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Harmsworth's girls: constructing identity in the British popular press, 1898-1916

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(Thesis) Ph.D.
Date created
Author: Webb, Alisa
This dissertation examines the neglected girls’ papers of Alfred Harmsworth (1865-1922). In 1898 Harmsworth ushered in a new publishing venture aimed at a distinctive group of girls emerging in Victorian Britain. The Girls’ Best Friend (1898-99), later re-titled The Girls’ Friend (1899-1931), proved a successful venture, with Harmsworth and his publishing team adding further titles to their roster of magazines for girls: The Girls’ Reader (1908-1915), The Girls’ Home (1910-1915), and Our Girls (1915-1918). While these magazines reflected some of the realities of the lives of upper-working class and lower-middle class girls at the time – including mandatory schooling and paid employment in new occupations – they also worked to create an image of the ideal girl. Negating difference in favour of a homogenous view of girlhood, this “new” girl reflected societal beliefs about girls, with editors, contributors, and advertisers acting as socializing agents. All reminded girls of their essential natures and their responsibilities to domesticity, femininity, and maternity. Girls prepared for this future by embracing consumerism for health and beauty, by supporting the nation and the empire, and by instilling habits within themselves necessary for womanhood. At the same time, contributors also presented the image of a “new” girl that did not always conform to this largely middle-class defined ideal. The “new” girl could embrace the values of boyhood. Girls could go on adventures, pull pranks, speak their minds, and challenge authority figures. Often, the “new” girl appears mischievous, brazen, outspoken, and defiant. These qualities were encouraged and celebrated by contributors and readers rather than chastised. The view advanced by contributors explains this contradiction. All treated adolescence as a transitional time in a girl’s life; girls could embrace the opportunities that existed for them, challenge conventions of their sex, and pursue some level of independence in thought and action. All of this, however, was only temporary. For every feature that celebrated this special time in a girl’s life there was one that reminded her that adolescence was also the time to prepare for marriage and motherhood. Adolescence was fleeting, so girls should enjoy it while it lasted.
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