What Girls Allow: Twentieth-Century American Girls’ Fiction and the Needs of National Narration

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


For the larger part of the past century, girls’ popular culture was not taken seriously. The books girls read in their millions were presumed by both critics and society to be frivolous and simplistic, proof that their audience is nothing more than an impressionable consumer market. The Girl Studies critical turn of the past decades has painstakingly argued against such assumptions, celebrating girls’ agency in constructing their own cultural spheres and showing how these cultures are effective socializing and subversive tools. This project shares its political motivation with these ventures, but what it sets out to do is different: rather than considering girls’ fiction in relation to its audience, it asks what happens when we read popular American girls’ books as the national cultural phenomena that they are. What, in other words, is the pull of works such as Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976), Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series (1932-1943), Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-sitters Club series (1986-1999), and Maureen Daly’s nowforgotten Seventeenth Summer (1942), whose ongoing resonance transcends their intended audience? This reading illuminates girlhood’s symbolic and mediating functions in contemporary American culture. Examining the formal registers of Taylor’s, Wilder’s, Martin’s and Daly’s works, this project demonstrates that their narrative and temporal strategies construct an engagement with and negotiation of national anxieties and exigencies: about the threat to Black futures and histories in the United States; the desire for an unapologetically whitewashed American origin tale; the contradictory demands of capitalism from American women and the illusionary hope for a united multicultural society; and the (im)possibility of American women’s universal subjectivity. Closely reading girls’ fiction in this way not only grants us access to new perspectives into ongoing sociopolitical debates but also calls attention to the intricacies of the works’ literary mechanics that imbue time with dissonant potentialities to offer unlikely resolutions. Girlhood, I argue, is ultimately what allows these authors to suture contradictions, merge opposing narratives, and offer up seemingly harmonious tales that respond to deep national sentiments and hold continuous popular appeal.
Date of Award1 Aug 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorJane Elliott (Supervisor) & Amy De'Ath (Supervisor)

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