Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women by Carol Dyhouse, book review

From Victorian fears to 'fluffy pink' girl power, young women are still fighting
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The Independent Culture

Amongst the detritus pinned to my noticeboard is a rather crumpled postcard of an original Votes for Women poster. "What a Women may be, and yet not have the Vote", it reads: female mayor, nurse, mother, doctor or teacher, and factory hand; "What a Man may have been, & yet not lose the Vote": convict, lunatic, proprietor of white slaves, unfit for service and drunkard.

Carol Dyhouse's history of girlhood begins in the late 19th century as the suffragette movement began to take shape, fighting against preposterous but prevailing theories that too much education could shrivel a woman's breasts and ovaries, rendering her infertile. Feeble in both mind and body, a girl's purity was her most precious possession and had to be protected. Urban myths of white slavers prowling the city streets in search of victims abounded – 5,000 girls working London's telephones exchanges, for example, were warned against the dangers of drugged chocolates.

The First World War, of course, threw this hysteria into sharp relief as women were forced to take on the work of the country's absent young men. In many quarters, however, this freedom was pathetically short-lived – London medical schools opened their doors to female students during the conflict but closed them again with peace.

There were still political battles to be won – women weren't given the vote on the same terms as men until 1928 – but the "modern girl" was here to stay: from the bicycle-riding, Girton-educated "New Woman", to the bob-haired, cigarette-smoking flapper, morphing into the "good-time girl" of the 40s, the Teddy girls and Mods of the 50s. High-profile scandals such as the Profumo Affair in the 60s fuelled fears about female promiscuity, and the figure of the unmarried mother loomed threateningly on the horizons of the respectable middle classes, as depicted in novels such as Lynne Reid Banks' The L-Shaped Room.

This period also saw the rise of teenage culture – coffee bars, clubs and bars were viewed dubiously; juke boxes were denounced by one Reverend Williamson as "pagan altars" – ushering in a massive public outpouring of female libido in the form of Beatlemania.

As of 1969 both men and women were legally declared adults at 18 rather than 21 – thus students gained significant autonomy. Technically these youngsters could marry earlier, but with the rise of second-wave feminism in the 70s, girls were encouraged to look beyond the confines of marriage and motherhood. Feminism was then relabeled as "girl power" in the 90s, but this was offset against female anxieties about their bodies, with feminists like Natasha Walters highlighting the hollow sexism of the fluffy pink so-called "female liberation" of the period.

Interestingly, Dyhouse observes, just as anxieties about unladylike "brazen flappers" had followed hot on the heels of the emancipation of the 20s and 30s, so too was girl power haunted by fears of "ladettes" taking over.

Most recently, Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman has become something of a manifesto for fourth-wave feminism; one of its main achievements, Dyhouse points out, is that it "makes feminism sound like common sense", and we can assume Moran will make further headway for the cause with her eagerly anticipated novel, How to Build a Girl.

Though some are keen to suggest otherwise, Dyhouse draws her book to a close with a warning: "Young women need feminism as much as ever, if they are to see their lives in context and live them fully." Indeed, I bought my suffragette postcard when I was only 12 years old, and although it's slightly worse for wear, I've kept it for 20 years as a reminder of the hard-won independence I sometimes take for granted.

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