In 1905, pioneering child psychologist G. Stanley Hall made the following statement in response to the growing trend of girls reading the budding genre of kids’ adventure novels:
The danger is very great that the modern schoolgirl will early in life acquire false views of it, will make excessive and impossible demands on it, which will cloud her life with discontent in the future.
Hall believed that girls’ education and reading material should be tailored towards preparing them for their future lives as wives and mothers, and that reading stories where teenagers gallivant around the world, solve mysteries, and have adventures would make their real prospects seem disappointing. (One might point out that most boys grow up to become accountants and shoe salesmen and that adventure novels would equally well fill them with discontent, but that would be unsporting.)
The subject of Hall’s ire was Stratemeyer Syndicate, the first dedicated children’s book publisher and owner of the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, the Bobbsey Twins, and practically every other classic children’s series you can name. Stratemeyer books were churned out quickly (founder Edward Stratemeyer himself wrote over 1,300 books), priced low, and written according to strict guidelines designed to maximize sales:
- Every book had to be part of a series.
- Every series had to be pseudonymous.
- Every book had to begin with a recap of the previous book and end with a teaser for the next one.
- Every chapter had to end on a cliffhanger.
- To allow the series to continue indefinitely, characters could not age or marry.
Then and now, serious literary people dismissed Stratemeyer books as trash and resented the fact that kids didn’t want to read anything else. Quality-wise, there’s some validity to this. Most kids themselves eventually tire of the formula and move on to more inventive fare. But in 1930, Stratemeyer’s formula also turned out to be unintentionally revolutionary and proved all Hall’s worst fears correct.
1930 was the year Stratemeyer introduced Nancy Drew.
Nancy wasn’t Stratemeyer’s first female protagonist—she was preceded by the Motor Girls, the Outdoor Girls, and several others—but she was a revolution. The Nancy Drew series would run for over 70 years, totaling 175 books that have sold over 80 million copies, outselling even the Hardy Boys, which had the advantage of three years’ head start and a dozen more books.
On a basic level, it’s easy to understand Nancy’s appeal: She was an independent female lead whose adventures did not revolve around romance. In an era when many unmarried girls were still expected to have chaperones, Nancy drives a car, traipses around the countryside by herself or with her friends, and shows no compunctions about poking her nose into anything that struck her curiosity. While boys could choose from dozens of series with similarly independent male protagonists, most girls, especially if they were at a small local library, had only Nancy.
On the other hand, Stratemeyer wasn’t in the business of starting revolutions, so Nancy remained distinctly within acceptable social boundaries. She respects her father; she dates a nice respectable boy; she never has to throw a punch or (God forbid) fire a weapon; the cases she investigates are never gruesome or unsuited for a young lady’s eyes. The 1930s was also the era of Amelia Earhart. Stratemeyer clearly wasn’t interested in pushing the envelope anywhere near that far. Nancy Drew was never boycotted; she never attracted parental opprobrium.
For those of us who grew up in the era of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Nancy could seem like a creature out of her time, driving around in her blue convertible investigating not-too-perilous mysteries and never getting into any real trouble. I mocked Nancy a lot as a kid, classifying her along with Barbie as things that were not only not aimed at me, but relics of a pre-Second Wave era and thus not really aimed at any modern girl. But Nancy’s most revolutionary trait had nothing to do with the particular details of her adventures, and it was a complete accident.
Nancy began life as a sixteen-year-old high school graduate; later, in accordance with a changing school system, she became an eighteen-year-old high school graduate. In accordance with Stratemeyer rules, she never grew up. Not only did she never go to college, get married, or have children, but she never had serious plans to do any of these things, since such plans could never come to fruition anyway. Crime solving wasn’t a phase for her—it was her entire existence.
To modern eyes, this might feel like infantilization. Nancy is a perpetual adolescent. She can solve mysteries as a hobby, but she can never become a professional private eye, forensic scientist, or police chief. (The cancellation of Drew, the TV series that would have portrayed Nancy Drew as an adult police detective, rubbed salt in that particular wound.)
But in the 1930s, freezing Nancy’s life at age 16 didn’t limit her. It freed her. She perpetually existed at the age when she had the full freedom of an adult, but none of the social obligations. She was done with school, she could drive, and she had autonomy over her life, but she was not yet expected to get married and settle down. Girls of that age had a great deal more leeway in their behavior and interests than adult women. If anyone found Nancy’s interest in crime unseemly, it could be written off as a passing phase. Nancy’s friend George is a short-haired tomboy. Later in life she’d be expected to show more femininity, but in a teenager, these traits were acceptable.
Again, it’s easy to see this liberation as a residual trait from an earlier era. To some extent, it is. Girls with an interest in crime solving, or any other not-quite-feminine pursuit, can go to college and pursue a career. Yes, there are many roadblocks, but an adult has far more ability to explore her interests than a teenager.
Well, a young adult does.
While there’s theoretically nothing stopping a woman from pursuing a full-length career and rising to the top of her field, in practice, most women don’t. Many women’s lives follow the same predictable, depressing pattern: They head to college to study a subject they’re genuinely passionate about, they adamantly swear that they’re serious about having a career, they graduate and get a job in the field, they work for a few years, and then they have a baby, quit their job, and never work in their field again.
If you’re under 25, you may be going “surely it’s not that bad.” But this was the experience of almost all my female college friends (but, needless to say, none of my male college friends). Some are now full-time stay-at-home moms; some work from home a few hours a week at odd jobs unrelated to their fields. A few have managed to return to work, but only after several years’ time off, a disadvantage that will follow them for the rest of their careers. And these are womens’ college alumnae. Not a single one of them planned to be a stay-at-home mom, even temporarily. But when the time came, they were bound by their social obligations.
So Nancy’s status as a perpetual young person isn’t as outmoded as it seems. We’ve gained an extra ten years since the 1930s, but the social obligations of marriage and motherhood catch up with us now just as surely now as they did then. A modern Nancy Drew might be a 24-year-old detective fresh out of the police academy (ahem, CBS), but the principle is the same: She can dedicate her whole life to her interest without ever having to give it up to meet her family obligations.
As long as society forces women into a no-win situation where they must choose between their passion and their family responsibilities, Nancy Drew, who never has to choose, will always be relevant.