From White Slavery to Bratz Dolls

Feminism and moral panics

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 child-birth 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.

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.

Dyhouse does not mention the diagnostic mistakes committed in the case, and she blames the media backlash against the social workers and doctors on hostility toward feminism. It’s true that the women’s movement was scapegoated, but if Dyhouse had dug deeper she would have understood that feminism did share some of the blame for what happened. Attempting to redress violence against women, major strands of the U.S. and British movements really did promote gothic delusions about child sexual endangerment and replayed the old white-slavery crusade. It’s a shame Dyhouse missed the connection.

Usually, though, she ably applies her lessons of yore to parse the panics of today. Since the 1990s and continuing into the ’00s, she notes, a veritable library of books from both sides of the Atlantic have decried the damage supposedly being done to contemporary girls by social change. Reviving OpheliaThe Beauty Myth, The Body ProjectFemale Chauvinist PigsThe Lolita EffectLiving Dolls: All warn that a girl-hating culture is gravely wounding young women. It’s inflicting them with eating disorders. Pressuring them to obsess over their looks. Creating an unhealthy predilection for vapid girl bands like the Spice Girls and the Pussycat Dolls. Imparting the misconception that bawdiness in women (acting like “ladettes,” as they say in England) equals women’s liberation. Perhaps worst of all, according to these books, modern culture injects girls with a premature and perverse sexualization.

Dyhouse smells a moral panic. Girls obsessing over their looks? She cites studies that show they’ve been obsessing since at least the 1940s. Eating disorders? Research suggests that anorexia and bulimia among young women has actually declined in the past generation. And since the late 1990s, Dyhouse reminds us, females have outnumbered males in college. It remains true that women’s salaries and prospects for promotion start to drag behind men’s a few years after graduation, so perhaps the media mantra about “girl power” has been exaggerated, Dyhouse writes. But “the evidence suggests it was no empty concept.”

And no one can deny that little girls’ T-shirts at 99-cent stores now come emblazoned with words like “sexy,” or that a big-eyed, crop-topped Bratz doll looks very different from a ringletted and pinafored Madame Alexander. But what does it mean to say that such material “sexualizes” girls? “Sexualization” used this way is a new term, only a generation old. Dyhouse notes that the idea it’s based on—that girls in their “natural” state are devoid of sexual desire unless they are “contaminated” by forces invading from outside—sounds suspiciously like old white slavery–era chestnuts about the purity and fragility of young, endangered females.

Yes, girls are bombarded with materials reflecting narrow, hidebound ideas about their sexuality. But when has this not been true? They may see more of it today, since the media have become more unrelenting, but that doesn’t mean the basic dynamics have changed. The trick, according to critical researchers, is to stop thinking of young women as coin flips—innocent versus non-innocent—and instead learn how they deal, as complex and sexual human beings, with the cultural junk that comes their way.

Dyhouse also suggests that we examine the motives of those touting the coin-toss idea in the first place. She quotes a British newspaper columnist, for example, who wonders whether part of the worry about “trashy” clothes for little girls isn’t an upper-class assault on working-class taste. This is not an observation you see much in America, even though we’ve got plenty of socioeconomic splits. To study our own moral panics, maybe America needs the perspective of a nation with Downton Abbeys. As Girl Trouble demonstrates, British history can help us get a handle on our own.  

Find this and hundreds of other interesting books at the Reason Shop, powered by Amazon.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Free Society||

    I want rainbow parties to be real! and then I want to be invited! I can only wish that panic were valid...

  • ||

    Too bad, your getting invited to a jenkem party instead.

  • Neoliberal Kochtopus||

    Or a limp biscuit party.

  • Free Society||

    As long as I can huff hot girl feces, I guess that'll have to do.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    You must be part German, yes?

  • Free Society||

    Jawohl!

  • Free Society||

    Is there anyone who can honestly claim they haven't fantasized about huffing Angela Merkel's feces?

  • Bardas Phocas||

    Hey, I want 'Good Time Girls' to be real!

  • Alan||

    I think I can find some guys who will invite you to a rainbow party. They'll even provide the lipstick for you.

  • jeanmorita||

    up to I looked at the receipt which said $7068, I be certain that...my... father in law woz like realie receiving money in their spare time at there labtop.. there friends cousin has done this for only about seventeen months and just took care of the debts on their apartment and purchased themselves a Lotus Esprit. this is where I went,www.Rush60.ℂℴm

  • Doctor Whom||

    It’s a shame Dyhouse missed the connection.

    It's horribly politically incorrect to point out any similarity between certain types of feminists and so-cons, no matter how blatant that similarity is.

  • ||

    women’s salaries and prospects for promotion start to drag behind men’s a few years after graduation

    I could name several reasons for this, none of which have to do with sexism. Although, sexism is probably one of the many contributing factors, I would bet it's insignificant to the fact that "a few years after graduation" is when many women start to think about marriage and family, which leads to them not caring about their career prospects as deeply as men.

  • wareagle||

    but saying this out loud violates the prime tenet of feminist dogma, that men and women are not different in any beyond a couple of body parts. Any attempts to point out differences on any level must be treated as heresy.

  • R C Dean||

    A few years after graduation is when a lot of women start actually having babies, taking big chunks of time off work, self-selecting into roles that are more child-rearing-friendly, and otherwise lowering their productivity, value to the employer, and promotability.

    And there is nothing wrong at all about making those choices. Just don't lower your productivity and value, and then complain that your pay and promotions are lagging.

