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Published by EH.NET (May 2006)

Mary Jo Maynes, Birgitte Soland, and Christina Benninghaus, editors, Secret Gardens, Satanic Mills: Placing Girls in European History, 1750-1960. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2005. x + 312 pp. $25 (paperback), ISBN: 0-253-21710-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Joyce Burnette, Department of Economics, Wabash College.

This book is the product of a conference on girlhood in modern Europe which was held in Ohio in 2000. The contributors include seventeen historians and one sociologist, from Europe and the U.S. The book clearly defines girlhood as the stage of a woman’s life between puberty and marriage. The chapters explore various aspects of life for European girls, including work, sexuality, and leisure, over the course of two centuries.

The volume does a good job of covering many different aspects of girls’ lives and how those aspects changed over time. The focus on a broad range of experiences during a stage of life, rather than one single aspect of life, allows for a more complete picture of these women’s lives. We learn about various kinds of work that women did. The book begins with a strong chapter by Deborah Simonton, in which she examines how women in different classes spent their girlhood. She identifies six different pathways between childhood and marriage, which included various kinds of training and work. Many girls left home to take jobs as domestic or farm servants, and a few girls were apprenticed. Girls who remained at home would assist in the family business, in domestic industries, or in housework. All but the wealthiest girls engaged in some kind of market work. Clare Crowston describes job training in pre-industrial Paris; Parisian girls received vocational training through apprenticeship or through charity schools. Throughout the book we see girls engaged in a wide variety of occupations. Girls worked in agriculture, and in textile or clothing manufacture. Girls also worked in less “feminine” industries, such as the small metal industries of the English West Midlands. Contemporaries did express concerns about such work, but Carol Morgan notes that such concerns focused on limiting women’s sexuality rather than improving working conditions. By the twentieth century a wide range of occupations was open to girls, in particular white-collar office jobs. Anna Davin notes how the invention of the typewriter, which was considered well suited to female workers, opened up new employment opportunities for girls in clerical work in the late nineteenth century.

The book also explores the kinds of leisure activities girls were allowed. In the nineteenth century many girls had little leisure, either because of long working hours, or because of boarding school regimes that sought to control girls by keeping them constantly occupied. In the twentieth century we see an increase in leisure activities. Birgitte Soland notes that autobiographies of girls who came of age in the late nineteenth century focused on work, while those written by girls who came of age in the 1920s and 1930s were much more likely to focus on leisure and entertainment. By the middle of the twentieth century cinema and dance were important parts of girlhood in England.

In both work and leisure we see efforts to control girls’ sexuality. Workers in French silk factories were so closely monitored that the mills were called “convent-factories.” Leisure activities were often gender-segregated. German girls came together for both work and socializing in winter evening events called Lichstuben (“lighted rooms”). Andreas Gestrich describes how adults tried, and sometimes failed, so keep these events gender-segregated. Girls were given very little information about sex; Mary Lynn Stewart notes that French girls of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century were not told about menstruation before it began, and were not told about sex before their marriage. By the twentieth century we see girls taking more control over their own sexuality. Pamela Cox notes that delinquent girls in early twentieth-century Britain saw their sexuality as an asset to be used to their own advantage.

Most of the chapters focus on Britain, France, and Germany, but there are also chapters on Denmark and Austria. Some chapters compare particular aspects of girlhood in two countries. For example, Celine Grasser contrasts the meanings of gardens in England and France. For French girls the garden was a personal space that led to romantic thoughts and thus was potentially dangerous. English girls, on the other hand, took a more scientific and rational approach to their gardens, learning skills useful in managing estates. Chapters by Irene Hardach-Pinke and Rebecca Rogers contrast the French approach to controlling girls’ sexuality, which involved keeping girls secluded in walled boarding schools, with the English and German approach, which relied on the girls’ self-control.

While the chapters in many edited volumes read like journal articles, the chapters in this book read more like a textbook. The chapters are relatively short, and are mainly descriptive rather than theoretical. Primary sources are occasionally described, but the chapters do not focus on historical methodology or historiography. I found the book pleasant to read; the chapters are interesting and lucidly written.

Joyce Burnette’s publications include “The Wages and Employment of Female Day-labourers in English Agriculture, 1740-1850,” Economic History Review, (2004).