Bad girls: A history of unladylike behaviour

What is it about rebellious young women that sparks moral panic asks Holly Williams?

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The Independent Culture

Domestic and demure. Neat and sweet. Sugar and spice and all things nice… but what happens when girls go bad? It's a subject that has long fascinated, and titillated, the press, public, and politicians, from whispers over 'fallen women' in the past to drunken 'sluts' slumped in the gutter in 2013. Now a new book, Girl Trouble, by the cultural historian Carol Dyhouse, explores the history of our moral panics over rebel girls, from the late-19th century onwards.

Dyhouse found herself "more and more interested in rebel girls, bad girls, the ones who went off the rails. They're not exactly feminist, but they're representing a discontent with what's in front of them. It allows you an insight into the constraints young women have operated under."

And what constraints… from an inability to vote, own property, prevent pregnancy, get a degree, an abortion, or a job, to more ephemeral, societal expectations of decorous behaviour, obedience to men, feminine beauty, and sexual restraint. No wonder nearly every generation had its own modern lasses who stuck their fingers up at societal norms and got stuck into enjoying themselves instead.

Dyhouse began by looking at the late Victorian era, because of its education reforms. "It was the motor of change. I don't think you could have had a suffrage movement without the movement for the education of women which preceded it."

Throughout her book, certain anxieties emerge time and again. Any female pleasure raises suspicion; sex, and respectability, are predictably fraught. To what extent girls are overly feminine or overly masculine also crops up frequently – young women tend to be painted as either man-snaring temptresses or as worryingly mannish, over-sexed or de-sexed.

"That's a constant theme: not being ladylike," Dyhouse explains. "Anybody that doesn't measure up to an idealised, often nostalgic, version of ladylike-ness gets bunged into this problem category. It's a tightrope – you go too far in the direction of pleasure-seeking and you're a slut, too far in the pursuit of sensible pursuits and you're too mannish. It's a no-win situation!"

Not that it's all bad news. While we still, as a nation, get gripped by feverish fears of young girls as 'folk devils', Dyhouse thinks things are heading in the right general direction. "I don't see history as a 'movement towards the light', but I do think things are better for girls now. If you look back, there has been something that's hard not to call progress."

Hurrah for that. But let's get a little historical perspective: read on for the six ages of rebellious girls who prompted major moral panics in their day, from fears over the damage that education could wreak on their ability to reproduce, to the dangers of bobbed hair, to the perils of pole-dancing classes…

‘The New Woman’ - late 19th century

It was in the late Victorian era that society started fretting over the arrival of the 'New Woman' – a girl who rejected the idea of being a happy little home-maker in favour of education, independence and personal development. A notion partly created by media stereotype, there was some truth in it: a first generation of feminists was slowly emerging.

Much of this was due to increased opportunities women had to stretch their delicate minds… thanks to the Education Act of 1870, most working-class girls received at least some schooling, while more middle-class institutions began to shed their drawing-room-needlepoint-and-niceties atmosphere for an academic and sporting curriculum. The first university college for women – Girton, part of Cambridge – was founded in 1869.

The effect was a generation of girls (or 'graduettes' as those who made it to uni were known) who began to question the assumption that they should be an 'Angel in the House', demurely domestic. Uppity, restless young women were seeking further education and travel and work, as well as campaigning for greater rights (over property, their children and, of course, the vote). Many parents – of both sexes – were not happy, and much outraged ink was spilt over what were dubbed these 'revolting daughters'.

"The New Woman," writes Dyhouse, "was likely to be highly educated and to have a mind – and a voice – of her own. For anti-feminists, this was part of the problem: in their view, womanliness required gentle submission." Plays and novels were written about this bold breed – such as the forthright Vivie in George Bernard Shaw's 1894 play Mrs Warren's Profession (she aces exams at Girton and has a bone-crushing handshake). Many depictions traded in stereotypes: 'Girton Girls' were caricatured as bicycle-riding, back-slapping, whisky-swilling, bloomer-wearing eccentrics.

There were fluttering fears that too much learning would make young women unladylike, even desexualised. It's hard to countenance today, but doctors and psychologists from esteemed organisations such as the British Medical Association, the British Genealogical Society, and University College London, wrote papers exhorting how education would damage women's bodies; there were very real worries that if teenage girls used their brains to excess, their "reproductive apparatus" would never get going. Much scaremongering followed, and the issue of the New Woman's shrivelled womb became, rather queasily, a matter for public debate.

Not that the Girton Girls and their like cared. From around 1900, the first forms of feminism – and in particular, the suffragettes' demand for the vote – took hold, across class and age groups. A new path for young women had been mapped out.

'Brazen flapper' – First World War and the inter-war years

Sex was, as it so often is, the starting point for concerns about flappers. "A heightened anxiety over young women's sexual behaviour can be traced from the outbreak of war in 1914," writes Dyhouse. Young ladies went gaga for men in uniform, a phenomenon dubbed 'Khaki Fever'. Such women were said to have been turned into "wartime nymphomaniacs" stalking soldiers' camps, desperate to "mate".

