: Girl Trouble: Panic And Progress In The History Of Young Women

Girl Trouble: Panic And Progress In The History Of Young Women

Beth Wilson

girl-trouble-carol-dyhouse-150Carol Dyhouse; Fernwood Publishing, 2014; 328 pp; $16.95 (paperback)

‘Are girls better off today than they were at the beginning of the twentieth century?’ Carol Dyhouse, social historian and research professor of history at the University of Sussex, answers her own question: ‘In parts of the world girls suffer disproportionately from poverty, lack of education, and appalling levels of sexual violence. But there can be no doubt that in some countries, at least, they have more opportunities, more choices, and infinitely more personal freedom than ever before.’ She goes on to question the impact of modernity on girls and examines whether they have emerged as winners or losers in modern history.

In Girl Trouble the author brings together her work from the 1970s to animate the ways in which girls have been the subject of writers with diverse views, all convinced they know what is best for girls. Although Anne Summers’ Dammed Whores and God’s Police is not included in the bibliography, similar ideas are explored here with Dyhouse analysing modern characterisations of girls as ‘alcohol swigging ladettes or as narcissistic living dolls’.

Focusing mainly on Britain, but including writing and ideas on girls from North America, Australia and Europe, Dyhouse tackles the controversies about whether girls should be seen as victims or beneficiaries of progress. She concedes the advances made by girls in terms of better educational, economic and political opportunities, freedom of movement and to own property, express their opinions and have autonomy over their own bodies. However she acknowledges that all in the garden is not necessarily rosy and examines the problems girls face today, such as the double standards around sexual morality and expectations of perfection which can lead to eating disorders and the like.

The book begins with an examination of the anxiety generated by writings on ‘white slavery’ and the abduction of girls into prostitution and sexual slavery. It then shifts back to the changing position of girls and young women prior to World War I with a new feminine awareness, better educational opportunities and political awareness. Naturally these changes also led to condemnation of the ‘brazen flappers’ and girls getting above themselves and being over influenced by movies. In a country that depended on young women to be servants such an independent outlook was scorned. The first and second world wars were strong catalysts for change with women having to work and look after themselves.

Dyson also tracks the ‘momentous’ changes in ideas about gender and education brought about by ‘second wave feminisim’ in the 1970s. She describes and analyses how these changes shaped the contemporary world concepts such as ‘girl power’. While the book presents a history of divergent ideas about young women it also explores contemporary issues and problems and the range of reactions to them. The Slutwalk Campaign of 2011 that began in Toronto Canada and became an international phenomenon, was a response to the blaming of victims of sexual assault who were said to have caused their own suffering because they dressed and behaved like tarts. While some saw the Slutwalks as joyous public demonstrations of the rights of young women to dress as they please they also provoked right wing attacks as ‘an international explosion of self-indulgent and absurd posturing.’ The recent controversy following comments made by a senior police officer who said girls should not walk alone in public parks following the vicious murder of a Victorian schoolgirl is an all too contemporary and close to home example of attitudes to young women who are either seen as provocateurs or in need of male protection.

While Dyson recognises the history of girls as ‘progress’ she does not pretend there are no problems. Double standards and inequality still exist and history reveals backlash, reaction and new oppressive forces that hinder women’s progress. This leads her to conclude that, ‘Young women need feminism as much as ever, if they are to see their lives in context and to live them fully.’ This book should be a ‘must’ read for every secondary school student and beyond. It is witty, wise and at times wonderful — just like the girls are.

BETH WILSON is the former Health Services Commissioner, Victoria.

(2015) 40(2) AltLJ 145
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