The Modern Girl Around the World

Editor’s Note:

This article is based on “The Modern Girl Around the World: A Research Agenda and Preliminary Findings,” which appeared in the August 2005 issue of Gender & History. The Modern Girl project and research group are based at the University of Washington and comprised of Tani E. Barlow, Madeleine Yue Dong, Uta G. Poiger, Priti Ramamurthy, Lynn M. Thomas, and Alys Eve Weinbaum. Professor Lynn M. Thomas contributed substantial text to the article; Melissa Trevvett’s contributions are based on the Gender & History article. The project exemplifies the kind of globally focused research projects that CRL collections and services support, in this case by providing extensive runs of trade journals, popular magazines, and newspapers.

The Modern Girl Around the World Research Group focuses on the emergence of a new kind of young woman around the world in the first half of the 20th century—a young woman who did not appear to value the roles of dutiful daughter, mother, or wife. Instead she pursued romantic love and provocative fashion. Often the Modern Girl combined and reconfigured aesthetic elements drawn from disparate national, colonial, and racial regimes to create a “cosmopolitan look.”

The research group developed the Modern Girl as a heuristic device to investigate global, social, and economic processes at the beginning of the 20th century. The Modern Girl Around the World Research Group team examined the complexities of how the Modern Girl became a global phenomenon, particularly how her development intersected with global processes resulting from capitalism’s identification of new markets and cultural changes resulting from relations between nations and colonies.

To understand how global commodity and cultural flows have shaped modern femininity, the Modern Girl research group has conducted extensive research and analysis on advertising content. Such sources possess the capacity to index the role of capitalist enterprises in shifting representations of femininity. The group chose to focus specifically on cosmetics and toiletries advertisements in trade journals, women’s and family magazines, and newspapers published between 1920–1950 in the United States, Germany, South Africa, India, and China.

Defining the “Modern Girl”

The research group identified a number of common characteristics of the Modern Girl in the ads they analyzed. She is usually depicted with bobbed hair and an elongated body. The ads often depict her as a film star or movie fan, or as an outdoors and sports enthusiast. They commonly locate her in romantic or intimate poses, or admiring herself before a mirror.

Some of the key preliminary findings of the research group include the Modern Girl’s near simultaneous emergence around the globe. The near-simultaneity phenomenon suggests that modern forms of femininity emerged through rapidly moving and multi-directional circuits of capital, ideology, and imagery; for example, they did not emerge in a simple pattern of diffusion from the West to the rest of the world. Another key finding is that processes of racialization were practiced and produced through the circulation of advertisements for cosmetics that promised to whiten, color, or tan the skin.

Summary of interview with Lynn M. Thomas conducted by Melissa M. Trevvett of CRL

Lynn M. Thomas, Associate Professor of History at the University of Washington, emphasized the collaborative approach of the research group and the importance of bringing to bear the perspectives of regional and disciplinary specialists on studies of global problems and issues. Members of the group have extensive research experience in China, Germany, India, Kenya, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and work in Chinese, German, English, French, Hindi, and Swahili.

Thomas spoke briefly about her use of CRL resources. Although the University of Washington has very rich area studies resources, collections on Africa are not as deep as some of UW’s other collections. Therefore, CRL collections were a valuable source of African resources for the project. The African resources that Professor Thomas has used in relation to the research group’s and her own modern girl research primarily have been newspapers.

Some CRL Newspaper Titles

South Africa

Rand Daily Mail, Cape Times, Bantu World, Drum, Umteteli we Bantu, Ilanga lase Natal, Imvo Zabantsundu, Abantu-Bath, and Umlindi we Nyanga


Times of West Africa and West African Times


Mwalimu, East African Standard, Daily Nation, and Taifa Leo
Browsing CRL’s Newspaper Collection

To browse CRL’s foreign newspaper collections, go to the online catalog, the “Select Search Type” pull-down box, and select “Newspaper by Geographical Area.” This feature enables users to search by country.