career women, the new societal roles for them were more about beauty, fashion and courtship.

"By the 1930s the once-popular Outdoor Girl, Girl Scouts and Campfire Girl novels were discontinued and in their stead were books about courtship and marriage," Tarbox says. "The 'up-to-date' teenage girl still wanted advice on how to enter the public realm, but her focus shifted back to concerns over personal appearance and the opposite sex."

That trend continued and is still plentifully evident in today's glossy magazines and media images. Appearance is more important than ever to girls, with anorexia nervosa and bulimia at record rates among female adolescents.

Tarbox notes, however, that literature has again begun answering the call for positive female role models, as evidenced by such contemporary fiction as the Broadway Ballplayers and Sammy Keyes series. Broadway Ballplayers, written by Maureen Holohan, a three-time, All-Big Ten basketball player, features five girls who band together to solve problems and give encouragement to each other's athletic pursuits. Sammy Keyes is a modern day Nancy Drew who, with her friends, solves crimes and deals with middle-school peer pressure and adolescent issues. A key to both series is that the heroines draw support and strength from their collective groups.

"The challenges that girls face today are as great as they were back then," Tarbox says. "The

idea behind books like these is to get girls to avoid the societal trap of focusing more on their bodies than on their brains and abilities. What girls need in fiction today are role models who accept themselves and build upon their strengths.

"We can't wish societal influences away," she says, "but we can show girls in a positive light and the good that can come from having a support system."

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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