I’ve been reading an excellent book called Girl Sleuth, which is the story of how the beloved girl detective Nancy Drew came into being. It’s a fascinating read for anyone who is involved in the publishing business, or anybody who ever read the Nancy Drew mystery series.
For those not familiar with the girl detective, who first burst onto the scene in 1930 and went on to be the heroine of dozens of bestselling books that continue to sell well today, Nancy Drew was created by publisher Edward Stratemeyer, who was also responsible for such childhood book series as the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, and the Hardy Boys. The Stratemeyer Syndicate became the biggest publisher of children’s series books in history and employed a number of ghost writers to actually write the books from outlines supplied from the company’s headquarters. While Carolyn Keene is the name printed on the books, there was never a real author by that name associated with Nancy Drew. Most of the early books in the series were written by Mildred Wirt Benson, and a few other authors were assigned to the books over the years. When Edward Stratemeyer died in 1930, his daughter Harriet Adams assumed control of the family business, with her sister Edna becoming a (mostly) silent partner, and eventually she wrote many of the later books in the series.
In a time when women were considered to be flighty, frail creatures that were unsuited for anything other than having babies and hosting dinner parties, both Mildred Wirt Benson and Harriet Adams were groundbreakers. Both went to college when most Americans didn’t think a women needed a higher education, both defied the status quo to make their way in the publishing business, and both women drew both admiration and criticism for what some considered their brazen methods of achieving their goals.
As much as the book is about Nancy Drew and the publishing business, even more so it is a fascinating look at the history of the fight for women’s rights in America. It may be hard for our younger generations to believe, but there was a long time in our history when there was tremendous opposition to allowing women to get a college education, vote, or hold jobs outside of the home. When Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the country, in 1916, she was arrested and it was immediately closed down by the police. Not only was using contraception illegal, women were jailed for even possessing or distributing literature about birth control methods.
The establishment (read rich old white men) declared that nature had not equipped them for such things, and that furthermore, allowing women to do such scandalous things as get an education, run a business, or protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies would be the ruination of life in America forevermore. From their pulpits, preachers warned that allowing women to go to college or work outside the home was sinful and an offense to God. Newspaper headlines screamed about the decay of society that would happen if women were allowed to have the same rights as men. What about the sanctity of marriage? What about future generations of our children, who would grow up without morals? It took nearly a hundred years of struggle before American women were finally allowed to vote in a national election in 1920, and even then many people believed that they were not intelligent enough to make wise choices when they went to the polls.
It was not until manpower shortages during World War II and the rush to build arms and ammunition for the war effort that women were allowed to prove their worth in factories, turning out everything from bullets to bombers. But as soon as the war ended and the men came home, Rosie the Riveter was expected to turn in her time card and get herself back into the kitchen where she belonged.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? It should, because these are the same arguments that were used to keep African Americans in their place; to keep blacks and women from serving in the military in combat units, and to keep gay people from being allowed to openly serve their country or to be legally married.
And what do all of these arguments have in common? They were all made by old white men who wanted to preserve the status quo, namely keeping themselves in control of every segment of society. Those who scream about the holiness of the United States Constitution conveniently overlook the fact that it was that very document that originally declared that only white male property owners, who made up about 10 to 16 percent of the population, would be allowed to vote. I believe it’s an even smaller percentage that try to run the country and dictate how we should all live even today.
Tags: birth control clinic, ghost writers, Margaret Sanger, Mildred Wirt Benson, Nancy Drew mystery series, publisher Edward Stratemeyer, publishing business, Rosie the Riveter, women's righs movement, women's sufferage