When it comes to addressing the challenges and anxieties of modern-day girlhood, Professor of English Julie Pfeiffer believes we are contemplating the wrong question.
“What if instead of asking ‘How do we fix girls?,’” she proposes, “we ask: ‘How do we fix our understanding of adolescence?’”
That’s the focus of Pfeiffer’s new essay in Psyche, a digital magazine that sheds light on the human condition through the insight of experts in psychology, philosophy, and the arts. In “Forget ‘Little Women’: How Did Girls Learn to be Grown Women?”, Pfeiffer explores how Victorian-era novels for adolescent girls might help in finding healthier models of what it means to grow up female.
“A more nuanced understanding of 19th-century girlhood is described in early German books for adolescent girls,” Pfeiffer writes. “For the awkward, uncertain girls in their pages, adolescence does not require withdrawal from connections with adults, or a rejection of the family that supported them through childhood, but new adult mentors and friends who provide instruction and acceptance.”
Pfeiffer cites the Backfisch (a German slang word for a teenage girl) books, such as Clementine Helm’s Gretchen’s Joys and Sorrows (1863). “Backfisch books suggest that the girl does not need to await her future passively….With the help of mentors and peers, these girls can make themselves into women who contribute as wives, mothers, and community members.” Pfeiffer notes that American novels published around the same time “describe girls who leave loving homes to learn to grow up with the help of aunts and teachers and friends.” As they reflected themes found in the Backfisch books, these books were translated and distributed in a German-American exchange.
“What is surprising about these 19th-century girls’ books is that they focus not on the product – a perfect Victorian woman – but on the process and effort that makes the transformation of girl into woman possible,” Pfeiffer says.
The perspective of literature centering on adolescent girls, however, began to shift in the 20th century. “Adolescence is increasingly seen as a time of ‘storm and stress,’” Pfeiffer explains, “and the assumption that teenagers will be alienated from adults gains momentum.” By 2003, a study published by Duke University’s Women’s Initiative was calling attention to “a social environment characterized by what one sophomore called ‘effortless perfection’; the expectation that one would be smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful, and popular, and that all this would happen without visible effort.”
Nineteenth-century novels for girls, according to Pfeiffer, offer “an antidote to the stress of effortless perfection by naming the ‘creaking of the wheels’ that running a household and managing a body requires. [They] don’t just train them how to become good women, they also acknowledge the hard work this transformation requires.”
She adds, “While many 21st-century adolescent girls are asked to negotiate a system of invisible labour without instruction or any acknowledgement of the difficulty of this task, Backfisch books made visible to the work that becoming a woman in the 19th century required, while assuring girls they would be loved despite their awkwardness and mistakes. These books affirmed the role of a community of peers and mentors in helping girls make the significant transition from girlhood to womanhood.”
Pfeiffer recommends emulating the mentors found in the 19th-century Backfisch books. “We can recognize the hard work of growing up, and allow girls to be tired or to slip up, and normalise messy adolescence. If we see that teenage girls need rest and praise, and care and instruction – not just from their parents, but from a whole community – then maybe we can make growing up a shared project, and relish the transformative potential of adolescence.”
A member of the Hollins faculty since 1997, Pfeiffer has published scholarly articles on the Backfisch books in Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature and Mothers in Children’s and Young Adult Literature: from the Eighteenth Century to Postfeminism. She is also the author of the book Transforming Girls: The Work of Nineteenth-Century Adolescence, published by University Press of Mississippi in 2021.