How Young Ladies Became Girls


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The Victorian Origins of American Girlhood

Jane Hunter

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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.

Jane H. Hunter is associate professor of history and director of the program in gender studies at Lewis and Clark College. She is also the author of The Gospel of Gentility, published by Yale University Press.

“A beautiful and important book. From an extraordinarily rich range of sources, Hunter has recreated a fascinating world of venturesome spirits, who speak—often eloquently and movingly—for themselves.”—Jackson Lears, Rutgers University

“A gentle tour de force of historical analysis. This book is compelling and fun to read and is also a model of clarity and insight.”—Kathryn Kish Sklar, State University of New York, Binghampton

“The author offers a plethora of interesting insights into the lives of late nineteenth-century young women. Her prodigious research has produced a multifaceted picture of the interior and exterior experiences that replaced the ‘young lady’ of the Victorian era with a ‘new girl.’ . . . [A] thorough, nuanced treatment of an important aspect of nineteenth-century women’s history that has not been adequately addressed before.”—Linda W. Rosenzwieg, American Historical Review

How Young Ladies Became Girls is the book needed to establish a history of American girlhood. It creates a foundation for the history of girlhood that I can find in no other source. The number and types of sources, the depth of knowledge, the breadth of information and, perhaps most importantly, the care she gives to recognizing the variety of experiences of different girls make this text exemplary. . . . I recommend this text to anyone interested in women’s history, children’s history, American cultural history and the history of education. But most of all, I recommend it to anyone interested in how those obedient Victorian girls became the modern girls—the Rrriot girls, the outspoken girls, the not-always-sweet girls—we recognize as our own.”—Renée M. Sentilles, American History

"[A] sophisticated, deeply researched study. . . . This important book should be read by everyone interested in the history of childhood, women, gender, and the Victorian United States. Highly recommended."—Choice

"[This book] is remarkable for the perspective it affords and the range of issues that Hunter is able to address. For historians interested in the experiences of young women and the institutions that shaped thier lives, it may be one of the most important books to be published in recent memory. This study simultaneously represents an important contribution to several fields: women's history, the history of childhood, and the history of eduction. . . . A study that other historians cannot afford to overlook. Jane Hunter has provided a searching examination of middle-class girls in the latter nineteenth century, enriching our conception of adolescence and the role of schooling in its development during a critical period. She also has provided a model of imaginative scholarship in social history, one that should inform the field for many years to come."—John L. Rury, History of Education Quarterly

"A well-written and thoughtful mapping of a critical transformation in American womanhood." —Carol Lasser, Journal of American History

"The best kind of social and domestic history—satisfyingly intimate yet with a clear and constant sense of the big picture."—Kathryn Hughes, Sunday Telegraph

"Hunter asks us to rethink a whole body of scholarship that has viewed the development of female power in the nineteenth century as an extension of women's sphere, and the Woman Movement in particular as a product of separatist organizing that evolved somewhat organically from women's intense relationships, female moral reform, and later, from single sex colleges. . . . Hunter's valuable book will need to be incorporated into our understanding of the nature and social significance of girl's experiences—both within the circle of female relationships, and outside them."—Rachel Devlin, Journal of Social History

Named the Most Outstanding Book of 2004 by the History of Education Society
ISBN: 9780300092639
Publication Date: December 11, 2002
496 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
40 b/w illus.
The Gospel of Gentility

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