Girl Trouble: Carol Dyhouse on Education, Moral Outrage and More

6th Aug 2014

Carol Dyhouse, a feminist historian at Sussex University, discusses the cycles of progress and panic that have followed women throughout the past century in her latest book, Girl Trouble. We caught up with her to learn more...

First things first. The full title of the book is Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women. So what’s been the link between panic and progress for women in the last century?

There’s a lot of panic around women in present day Britain and as a historian, I try to understand where we are now by how we got there.

There have been huge improvements in womens’ circumstances in the past one hundred years but I’m not wedded to the idea of things getting better – I’m quite suspicious of of generalisations.

With each turning point in womens’ rights, there was equivalent anxiety and backlash, which is what the book is all about. Progress wasn’t linear or straightforward.

I’ve long argued though that one of the key drivers for social change was and will continue to be education. I think education is the ground-rock for progress for women, as I can’t think how things would ever get better without it.

So how disruptive a force did you think education was – despite the fact that much of the curriculum, for much of the century, was deeply gendered?

That’s the central paradox about education. It’s not just women’s education like that though, it’s everyone’s education everywhere really – does education teach people to be content with their lot or does it make them aspirational? It does both.

Education is itself a battleground of conservatives and radicals fighting about every point, not just with women – in the 19th century for example it was about the dangers and benefits of educating working class men.

One of the early panics that you describe in Girl Trouble is an early 20th century hysteria around white slavery; in other words, kidnapping and trafficking young women and girls into sex work. Why did this cause such concern when there was no hard evidence of it actually happening?

Part of the anxiety was because women were moving on their own more, going on train journeys and travelling alone and walking through cities. That would not have been socially acceptable earlier on.

Some of the police force that were investigating the accusations of white slavery made that point: women had become much freer in the way that they were moving around, and a lot of people panicked about that. Women growing up in that period were always warned about being snatched by white slavers.

Education is the ground-rock for progress for women - I can't think how things would ever get better without it...I became very intrigued by the fact that the hysteria over white slavery exactly parallels discussions about women’s suffrage. I think that that is no coincidence: again and again in the book I have shown how moral panics tend to arrive just as existing conventions and ways of ordering society are under question.

People took peculiar sides in the white slavery debate: a lot of the opponents of women’s suffrage were very keen to play up the dangers of white slavery and to argue that women needed more protection.

They were reassured by the idea of women as victims. But on the other hand, there were also feminists who came hard on the idea as women as victims – so the politics get very confused.

With each generation, the book traces how notions of girlhood and femininity have changed. What were the key turning points?

The decline of domestic service was absolutely crucial. The majority of servants were women. New jobs were opening up in other sectors was an incredibly important thing for women.

The vote is obviously important but young women didn’t get the vote until 1928, and that coincides with the decline of domestic service. Both world wars had a weird liberating effect in that women could go into jobs which had previously been shut off to them.

Another really important issue was birth control and the advent of the pill. At universities, girls before the pill were treated like dangerous objects – liable suddenly fall pregnant at any moment.

Birth control made it possible for women students to just be treated as students. In all women’s writings and memoirs before then, there was a constant fear of what would happen to them and what they would do about it if they got pregnant. It’s hard to imagine that now.

There were some terrible stories about the struggle for abortion reform. We’ve forgotten how many young women were so desperate not to have unwanted children: they would go to almost any lengths to find abortions. The terrible misery and danger of illegal abortions, and the resulting infections, has been forgotten.

What do you make of public figures taking every available opportunity to decry the exploitation of young girls – effectively using them to further their own political agendas?

Young women have been used as political footballs for a very long time. Coming back to the white slavery years of the 1900s, the same sort of thing happened.

I called the book Girl Trouble after a lot of agonising because there is so much trouble about the idea of girls. Girls are shown as either in trouble or causing trouble – and you have trouble sorting out what’s going on!

Part of the problem is that everyone is so quick to pontificate and going back in time it’s harder to hear girls’ own voices.

The new edition of Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women is out now from Zed Books.