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As Carol Dyhouse writes in her introduction to Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women, it’s easy to feel utter despair at the state of the world in which girls and young women live today. They struggle with low self esteem, body issues, the increasing sexualisation of popular culture, sexual violence, bullying – the list goes on.
But Dyhouse is a historian and her book aims to frame things in a broader context, taking a longer view of the development of girls over the course of the Twentieth Century.
It’s Dyhouse’s view that the twentieth century in particular was hot on moral panic and outrage when it came to young girls and women. From an obsession with ‘white slavery’ to more recent angst over ‘girl power’ and its implications, she leads us on an exhilarating tour through over a hundred years of huge social upheaval and dramatic change.
We start with the foremothers of the suffragette movement – individuals like Florence Nightingale whose essay Cassandra reads like a lonely cry in the wilderness because she had no movement to be part of. Then come the women who campaigned for girls to have the same access to education as boys, which triggered plenty of masculine hand-wringing about whether all that scary new knowledge would render the girls infertile, mad or both.
The feminists, suffragettes and flappers followed – all with corresponding public anxiety in the papers and parliament over the ‘issues’ caused by their independence and demands. A lot of it we already know, but seeing it laid out so cohesively really brings home how many of the issues we’re struggling with today had their equivalents a hundred years ago.
The Victorian worry over allowing women to become medical doctors feels particularly pertinent as the current debate about whether it’s part-time-working female GPs who are ‘bringing the NHS to its knees’ trundles on.
You could see that as depressing – nothing much has changed – but I choose to be more optimistic and I think that’s the message Dyhouse wants us to take from her book – women have struggled and overcome challenges countless times in the past, and so can we. Nothing is impossible.
I’ve long had a fascination with the strange position young women occupy in society and how that’s portrayed in novels, films and TV shows. From Elizabeth Bennett to Jane Eyre, Bridget Jones to Carrie Bradshaw, single women seem to make people feel uneasy because they don’t fit obediently into a category like ‘wife’ or ‘mother’. Spinsters have long been mocked in literature as shrivelled up, man-mad, hysterical, sex-starved creatures who are grotesque to behold.
Betsy Israel's Bachelor Girl is a brilliant history of the role of single women in society and how they've always been feared and derided. I found this book in the basement of a bookshop in Hay on Wye and as it was on offer for £1, I bought FORTY COPIES which I've given to anyone I thought might enjoy it. It's brilliant, you would love it, I promise. I've actually got one final copy which is yours if you tell me in the comments below who your favourite spinster in literature is!