Girls' Books

Gender, race, and class in girls' fiction

This page offers a very short introduction to gender, race, and class in girls' books. It is not a comprehensive view of these issues, but rather a starting point for further reading & research.

The evolution to adventure-focused titles for girls in the early twentieth century allowed female protagonists to be depicted as independent, resourceful heroines, not just as daughters, wives, and mothers - as much as societal norms of the time would allow.¹ The books functioned as both adventure stories and etiquette guides, with "covert instruction in becoming the new woman in a changing society."²

Ultimately however, these women became wives and mothers as the various series progressed, adhering to the Victorian perception of female roles³. Ruth Fielding is considered perhaps the only series heroine to be a wife and mother AND maintain a career⁴.

Where new roles were for women were offered, they were almost exclusively limited to white middle and upper-class characters. Lower class girls and immigrants rarely appeared in girls' series,⁵ ⁶ and the portrayal of black characters was "degrading and cruel"⁷. The "fat girl" stereotype was also prevalent in girls' fiction, with characters' weight commented on and jokes made at their expense⁸.

Race and Nancy Drew

The Nancy Drew series offers a case study in these issues. Ilana Nash suggests that characters in Nancy Drew stories can be grouped into four broad categories: Nancy's inner circle, virtuous crime victims, villains, and incidental characters. Minorities and working-class characters generally appear only in the latter two categories, and certainly never as part of Nancy's inner circle. The characters' otherness is signaled by stereotypical dialects and poor grammar, and even in the case of white, English-speaking servants, as laziness, dishonesty, or simple-mindedness⁹.

James P. Jones identifies seventeen black characters who appeared in the first seventeen Nancy Drew titles: five maids, four porters, two cooks, one caretaker, one butler, one elevator "starter", an applicant for a servant position, and two criminals. Only four directly affect the action (by committing crimes), and thirteen are unnamed¹⁰.

In 1958 the Stratemeyer Syndicate, creator of the Nancy Drew series, began a revision of its Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys titles at the request of publisher Grosset & Dunlap. In the post-war, nascent-Civil Rights era, the publisher had begun receiving letters from parents concerned about racism and prejudice in the titles, particularly in the depiction of stereotypical Jewish and Black characters. Harriet Adams, president of the Syndicate and also the ghostwriter of the Nancy Drew series at the time, did not fully understand the issues but did as required by the publisher. Her revisions largely eliminated Black and Jewish characters entirely rather than removing the stereotypical elements¹¹. By 1977, all of the twenty-three texts written by the original ghostwriter for the series, Mildred Wirt, had been revised and replaced¹².

The Nancy Drew titles in this collection are the original unrevised editions. A 1991 edition of The Hidden Staircase is a facsimile of the original 1930 edition.

¹Ilana Nash, American Sweethearts : Teenage Girls in Twentieth-Century Popular Culture (Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 2006), 32. - victorian norms

²Jane S. Smith, Jane S, “Plucky Little Ladies and Stout-Hearted Chums: Serial Novels for Girls, 1900–1920.” Prospects 3 (October 1978): 165.

³Carolyn Carpan, Sisters, Schoolgirls, and Sleuths : Girls’ Series Books in America (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2009), 26. - became wives & mothers

⁴Linda Burns and Society of Phantom Friends, The Girls’ Series Companion (Rheem Valley, CA: SynSine Press, 1997), R465.

⁵Carpan, Sisters, Schoolgirls, and Sleuths, 19.

⁶Nancy Tillman Romalov, “Mobile Heroines: Early Twentieth-Century Girls’ Automobile Series.” Journal of Popular Culture 28, no. 4 (1996): 239.

⁷Karen Stang, Series Books for the American Girl, 1910--1940 (Masters thesis, The University of Chicago, 1980), 50.

⁸Stang, Series Books for the American Girl, 56.

⁹Nash, American Sweethearts, 53, 58.

¹⁰James P. Jones, “Negro Stereotypes in Children’s Literature: The Case of Nancy Drew.” The Journal of Negro Education 40, no. 2 (1971): 121-122, 124.

¹¹Carpan, Sisters, Schoolgirls, and Sleuths, 95.

¹²Nash, American Sweethearts, 34.