“Daring” Girlhood

A few weeks ago, on our visit to the Wisconsin Historical Society, we were shown a collection of books that we could use for our research projects. As I browsed through the selection, I noticed that several of the books served as a sort of guidebook as to how a girl should act, or gendered activities that a girl may partake in and enjoy. Initially, I thought that the idea of a girl referring to a book for guidance as how to act, or what to do for fun, was very outdated. In the Keywords for Children’s Literature essay on “Girlhood,” it states that “girl books flourished in the nineteenth and early twentieth century” and that in books such as Little Women they “explore the vitality, playfulness and unconventional childhood of the heroines (Reynolds 1990). Many are initially tomboys, but eventually they all grow up to accept and extol conventional female norms” (94). Therefore, in today’s society, stereotyping books as “girl activities” or “boy activities” would deviate far from the modern norm about gender roles. Right? Yet, as I thought deeper into this concept, I remembered that in my own personal collection, I have a book titled The Daring Book for Girls that I received as a gift just a few years back. This lead me to conclude that maybe books regarding girlhood and gender roles aren’t as outdated as I previously thought. 

Before even gazing into the contents of the book, it’s obvious that it is intended for a feminine audience. Besides the fact that the title alone blunty states “for Girls,” it has a cinderella blue theme and iridescent text. Most interestingly, the backside of the book states, “For every girl with an independent spirit, and a nose for trouble, here is the no-boys-allowed guide to adventure.” Although, what I found Daring Book for Girls_1most controversial about the outer cover of the book was the phrasing of the title alone. Why is the word “daring” used and what does it mean in this context? Is this suggesting that the book is going to contain activities that are atypical of girls and girlhood? Therefore is a girl who tries these activities “daring” to challenge the stereotypes of girls and their stereotypical games, such as doll play, house and picking flowers? In the Keywords for Children’s Literature essay “Tomboy,” Michelle Ann Abate states that “bold and daring female figures” were often referred to as “hoyden,” which can be “seen as a precursor to tomboy”(221). Therefore, I drew the conclusion that in the case of my book, and according to the “Tomboy” Keywords for Children’s Literature essay, “daring” girls are comparable to tomboys. Thus in the text of The Daring Book for Girls, I was expecting to see numerous activities typical of boys.  

Supporting my theory within the text, I found several activities generally reserved for boys, such as a chart that list what is essential to “every girl’s toolbox” (71), and an entire page dedicated to “how to change a tire” (244). With a little more analysis, another excerpt I thought was relevant to this topic was also from the Keywords for Children’s Literature essay “Tomboy,” that stated, “child-rearing manuals asserted that girls who were raised as tomboys ‘would surely develop the resourcefulness, self-confidence and most importantly, the constitutional vibrancy required for motherhood’”(221). Therefore, maybe the entire scheme behind introducing tomboyish activities to “daring girls” through The Daring Book for Girls was to prepare them to become better mothers and wives nonetheless. On the contrary, the book did include some activities more typical of girls, such as how to make daisy chains or how to decorate paper dolls, but those didn’t exactly stand out as overwhelmingly “daring” to me.

Daring Book for Girls_3                     Daring Book for Girls_4

Regardless of all of this analysis, I truly did enjoy the reminiscing through The Daring Book for Girls, and reflecting on my childhood years as I turned the pages. I do not think the author’s intention was necessarily to truly challenge the ideals of girlhood, but rather to simply suggest what a girl may do on a rainy day, or when she was in need of a new game. Since I’ve gotten this book, The Double Daring Book for Girls has been released and they have continued to print and expand their collection. Check out their collection and website here

2 thoughts on ““Daring” Girlhood”

  1. I think you brought up some very interesting points in this post. I too noticed many of the gendered books at the Historical Society, and one in particular stood out to me. This book, Don’ts For Girls, was interesting to me because on every single page there was one thing that girls specifically should not do. It wasn’t humorous or playful but really kind of harsh. I think it is really cool to compare this book to a somewhat similar modern, gendered book. I like how this captivates the way that gender roles have changed and have become more fluid, but some of the same expectations for girls and boys still remain.

  2. That’s such a relevant book to our topics in class. I think it’s sort of telling that a book has to teach girls how to change a tire and is titled ‘daring’ while a similar book for boys would be unnecessary perhaps. There is an expectation that knowledge of things like using tools and changing tires is passed down the generations of males in a way that is typically not passed down to females. It’s interesting also to think about why there aren’t really as many ‘manuals’ for behavior for children anymore. Although your book is a kind of exception, for the most part, I don’t believe parents really buy their daughters books titled ‘Don’ts for girls’. Does this reflect a societal change of rigid gender roles for girls or is there simply different ways that adults go about teaching a ‘code’ of behavior to girls and boys?

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