They became known as 'brazen flappers', f giddy creatures who used make-up and flirtation to tempt upright men into sinful ways, and were castigated as a genuine social problem. A typical tract, by Girl Guide leader Olave Baden-Powell in 1917, explained "the flapper is growing brazen. She is out in the world, sometimes at a pretence of war work, but often as a mere butterfly… meeting with temptations and dangers without having learnt how to resist them."

Khaki Fever soon abated, but the devilish behaviour of 'the modern girl' continued to be an obsession for the popular press throughout the roaring Twenties. Bright young things, and their pleasure-seeking, party-going ways, were a source of fascination, and tutting disapproval. Decadent pursuits, be that dancing to jazz music or drinking, were predictable causes for concern and inevitably linked to loose sexual morals.

Style also became a key issue. "The appearance of the flapper or modern girl in the 1920s was distinctive in that it was a sharp break from Victorian and Edwardian tastes," writes Dyhouse. And young women just couldn't get it right. If a girl was feminine – all silk stockings, khol-rimmed eyes, strings of beads – she was condemned as frivolous, and man-snaring (and, post-war, there was indeed a shortage of husbands, making pretty young females appear all the more predatory).

But if she went in the other direction – as girls began to – by cutting her hair short, shingled or in a Eton-crop, sporting pyjama suits or smoking cigarettes, she risked being scorned as overly mannish, her dress even interpreted as a sign of Sapphic inclinations.

Dyhouse suggests "flappers were portrayed somewhat inconsistently as either man-hungry or boyish, vamps or lesbians. If they weren't preying on young men, they might be preying on young women". This fear gained such traction that, in 1921, the House of Lords considered criminalising lesbianism – only to be defeated because they were worried the mere mention that such behaviour existed might "besmirch the innocence of the average girl".

'Good-time girl' – Forties

Many of the anxieties about flappers transmogrified in the public imagination into fears surrounding post-Second World War 'good-time girls'. Once more, make-up and glamour were sure-fire indicators of the sexual predator, while the cinema was seen as a corrupting force. "The good-time girl was 'no better than she ought to be'," says Dyhouse. "She had probably had her head turned by watching too many movies. She was likely to wear cosmetics and cheap perfume, and to dream of owning a fur coat."

During, and after, the economically hard times of war, it was feared young ladies were seeing sex as a bargaining chip in relationships, swapping courtship for consumption. Dyhouse remarks on a report on prostitution that claimed girls, rather than literally selling themselves, "slept with men to obtain luxuries. Young women hankered after fashion, particularly 'dress, drink, dainties and gay times'". There was a general nerviness about women and pleasure – and of course, sex had f to be a card to play, for, heaven forfend, it could be pleasurable in itself.

By now, there was also an element of criminality to the 'good-time girl'. There was the feverishly publicised 'Cleft Chin' murder case in 1944, about a young man and woman who went on a six-day spree of hit-and-run attacks and thefts, to fund lavish spending. Karl Hulten was sentenced, but his willing accomplice, Elizabeth Marina Jones, was given a reprieve – which caused public outrage. There was loudly-voiced disgust at both her crimes and her love of, as one journalist put it, "high heels, American perfume, flashy jewellery".

There was also a flurry over a 1948 film, called Good Time Girl, about a schoolgirl who goes off the rails; it featured scenes of rioting schoolgirls, a topic which caught the public's imagination. An erotic aura surrounded tales of reform schools torn apart by their wild charges, of course, providing a golden opportunity for moralising editorials with a side-order of titillation.

"The good-time girl had become a folk-devil," insists Dyhouse, who flags up research into the 'phenomena' in 1946, when The British Medical Journal suggested that the "good-time girl… unamenable to discipline and control" was a serious social problem. It went on to posit that the good-time girls showed "precocious physical development, especially in the breast and hips" and "live in a fantasy world of erotic glamour". Some might say the report-writer was also living in an eroticised fantasy world…

'Dolly Bird' – Sixties

The 1960s was the decade when it all changed. There were still the same old worries over trends in clothes, music and consumption, but there were also genuinely culture-shifting developments in the arrival of the pill and the legalisation of abortion in 1967. Women had more control over their (sex) lives than ever before.

If jazz and then rock'n'roll clubs had worried the authorities, the tearful victims of Beatlemania bemused as much as anything. Very young girls seemed to lose their minds completely, screaming hysterically. Adult men, from MPs to journalists, wrote with disgust about their "glazed eyes" and "gaping mouths". But as an outpouring of female desire, it has been deemed the opening salvo of the sexual revolution.

As London began to swing, so various new tribes of young ladies were spotted – 'Dolly Birds', in their mini-skirts, Mary Quant doll-dresses and tall boots, and city-living, savvy 'Chelsea Girls', who writer Alexandra Pringle described as having "confidence, and it seemed, no parents". This lot were reading Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl – and experimenting in real-life, too.

