Pre-World War I in Europe and North America
In the Victorian and Edwardian period, important keywords of girlhood were purity and self-sacrifice. Girlhood was frequently associated with the color white and flowers like lilies and snowdrops. However, the development of suffrage movements in the 20th century (check out our “young suffragettes” exhibition to learn more!) challenged traditional ideas of girls as innocent and angelic.
Guardians of this “pure, innocent girlhood”, often together with anti-suffragists, insisted on illustrating girlhood as a period where young girls needed male’s protection. They alleged that girls were at the risk of falling prey of white slavers who would force them into prostitution, human trafficking, and sexual salvery. This public anxiety on girls’ safety spread in the UK, Europe, and North America. Girls were often told to be alert to the dangers of being kidnapped by white slavers.
For feminists, this idea of white slavery deprived young women of their agency. Feminists’ anger over the sexual oppression behind white slavery stories and a desire to remedy it was one factor motivating women to obtain vote. The Western concept of girlhood in this period was thus full of contradictions and shaped different political interests and claims. Scholars’ studies have shown that most of these stories about white slavery were rumors, but the image of girls as sexual victims endures even to the present day.