  • Libertarius||

    They don't produce anything anyway. They are assimilated into various arbitrary paper pushing jobs made necessary by arbitrary fiat.

    "I think, therefore I am" (subjectivism) = "I think you have to give me a job and whatever else I deem 'fair', therefore you must (feminism and the statists who cash-in on women's desire for the unearned).

  • Bruce Majors||

    There was one study in the late 70s that showed that single childless women earned 102% of the income earned by single childless men in the same profession.

    Suze Orman, Oprah, etc etc.

  • Killazontherun||

    women’s salaries and prospects for promotion start to drag behind men’s a few years after graduation

    It is the job of Reason editors to let their freelancers know that wont muster inspection here.

    'Look, we have an usual level of economic literacy in our audience. If you don't correct that mistake and qualify it, you are going to look ignorant.'

    Unfortunately, they didn't give enough of a damn to help Ms. Nathan out there.

  • Hugo S. Cunningham||

    'Look, we have an usual level of economic literacy in our audience. If you don't correct that mistake and qualify it, you are going to look ignorant.'
    [end of quote]

    The reason for the lag in women's salaries is a matter of opinion. Your supercilious tone is an embarrassment. (I would pick an average Reason contributor over an average Reason commenter any day.)

  • Gorilla tactics||

    "women’s salaries and prospects for promotion start to drag behind men’s a few years after graduatiion"

    statistical disparities are not discrimination-jesus, why do I always end up plagiarizing thomas sowell everytime I have an argument with a lefty? fuck me, why do people still believe that shit?

    It's cognitive dissonance at its finest:

    "corporations are greedy and all they want is profits"-If women make less than man, and business is greedy...WHY DON'T THEY JUST HIRE WOMEN AT 80 cents on the dollar? They can't both be true now can they?

  • ant1sthenes||

    But what does it mean to say that such material “sexualizes” girls? “Sexualization” used this way is a new term, only a generation old. Dyhouse notes that the idea it’s based on—that girls in their “natural” state are devoid of sexual desire unless they are “contaminated” by forces invading from outside—sounds suspiciously like old white slavery–era chestnuts about the purity and fragility of young, endangered females.

    I thought sexualization in that sense meant altering the appearance so as to trigger sexual instincts in others (including adult males, which is the objectionable point), or else engaging in cultural propaganda to weaken taboos against statutory rape. Some people might see that as being on a spectrum of behavior that ends with actually pimping kids.

  • Robert||

    It also means the imputation of such thought in others. Most adults love most children, because they're adorable by their nature, but it's gotten to where it's hard to admit loving them, because of the imputation of sexual attraction.

  • nomoss||

    Did Dyhouse mention the horrific abuse endured by individuals (more-often women) with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, especially from UK psycho Simon Wessely (and cohorts, in league with UNUM - google UNUM lawyersandsettlements.com)?

    If you want a modern-day, dystopian horror tale (ignored by Western media) start with, "Medical Magic: How to make an illness disappear" (2010) by Malcolm Hooper, Emeritus Professor of Medicinal Chemistry: http://www.meactionuk.org.uk/magical-medicine.pdf

    And don't forget, "feminist" US "scholar" and Wessely-friend, Elaine Showalter who hosted a book tour, comparing individuals with Myalgic Encephalomyelits (a complex neurological disease) to people who claimed to have been abducted by space aliens and/or gripped by demonic possession. http://www.cfids-me.org/marys/elaine.html

    Far too often, feminism has simply been an excuse for upper-class women to carve out their own totalitarian niche.

  • Gorilla tactics||

    and let lower class women pay the price-teen pregnancy, stds, husband desertion etc etc

  • ||

    White slavery is a racist term. It implies that enslaving a white person is horrific while enslaving someone who is not white is a wholly different thing.

    Just call it slavery; while it beats the alternative in a primitive society, choosing a lesser evil is still choosing evil. And we're hardly a primitive society.

  • ||

    "White slavery" in this context refers to sexual slavery. It was a distinguisher to differentiate from the variety that was abolished. It's not a racist term. It's got nothing to do with race. Go hock your grievances to people historically ignorant enough to buy it.

  • Gorilla tactics||

    I just don't want to pay for someone elses bastards via welfare-fuck who you want but you deal with it

  • melpee||

    Millions of men are being treated as white slaves by cruel mistresses. Most are forced to clean toilet bowls and wash floors 24/7. The few that attempted to flee were charged with rape and sent to prison.

  • Bruce Majors||

    Millions of whites were sold into white slavery, though a much smaller percentage than Africans kidnapped and enslaved

    http://www.amazon.com/White-Go.....0374289352

  • BLEEDINELL||

    All women are persecuted and downtrodden by their patriarchal chauvinist masters, which is the way nature intended it to be.
    Now shut up and get me another beer.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    "Girls obsessing over their looks? She cites studies that show they’ve been obsessing since at least the 1940s."

    Wow, where would be be without studies? I'm glad they nailed down this piece of social science data!

  • Alan||

    We need more journalists like Debbie Nathan.

    "Sexualization" indeed. Is no one actually familiar with children? It's like most people have managed to wall off every memory from before they were twelve.

  • Bruce Majors||

    This article appears to be completely fallacious. Almost 2 million (white) Europeans and Americans, mainly lower class people in coastal towns or on ships, were kidnapped and sold into slavery in north Africa, often probably by the same people who kidnapped 60 million Africans and sold them to the new world. One book about it here: http://www.amazon.com/White-Go.....0374289352

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement