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'Bounding, Saucy Girls’: Health, Adolescence and the Modern Girl in Britain, 1874-1920s

Professor Hilary Marland

Taking as its starting point Dr Henry Maudsley’s landmark article ‘Sex in Mind and Education’ and Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson’s robust response, both of which appeared in the Fortnightly Review in 1874, the project explores how representations, debates and active interventions linked to the health of young women evolved from the late Victorian period through to the 1920s. Drawing on a wide range of archival and printed sources, the study examines how anxieties focused on young women’s poor biological status and the risks that the challenges of modern life – notably higher education and physical labour – placed upon their reproductive capacities; it also explores how schools and factories functioned as potential sites of health. While previous research has identified the 1920s as a major turning point in shifts in perception about what constituted a healthy female body, this study indicates that already by the 1890s a new model of girl’s health had become embedded in medical and cultural consciousness and discourse.

The idea that ‘positive health’ measures could equip girls for new educational, economic, social and physical challenges also developed across this period. As well as preoccupying many medical practitioners, such concerns were taken up by a range of institutions, sites and organisations, including the Young Women’s Christian Association, the Girl Guides, headmistresses, welfare supervisors and factory inspectors, and a growing cadre of school medical inspectors and teachers of sport, gymnastics and domestic science. The archives of these groups form the basis of this study, alongside printed health advice literature and girl’s magazines, in a period marked by an increased volume of publications on girls’ health across a variety of popular media produced by doctors and other self-proclaimed authorities, covering diet and nutrition, sport and exercise, hygiene and beauty. Amongst some authorities, however, notions that young women’s activities were bounded by their ‘fixed funds of energy’ reverberated into the twentieth century, stressing the intrinsic weakness and vulnerability of adolescent girls, which tied up with broader concerns about adolescence as a special and challenging phase of life. The study, culminated in monograph publication, Health and Girlhood in Britain, 1874-1920 (2013) and positions the promotion of healthy girlhood alongside debates on citizenship, social class, eugenics, motherhood and Empire, emphasizing the richness of the debates on the role of health in forging modern girlhood.



Vicky Long and Hilary Marland, ‘From Danger and Motherhood to Health and Beauty: Health Advice for the Factory Girl in Early Twentieth-Century England’, Twentieth Century British History, 20 (2009), 454-481.

'Envisaging Girlhood: Feminist Eugenicists, Maternity and the “Double Gain’ in Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Britain’, in Francesca Scott, Kate Scarth and Ji Won Chung (eds), Picturing Women’s Health (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2014), 159-72.

Health and Girlhood in Britain, 1874-1920 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).


Conferences / Seminar Papers (PDF Document)