From White Slavery to Bratz Dolls: Feminism and Moral Panics

By Nathan, Debbie | Reason, August-September 2013 | Go to article overview

From White Slavery to Bratz Dolls: Feminism and Moral Panics


Nathan, Debbie, Reason


Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women, by Carol Dyhouse, Zed Books, 272 pages, $24.95

POOR LADY SYBIL, the Downton Abbey daughter who died in childbirth after flitting on the edges of the movement for a woman's right to vote. Lady Sybil-so beautiful, so sweet, so oddly impassive when it came to feminism. If, instead of flitting, she'd been portrayed as a fully involved suffragette, we might have enjoyed some knock-down-drag-out scenes. Perhaps we could see teenaged Sybil in jail (or gaol, as it's spelled in England), on a hunger strike with force-feeding tubes down her throat. Or maybe we could watch her trembling as she listens to speakers railing against "white slavery": the widespread kidnapping of virgin girls by men who prostituted the young innocents and infected them fatally with syphilis.

It turns out white slavery never existed, though millions during Sybil's time thought it did. As the English social historian Carol Dyhouse explains in Girl Trouble, the white-slavery scare was propelled by two forces. One was angst about women's social and political gains, which were burgeoning as the 19th century turned into the 20th.The other was the tendency of women's activists themselves to promote moral panics in order to achieve their goals in a conservative, male-dominated milieu.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Girl Trouble begins with the late Victorian era, when doctors and psychologists were fretting about how college for girls made their breasts and ovaries shrink, preventing them from being mothers. Moving through decades of similar rhetoric to today, Dyhouse shows that women's progress has always been met with noisy, obsessive, and in hindsight often nutty fretting about girls' behavior and bodies. Dyhouse writes almost exclusively about Great Britain, but variations on the panics she describes have also emanated from the United States. Comparing notes, Americans will find Dyhouse instructive--not to mention entertaining. If you like Alistair Cooke's Masterpiece Theatre, you'll love Girl Trouble.

Here you can learn new vocabulary, including "French letter" (Brit English for "condom"), "wide boy" (in American, a hustler), and "stroppy" (irritable). Here you will learn that early Girl Scouts in Great Britain at first organized themselves into troops christened Wildcats, Foxes, and Wolverines--until worried scout leaders replaced them with prim, feminine names such as Roses, Cornflowers, and Lilies of the Valley. You'll also read about the British panic, during World War II and just after, over "good time girls," who were said to be interested in nothing but gaudy makeup, imported perfume, sweets cadged from American soldiers and, as a prestigious British medical journal put it, "sluttish ... undergarments."

Mainland America didn't endure the bombings that Britain did during World War II, nor was it overrun by foreign soldiers. Maybe that's why Americans never fretted about "good time girls." Nor did we suffer from the "coffee bar" panic. It seems that in postwar England, coffee houses started opening in many cities besides London, and by the 1960S young people were frequenting them to sip caffeine and hear rock 'n' roll. Men and women mixed freely at these establishments, as did members of different classes, ethnicities, and races. The same happened in America, but only in bohemian zones like Greenwich Village, so no one much cared. But in England, white slavery-style panic ensued again, with baseless rumors about girl coffee-bar customers being kidnapped and delivered to male Pakistanis.

If World War II and the 1960s are so far gone that they seem like a different country, then the Downton Abbey era is a whole other continent. At such remove, it's easy for Dyhouse to crisply assess a moral panic. It gets harder as her timeline moves forward, and sometimes she goes mushy. She misses the mark when discussing a massive 1980s sex-abuse scandal, in which British doctors and social workers over-diagnosed and misdiagnosed rape and molestation in hundreds of children in a working-class community in Cleveland, wreaking havoc on families and leading to a government inquiry. …

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