Nancy Drew and True Womanhood

I’ve decided that in my next life I want to be reincarnated* as Nancy Drew.

I’m not talking about the newer series post-1970s that’s filled with nasty bits and epic romance—my nine-year-old self was quite content with an amorphous Ned who appeared ever few chapters to escort Nancy to a seasonal BBQ or give her an occasion to wear her new taffeta party dress. And as far as violence, for me it was pretty dicey when Nancy was bound, gagged and left to starve.

No, I’m talking about that classic Nancy Drew that lived somewhere in the magical world post-high school but pre-matrimony. Old enough to drive and travel independently, but young enough to still need her dad. And, always, regardless of the situation, mature enough to help others with grace and style.

I’m not the only one who thinks so, either.

In this NY Times piece, all three women Supreme Court Justices identify Nancy as a formative literary role model. What captured them probably has less to with Nancy’s white middle-class upbringing and more to do with the essence of Nancy herself. As critic Melanie Rehak recognizes, “Nancy was courageous and independent but she never used that independence in an overtly rebellious way. Instead, she used her freedom to have adventures, but they were always in the name of doing good and serving justice.”

And that’s one reason why I’m purposefully directing my daughter to these books. (That and it gives me an excuse to re-read them myself.) I’m not vying for her to be a Supreme Court Justice one day—heaven knows we don’t need the High Court adjudicating whether or not Barbie Fairytopia is in copyright infringement of Disney’s Pixie Hollow—but I do want her to have a robust view of womanhood. I want her to know how to bake a cake for the elderly neighbor next door and have the guts to chase away the intruder who’s trying to steal said neighbor’s family silver. I want her to be smart and kind, pretty and unpretentious, appropriate and daring. I want her to be forgiving and humble, gracious and accomplished.

All at the same time.

And while some might say I want her to be Nancy Drew, others would simply see hints of Proverbs 31. Surprisingly, in my experience, the two conflict less often than you’d think. One presents an image of a gracious woman, sympathetic to the needs of those around her, bravely facing danger with courage, smarts, and determination; and the other presents…an image of a gracious woman, sympathetic to the needs of those around her, bravely facing danger with courage, smarts, and determination.

Certainly I’m not conferring faith or belief on Nancy. And maybe it’s simply an example of common grace, general revelation, or the two times a day that the stopped clock is right, but a lot that I learned about womanhood came from having Nancy Drew in one hand and my Bible in the other. And the more I read the latter, the more I’m realizing that true womanhood isn’t an either/or proposition.

More than likely, it’s both/and.

It’s women with a hammer in one hand and a baby in the other. It’s women with the wisdom to defer an angry king and the kindness to minister to the King of Kings. It’s women with strength to lead and the humility to follow. And it’s women with the grace to move in society at the very time that they are turning the world upside down.

I’m from a generation that is quick to throw off anything that we don’t deem significant whether it’s marriage, motherhood, or social propriety. But I’m also from a generation that is perilously divided and grotesquely caricatured by our private definitions of what it means to be a woman. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere with a powder blue convertible, a twin set, and a pair of pumps. So as for me, don’t be surprised if you peek in the back of my minivan while I’m ferrying my children around town and see an overnight case packed with a change of clothes, pajamas, a toothbrush, and a bathing suit.

Just in case.

*For the humor-challenged, that’s a joke. We don’t really believe in reincarnation. —Editor

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There are 11 Comments

James S. Lowery's picture

. . . about the Hardy Boys? Or Tom Swift? Or the Sugar-Creek Gang? Wink
Thanks Hannah. You've given me ideas of gifts for my granddaughters.

Jim Lowery
Richmond, VA

dcbii's picture

I'm surprised anyone even remembers Tom Swift (either Jr. or Sr.). Those were some of my favorite reads when I was young. I was so happy our library had a bunch (and most of them were old and very worn), because compared to Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, etc., they were pretty hard to come by.

Those styles of books were heavy on plot and very light on details (probably what made them a good read for young readers), but I loved the way that the characters were portrayed vs. today, and I didn't hesitate having my own kids read some of them (though by now both of them have moved on to a bit more weighty reading).

Dave Barnhart

Dick Dayton's picture

Dave,
I have a "Tom Swift and the Submarinen Boat" that was my father's. Dad was born in 1910, and it is a well worn copy.

Dick Dayton

handerson's picture

They do hearken back to a simpler time. What I love is the clear cut good vs. bad motif. And while I realize the world is not always a simple place, post-modernism has made life overly complicated for young people. Sometimes you just need an old-fashioned exercise in putting wrongs to right to put everything back into perspective.

PLewis's picture

Never read Tom Swift -

I loved mysteries as a kid .. still do as an adult..

I remember reading Nancy Drew as young as 8 or 9 .. Trixie Belden as well .. Then onto "boy" mysteries .. ie - the Hardy Boys..

We also had a series of books about a boy Rick Brant - who lived on an island with his scientist father.. I looked and looked for those when clearing my folks house, but my mom must have given them away. I really enjoyed those .. don't remember much else about them - other than being disappointed when I worked through them all...

As to Nancy and the correlation to the Proverbs 31 woman .. I have to agree .. also - don't you think that "back then" when the books were first written it was more common that society in general upheld the values of the Prov. 31 woman .. where now .. not so much .. they may not have realized where the ideal was coming from - but I think society in general had more of a moral compass..

GregH's picture

Hannah, nice article. it reminded me of my background as well. Hardy Boys, Trixie Belden, and Tom Swift were books I coveted. I remember thinking I would really be happy if I could somehow get a whole set of them.

I would challenge you a bit on the clear-cut good vs bad. You are right that in those books, there was never any doubt of what the heroes would do (good deeds) and what the villains would do (bad deeds). That is a primary difference between that writing and what I think is written for children today. Today's characters are more complicated; the good ones still do wrong a lot of the time and the bad ones often do some good things.

As you mentioned, life is complicated and I think today's writing is more reflective of real life. In other words, real heroes do make mistakes and villains are often a few missteps away from being heroes themselves. I tend to think there is some value in presenting real life in children's books. As I go back and read the Hardy Boys books I have passed on to my children, that disconnect with reality is what jumps out at me. For example, Frank and Joe never are tempted to do wrong, never talk back to their parents, etc.

But that being said, I push my children towards those old series too. Ebay and garage sales have incredible bargains.

L Strickler's picture

Ah, the good old days. Often think the TV Lassie wouldn't have been so overworked if Timmy's parents had spanked him for going to forbidden places.

L Strickler

handerson's picture

There definitely is a simplicity to this genre, but I'm not convinced that is necessarily a bad thing. I approach it as portraying an ideal much like Proverbs does. Both leave out the nuance and struggle that it takes to reach maturity, but both point us to what we should be striving for. And while an exclusive diet of Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, etc. could never shape a complete worldview, there is benefit from lit that shows us how things should be as well as lit that shows us how things are. (I guess the best lit will do both.)

Of course the deeper issue relates to moralism and how we rear our children to understand their own sinfulness. Most of this genre was written in the late 1930s-early 1960s when simply conforming to moral standards was a definite temptation for young people. But in today's context, the greater struggle is teaching children that good and bad actually exist as distinct realities.

On another note, one article I read talked about how everything "happened" just at the right times for Nancy Drew to solve the mysteries. So that while it is not specifically stated, there is an overarching framework of things moving toward order instead of chaos. The authors would never call it Providence, but it's interesting to see the foundational assumptions that are simply not present in today's juvenile lit.

Ron Bean's picture

I prefer the Hardy Boys, Tom said swiftly.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Susan R's picture

My favorite word puzzles are http://www.wordles.com/gettomswifty.aspx ]Swiftocrypts - which are Tom Swifties made into cryptograms. That's having your cake and eating it too!

I dearly loved Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Trixie Belden, Bobbsey Twins... also The Sugar Creek Gang and Danny Orlis. I believe the books we read as children significantly shape how we view the world, and while I believe we should be careful about the themes and underlying messages that have the potential to influence our kids, I don't believe children psychoanalyze books to the extent that we as adults do. In Nancy I saw intelligence, ambition, and adventure, while she maintained a distinct femininity. I also took in the tightly-knit friendship of 3 very different girls. Ned was just a hood ornament.:p I have encouraged my kids to enjoy these books as well.

BTW, if you want to know more about how the Nancy Drew franchise came about, read http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B001O9CFEK/ref=pd_lpo_k2_dp_sr_1/192-40... ]Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak.

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