CFP for NeMLA: The Adolescent Girl in Early 20th Century American Women’s Writing

The Adolescent Girl in Early 20th Century American Women’s Writing


This seminar will investigate the shifting figure of the adolescent girl in early 20th century American women’s writing. From 1900-1960, the adolescent girl, as an identity category, underwent huge cultural changes.  In the early 1900s, adolescent girlhood was barely acknowledged as a developmental stage, whereas by 1945 the teenage girl had emerged, as one newsreel put it, “an American institution in her own right.” With the legalization of birth control in 1960, the adolescent girl was poised to challenge American anxieties about body politics, economic consumption, and national identity, and she continues to do so today.

Yet although the rise of girl’s studies as a field has produced rich investigations of popular representations of adolescent girlhood in film and male-produced texts in the first half of the twentieth century, little attention has been paid to how women writers during this time period were collectively negotiating girlhood in their works. How did women in the early 1900s write girl bodies compared to women in the 1930s? The 1940s? Were the central tensions of puberty the same in the 1920s as the 1950s, or were there crucial differences? Did women writers reinforce cultural norms of adolescent girlhood in their works, or did they create new, resistant models of girlhood? This seminar, then, seeks to create a space for such an exploration. I particularly welcome a dialogue that would put women writers of “adult fiction” (such as Willa Cather, Tillie Olsen, Gwendolyn Brooks, etc.) in conversation with women writers of “juvenile fiction” (Carol Ryrie Brink, Beverly Clearly, Madeline L’Engle, etc.). Participants would circulate papers of 10-15 pages in advance of the conference. Abstracts of 250-300 words and a brief 150 word bio would be submitted to Leslie Allison at