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How Young Ladies Became Girls

How Young Ladies Became Girls: The Victorian Origins of American Girlhood

Copyright Date: 2002
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 496
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  • Book Info
    How Young Ladies Became Girls
    Book Description:

    Based on an extraordinary array of diaries and letters, this engaging book explores the shifting experiences of adolescent girls in the late nineteenth century. What emerges is a world on the cusp of change. By convention, middle-class girls stayed at home, where their reading exposed them to powerful images of self-sacrificing women. Yet in reality girls in their teens increasingly attended schools-especially newly opened high schools, where they outnumbered boys. There they competed for grades and honor directly against male classmates. Before and after school they joined a public world beyond adult supervision-strolling city streets, flagging down male friends, visiting soda fountains.Poised between childhood and adulthood, no longer behaving with the reserve of "young ladies," adolescent females sparred with classmates and ventured new identities. In leaving school, female students left an institution that had treated them more equally than any other they would encounter in the course of their lives. Jane Hunter shows that they often went home in sadness and regret. But over the long term, their school experiences as "girls" foreshadowed both the turn-of-the-century emergence of the independent "New Woman" and the birth of adolescence itself.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15728-4
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    Writing in her diary in the fall of 1901, nineteen-year-old Florence Peck considered how truthful she had been in the records she had been keeping for imaginary readers. “I wonder now if they would know how full of old ‘Nick’ I am,” she mused. “It never occurred to me to put down the various ‘stunts’ I do, yet they may be a part of my life.”¹ Florence Peck had been keeping her diary for three years. It represented a record of her resolutions, her relations with her parents, her school successes, her graduation from Rochester High School that June, and...

  6. Work

    • ONE Daughters’ Lives and the Work of the Middle-Class Home
      (pp. 11-37)

      At some point in the nineteenth century, middle- and upper-middle-class daughters of the urban Northeast stopped doing substantial housework. Certainly they continued to have regular chores, to bear responsibility for tidying their rooms, picking the beans, or dusting the parlor, but girls of the new urban middle class lost the function that earlier farm girls of “the middling sort” had had as linchpins of the domestic workforce. Just as the move from the farm meant the movement of men out of the households and into urban shops or businesses, so did urbanization pull girls of a certain means away from...

    • TWO Writing and Self-Culture: The Contest Over the Meaning of Literacy
      (pp. 38-56)

      Middle-class girls who no longer spent their days as their mothers’ apprentices in domestic maintenance and manufacture were not left to their own devices. Just as their mothers’ responsibilities reoriented from home industries to the rearing of children, girls’ own primary goals shifted from the manufacture of cloth and the preserving of foodstuffs to the culturing of themselves. Self-culture was a broad-based project in the nineteenth century which was central to the emergence of a middle class. In the increasingly fluid and unpredictable climate that accompanied the emergence of a market economy, young men and women were urged to form...

    • THREE Reading and the Development of Taste
      (pp. 57-90)

      Girls’ writing was accompanied by what was often a prior activity: abundant reading in the tide of Anglo-American literature swelling in the midcentury and beyond. Girls read and wrote in tandem, often patterning their writing on their reading, and also relying on their reading experiences as the stuff of their diary writing. Restrained from having too many real experiences, they drew on their surrogate reading lives to develop the sensibility and selves they would offer to the world. Victorian girls lived in reading economies of relative abundance, certainly in comparison with those in the previous century. The dense bric-a-brac of...

  7. Geographies

    • FOUR Houses, Families, Rooms of One’s Own
      (pp. 93-129)

      Jane Addams’s 1902 description of the middle-class daughter “as a family possession” summarized the status of girls as property and ornament of the bourgeois family. Well through the Victorian period and beyond, mothers and fathers valued daughters as both the “charm and grace of the household” and its finest product. Girls responded by using their regular regimens of reading and writing as devices for moral and spiritual self-grooming. In the past two chapters I have discussed these verbal disciplines as conflicted mediums of self-construction. Now I turn to three emotional geographies of the self: the home, the school, and the...

    • FIVE Interiors: Bodies, Souls, Moods
      (pp. 130-168)

      If girls had fathers and mothers to play off each other, there was much that they did not have under control. In activist modes, they could practice the myriad disciplines imposed on them—piano playing, constitutionals, room tidying—but those routines often seemed a substitute for action rather than action itself. Most girls found it difficult to sustain the cheerful demeanor expected of them, especially as they experienced a series of baffling changes in their bodies, often with minimal preparation. Nearly as surprising as new bodily imperatives were the restrictions of adults, sometimes accompanying a birthday, arbitrarily denying familiar freedoms....

    • SIX Competitive Practices: Sentiment and Scholarship in Secondary Schools
      (pp. 169-221)

      Girls’ moods and reveries emerged in the interstices of what increasingly became a major device to structure and improve middle-class girls’ time before marriage: attendance at school. Attending school was more encompassing than piano lessons, reading programs, or the writing of diaries, and it answered a number of cultural needs, among them the training of future guardians of the home in the best and most elevating knowledge, and the occupation of daughters who were both maturing earlier and marrying later than had their mothers and grandmothers. Schooling also offered important routes into respectability for newly consolidating ethnic and religious elites....

    • SEVEN High School Culture: Gender and Generation
      (pp. 222-260)

      Success at school could make an enormous difference in girls’ lives. Girls who were healthy enough to go to school, and successful enough to stay, brought from their accomplishments a new perspective on their ability to compete and perform in life. But of course graduation and end-of-term honors are only one way to measure success in the nineteenth-century high school. Those markers, conveyed by adults at the end of the year, do not let us know much about the student power structure within the high school. In order to understand the full impact of the high school experience on girls’...

    • EIGHT Friendship, Fun, and the City Streets
      (pp. 261-312)

      Going to school did more than enhance girls’ senses of competence. It also pulled them out of their mothers’ houses into the town and city streets, introducing them to one another and to the shops, squares, and side-walks of urban life. In their walks to and from school, in their constitutionals, their flirtations, and their trips to bake shops, middle-class girls participated fully in the culture of their time. The pronouncements of Victorian morality, so widely and explicitly disseminated, gained their urgency from the strength of the opposition—the flowering of a consumer culture of goods, the growth of peer-based...

  8. Endings

    • NINE Commencement: Leaving School, Going Home, Growing Up
      (pp. 315-367)

      Going to school authorized girls’ participation in a youth culture of “mere” schoolgirls, protected from arduous domestic chores by their youth and their studies, which also freed them to fun and frivolity in the streets. Many girls in the new public high schools of the mid–nineteenth century stopped attending school before graduation. They went home to assist in family emergencies, followed physician’s orders to recuperate from a range of ailments at home, or increasingly, over the course of the century, went out to work as sales clerks, office assistants, or teachers. Some also failed to be promoted and left...

    • TEN New Girls, New Women
      (pp. 368-406)

      A wide cross-section of girls recorded domestic malaise following their departures from school. After the whirl of examinations, class meetings, and exhibitions, returning home to household chores and selfless service was a significant comedown. At midcentury most girls came home to stay, stung by the dawning realization that now that their schooling was done, the rules had changed, and they were now expected to forgo girlish pastimes and take their place as “true women” within the home. Increasingly, over the subsequent decades, though, departure from school and a return to mother’s household was temporary. The trajectory of the girl graduate...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 407-462)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 463-466)
  11. Index
    (pp. 467-478)