I am reasonably certain that I picked up Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women at some sort of event at Conway Hall. But it has sat on my shelf since then, like many books.
However, in my current voracious consumption of books, I’ve been having a fiction and non-fiction book on the go. So I finally plucked it off the shelf and gave it a read and I’m glad I did.
The book examines the changing perception of young women since the late Victorian period, right around the rise of suffrage activists. Then chapter by chapter, it dives into the social history of what society thought of young women. In more recent times that could be the rise of ‘glamour girls’ or ‘ladettes’ but farther back, we get the moral panics of ‘white slavery’ and flappers. I didn’t particularly know about the idea of white slavery, but it was essentially a moral panic of women being abducted and forced into prostitution. It was almost entirely a baseless moral panic, with most women entering the sex-trade voluntarily because it afforded them better prospects than absolute poverty.
But each generation of young women found whatever choices they made criticised or subject to moral pronunciations. It was fascinating from the point of view that I could the relate the historical moral panics and criticisms to relatively recent ones. So at least, I hope, I will be less gullible in swallowing some moral panic about women (or any young people, really). I’m pretty sceptical most of the time, but I hope it will add to my bullshit detector. We all get old and myopic about change, but I’m trying to fight off that as an inevitability.
What was also REALLY gross was all the friggin’ men who were really quite a collection of creepers. I don’t know what to think of John Ruskin but his behaviour was certainly a bit friggin’ weird to my contemporary eyes. But there is also just a parade of male sociologists who seem a bit too descriptive about the lives of mostly young girls and women. CREEPERS, THE LOT OF OF THEM.
It also just made me enormously reflective of the benefits I’ve had as someone growing up in the 20th century. It was never a doubt that I’d go to university, have a job, choose who I wanted to spend my time with. I’ve never been pressured to marry or have kids. Though I was told an awful lot as a kid and teenager when I expressed no desire to have kids “that I’d change my mind.” Ha ha, losers. I’m going to continue spending money on books and holidays. Maybe one day I will get a cat. All of my choices have been relatively uncontroversial, but at any given point in the past, they would have all been almost unthinkable.
I wonder what the next moral panic will be. I can see something about fan culture totally having a backlash, as any interests women seem to have get trivialised. Ugh. It was just so consistent for 140 friggin’ years. BROKEN RECORD, DUDES. Must be ever vigilant! Remember! Take any moral panic with a boulder sized grain of salt and wonder who benefits from intense scrutiny and diminution of women’s interests and habits.