From Colonial to Modern: Transnational Girlhood in Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian Print Cultures (1840-1940)

This archival project will examine how girlhoods were conceived in Australian, New Zealand and Canadian print cultures from their colonial infancy to the development of distinct national identities and literatures. It will interrogate representations of colonial girls as adaptations of British imperial femininity and will show how these print cultures formulate a transnational feminine ideal. Representations of colonial girls in English texts will be contrasted to depictions of femininity later produced by colonial writers in girls’ books and magazines. The project will situate colonial girlhood as a shared consciousness that embodies a tension between dual identification as British and colonial. The complexity of these identifications is evident in the circulation of children’s texts between the colonies and from the colonies to the centre of the Empire, such as Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians (1894), which was written by a colonial author, published in England, and then exported back to the colonies. The project will also document the transition of colonial print cultures for girls from transnational phenomena, emerging out of shared relationships with the imperial centre, to the distinctly national in the modern period. It will analyse the emergence, at the beginning of the twentieth century, of national versions of girlhood that incorporated longstanding ideals of modesty and purity into constructions of pioneer experience. It will then chart how these colonial girls were transformed into the girls of the 1920s and 1930s whose modernity was imbricated with independent nationhood.

This history of girlhoods will examine the ways in which race complicates literary attempts to fashion transnational and national femininities through the analysis of Aboriginal, Maori, and First Nations femininities that were often problematically incorporated in children’s literature. Building on Anne McClintock’s work on race, gender and colonialism, we will show how indigenous femininities are categorised differently from those of non-indigenous girls. Within this historical framework, we will also examine how class intersects with literary depictions of girlhood, particularly within genres such as the school story. The project will consider whether these developing colonial locations allowed for greater class fluidity, and will locate transnational commonalities across the three nations included in our study that impact upon colonial femininity. The result will be the production of a new history of colonial girlhoods that demonstrates the important role of children’s literature in guiding girls towards behaviours that were crucial to how independent nations developed from settler societies.

This project will explore under-examined print culture for girls to understand how colonial girlhood evolved from British conceptions to transnational identifications and subsequently evolved along national lines. It begins in 1840 because this date marks the publication of some of the earliest colonial children’s books and magazines and because representations of femininity become increasingly contested throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. It concludes in 1940 because post-World War II representations of girlhood reflect a substantially different trajectory of femininity than those of pre-war texts. By including girls’ magazines, this project will develop a nuanced picture of girls’ reading and colonial print culture. Because magazines travelled extensively, just as colonial readers of fiction consumed novels authored in other colonies, this project will complicate traditional national ideologies of girlhood and demonstrate how some periodicals incorporated transnational attempts to address the real changes to girls’ lives and prospects. We will also examine the school papers produced in Australia and New Zealand to consider the extent to which imperial and national ideals were communicated to children. Thus, in this project, we will not only develop a new history of colonial girlhoods that will show how girlhood in these emerging nations reflects the unique political, social, and cultural contexts of each nation and their differing relationships to the imperial centre and indigenous peoples, but will also read girls’ print culture across national boundaries to identify and theorise transnational commonalities and differences.

Principal Researchers:

Prof. Clare Bradford (Deakin University)

Dr. Kristine Moruzi (University of Alberta)

Dr. Michelle Smith (University of Melbourne)

This research is funded by a Discovery Grant from the Australian Research Council and by a Grant Notley Postdoctoral Fellowship from the University of Alberta.