The rise of safer sex meant a rise in permissiveness, but naturally not everyone was in favour. Even without the risk of unwanted pregnancy, women were still subject to severe double standards. While the press was obsessed with tales of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, if it was about a woman, it "carried a particular charge" suggestsf Dyhouse, who points to the coverage of the exploits of Marianne Faithfull compared to the male members of the Rolling Stones.

The conservative elements of society were not all that happy about the availability of contraception, either; many articles worried over teenage girls gaily going to birth control clinics and then sleeping with half the local comp. Sir Brian Windeyer, chancellor of the University of London, gave a public address which harrumphed that "in our increasingly permissive society, the Pill has taken away an important constraint, and has contributed to a greater laxity in sexual morals and to greater promiscuity". There was a fear, which still persists in our discussions of sex education today, that too much information would put ideas into a girl's head and lead her to a life of vice.

'Ladette' – late Nineties

Jump forward to the 1990s for a more recent incidence of moral panic. Once again, it's when girls take on masculine traits that the Establishment gets worried, and in the late Nineties and early Noughties, young women were perceived to be doing just that, matching blokes when it came to drinking lager and behaving raucously. The ladette was born, and she wasn't pretty.

During the Seventies and Eighties, much was obviously achieved in the way of equal rights for women and the breaking of gender stereotypes. The Nineties saw the rise of a more pop-y feminism, too, with the gobby, garish 'Girl Power', as espoused by the Spice Girls. Easy to mock today, it did at least promote easy-to-swallow enfranchised concepts, like sticking by your female friends and girls ruling the world.

But when young ladies started to behave like lads in the 1990s, many commentators felt this was a flip-side of equality, feminism gone too far. "Girls drinking too much, taking drugs, taking their clothes off, exhibiting loud-mouthed and vulgar behaviour, and creating mayhem in the streets began to dominate newspaper headlines in the 1990s," writes Dyhouse. Common tropes assigned to these tabloid-filling folk-devils were a slatternly approach to housework and hygiene, the ability to down pints, a resistance to settling down and starting a family, and even a willingness to scrap in the streets on a Saturday night. Celebrity ladettes, such as Sara Cox, Zoe Ball, Charlotte Church and Denise van Outen, were subject to fascinated press scrutiny.

But it wasn't just journalists furrowing their brows over such unladylike behaviour; politicians were worried, too. David Blunkett was quoted in the Daily Mail as having concerns about "lager loutettes" competing against men in who can drink the most and behave the worst.

He suggested that it was young women's role to act as a brake on men's boozing'n'brawling tendencies, to be a calming influence. What such depressingly typical concerns showed all-too-clearly was that the double standards applied to men and women in the past were still far from eradicated.

'The Living Doll' – Noughties and beyond

If ladettes in the Nineties prompted worries that 'this wasn't what feminism was for', those fears only became more intense in the decade that followed. Alongside an acceptance that women had never had it so good was a feeling that they were squandering the hard-won victories of their forbears and actually colluding with a male- dominated society in which women are viewed first and foremost as sex objects.

American writer Ariel Levy coined the phrase 'raunch culture' in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs as a way to label this self-objectifying trend. In Britain, Natasha Walters' books Living Dolls exhibited some of the same concerns. Both were anxious that liberation and empowerment had become confused with the right to strut around in high heels and get your tits out. Pole-dancing classes, glamour-model career aspirations and plastic surgery became emblematic, topics that many writers fretted over (and still do). "I'm not at all knocking these people, but there is a tendency to slut-bash in that literature," Dyhouse suggests.

More recently, moral panic has blossomed under the catch-all term of 'sexualisation'. Worries abound that little girls are told to be pink princesses; tweenage girls totter around in heels and padded bras; and by the time they're teenage girls, their heads are so stuffed with images of Rihanna bumping and grinding, and of hard-core porn they've watched on the internet, it's no wonder they're 'sexting' left right and centre. There is little room for discussions of girls' own sexual agency.

Interestingly, fear of premature 'sexualisation' seemed to grip many, rather different, portions of society. While feminists feared a roll-back in gender politics, politicians themselves smelt an electorally promising bugbear. Conservatives made a moral, grandstanding issue of it, appealing to worried parents on websites like Mumsnet. The media got stuck in; shrill editorials delighted in condemning retailers for flogging Playboy bunny pencil cases and TV stations for showing S&M music videos pre-watershed, while lavishly illustrating their outrage with pictures of pop stars wearing but a few carefully placed rhinestones.

It is, of course, hardest to have a clear head about a moral panic we may still be in the throes of. But for Dyhouse, the "endless worry about pink, and pole-dancing, or padded bras" is indeed our own modern minefield. But she is optimistic that today's young women will soar beyond pornification; for if history has taught us one thing, it's that girls, their bodies and their femininity (or indeed masculinity), is a source of endless, and often over-hyped, concern. Wearing a padded bra, Dyhouse suggests jovially, is not "going to turn someone into a sexual object or rot their brains".

'Girl Trouble', by Carol Dyhouse, is published by Zed Books, £14.99