Any avid reader can remember how difficult it was (and is) to find strong female role models in children’s and young adult literature. For every Harry Potter, there is a spate of feckless Bella Swans, characters who give up too much of themselves in romantic relationships and shy away from actual ambition. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Nancy Drew was the role of young, smart, independent role model for millions of teenage readers. Today, the female sleuth survives as an inextricable part of American pop culture. However, her status as a heroine must be considered in the cultural environment in which she was introduced and carefully examined before she continues to be lauded as the paragon of female ingenuity and pluck.
The wholesome girl detective Nancy Drew became popular among children with the publication of the first book in the Nancy Drew Mystery Series in 1930 under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. Concurrently, the new genre of hardboiled detective novels became popular among adults; the femme fatale was reinvented in characters like Brigid O’Shaughnessy from Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, also released in 1930. While produced for different audiences, these books provide insight into the state of the American female at the dawn of the 1930s.
Nancy Drew’s popularity rose just as women were trying to determine the next step of the feminist movement after a series of setbacks. After the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, with which American women achieved a benchmark of equality, American culture pushed back against this and other political advances for women. Facing an economic depression and high crime, Americans grasped for tradition at the dawn of the new century, which evidenced itself as misogyny in traditional and new forms. The growing fear of advances for women can be seen through the female characters of popular literature of the time.
The more-traditional Nancy Drew, who gets by with the help of her father and his male contacts in their small town, survives into contemporary times as a favorite protagonist. However, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a woman who exudes sexuality and has an agenda different than that of the important male detectives in the novel, became the first in a long line of hardboiled femme fatales killed off or imprisoned in detective novels; she was too threatening to the culture and was hastily put away.
Could Nancy Drew have survived as an adult? Would a new narrative, not grounded in her deference to the societally significant men around her have been popular or even publishable in the 1930s or today? Would she have had a place in the hard-boiled genre as a real detective? And could she ever have become independent enough to not endure condescending questions like this?:
“‘Now what?’ Mr. Drew asked, smiling, as [Nancy] burst in upon him. ‘Have you solved the mystery or is your purse in need of a little change?’”
Emilie Egger is a first-year student in the Women’s History graduate program at SLC.