by Marianne Salza
Popular literary character Nancy Drew is an attractive, independent, 16-year-old who has been solving complex mysteries for more than 80 years.
Charlestown author Lynne Byall Benson became fascinated by the heroine as a young girl in the 1960s, when her mother gave her original copies of the Nancy Drew book series, which told stories of a plucky teenager who drove her own car: a blue roadster that matched her eyes.
“I loved Nancy Drew,” said Benson. “Nancy Drew first saved the day on April 28, 1930, when she found the missing will, bested the interlopers, and set all to right in ‘The Secret of the Old Clock.’”
On March 28, at the Charlestown Branch Library, Benson, a professor of women gender studies, described the social changes that occurred in the 1920s that inspired Nancy Drew. Benson’s newly published book, ‘Moxie and a Good Sense of Balance: Nancy Drew and the Power of the Teenage Girl,’ explains the importance of the character for women of all generations.
“I feel that she’s relevant to today’s readers,” declared Benson. “She’s a contemporary feminist role for girls.”
During the jazz-age, novelist Edward Stratemeyer and his publishing company, the Stratemeyer Syndicate, invented the Nancy Drew figure: a self-sufficient, active young woman. She figured out complicated problems, located missing jewelry, and found kidnapped children, often under the guidance of her encouraging criminal lawyer father, Carson Drew.
Nancy Drew embodied traits that were mostly considered masculine in the 1930s: resourceful, strong, athletic, and curious.
“I refer to these as moxie,” expressed Benson. “She seems to be fully feminine, as well as exhibits the independence that was typically reserved for men. She lives both in and outside what is considered the appropriate gender sphere.”
Following WWI, industrialization and urbanization were changing American cultural norms. Women were beginning to have a voice in government, received the right to vote, and asserted that they could do whatever a man could – drink and smoke in public, and drive automobiles.
By 1920, 37 percent of 14-17-year-olds were enrolled in high school, increasing peer culture. Stratemeyer believed that America was ready for a tenacious female character.
Nancy Drew’s tone and personality transformed through the years to portray the values of the times. After Stratemeyer’s passing, in post-WWII America, Nancy Drew reflected a more traditional young woman: respectful, caring, and less abrasive.
In the 1960s, writers removed the ethnic prejudices, but decided to maintain the plot lines of the series. By 1986, a new publisher updated Nancy Drew as a glamorous and provocative private investigator who traveled the world. Publishers eventually reverted back to the original, gusty Nancy Drew, solving crimes in her home town of River Heights.
“The Nancy Drew’s of the 21st Century are compelling representations of female empowerment,” Benson asserted.
Although Nancy Drew’s depiction has evolved through the decades, Benson believes that she continues to inspire girls to be confident and resilient young women.