Day 6

Nancy Drew at 90: How the girl sleuth became an unintentional feminist

Ninety years after the first Nancy Drew books were published, the girl sleuth is as popular as ever. We take a look at how Nancy Drew came to be and how she became an unintended feminist role model for generations of women.

'She was the first role model they had,' said writer Melanie Rehak

The first book in the Nancy Drew series, The Secret of the Old Clock, was published in April 1930. (Penguin Random House)

When the fictional character Nancy Drew was created, it was with the intent to provide readers with a strong, all-American female lead character, and to fill the void in literature available to girls.

Ninety years later, Nancy Drew has become a role model — a feminist role model — for generations of young women (and boys).

"She just was this bold character. She was a woman making her way. And I mean, for many, that's the epitome of feminism," said Jennifer Fisher, a writer, researcher and Nancy Drew historian. 

The first three Nancy Drew books were published on April 28, 1930, starting with The Secret of the Old Clock, and the character was created by Edward Stratemeyer, owner of the Stratemeyer Syndicate.

"Basically, it was a company that Edward Stratemeyer created, in its purest essence, because he had too many ideas for children," explained Melanie Rehak, author of Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women who Created Her.  

"So when he started out as a writer, he wrote a lot of series himself. He first wrote for newspapers, these sort of serial stories, and then he began writing dime novels, and then he started writing series and he just couldn't keep up with himself," said Rehak.

A lot of feminists have latched on to Nancy Drew as sort of the ultimate feminist ideal that inspired them growing up as they were reading these books.- Jennifer Fisher, Nancy Drew historian

So he created the Stratemeyer Syndicate as a sort of story factory for the publishing industry. Among the series he created are The Rover Boys, Tom Swift, The Hardy Boys and, most successfully, Nancy Drew.

Stratemeyer would write outlines of the story ideas he had, which he passed on to the ghostwriters he employed. They would take the outlines and write an entire book based on his idea.

All of his writers wrote under pseudonyms, which gave Stratemeyer creative and financial control, and also meant that if a writer needed to be replaced it could be done without notice by the readers.

The Nancy Drew books are written under the name Carolyn Keene, but the very first author was actually Mildred Wirt Benson.

The adventurous Mildred Benson

Benson had been writing part-time while she was still a student at the University of Iowa. After graduating, she was looking for more writing opportunities. 

"Not only was Nancy much like herself, but she was very young when she started writing mysteries. She was 24 years old," said Fisher.

"She had a zest for adventure herself ... she imparted into the character, and made her something different than what she read as a kid and what was going on at the time," she explained.

Author Mildred Wirt Benson sitting at her typewriter, surrounded by children's books. (Mildred Wirt Benson papers/Iowa Women's Archives/The University of Iowa Libraries)

Before taking on Nancy Drew, Benson had been writing for the Stratemeyer Syndicate's Ruth Fielding series, so he was familiar with her work and had her in mind when he came up with the Nancy Drew series. 

"And the reason he had her in mind was because he knew that she would bring that energy — that sort of athletic, adventurous energy to the character," said Rehak. 

Nancy was a strong, independent character who drove a blue convertible and solved mysteries, and was an instant hit. Within four years, the Nancy Drew series was outselling The Hardy Boys.

Benson wrote 23 of the first 30 novels in the series.

Mildred Benson, who authored 23 Nancy Drew novels under a pseudonym, learned to fly later in life. (Mildred Wirt Benson papers/Iowa Women's Archives/The University of Iowa Libraries)

Harriet Stratemeyer Adams takes over syndicate

Only 10 days after the first Nancy Drew books were published, Edward Stratemeyer died. His daughters, Harriet and Edna took over the company, which was no small task in the male-dominated publishing industry in 1930. 

Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, who had graduated from Wellesley College, was a wife, mother and woman of a certain social class.

"I think Harriet jumped at the chance to sort of carve her own identity, apart from being a housewife and socialite, being able to go to work and run this business and carry on her father's legacy," Fisher said.

As time went on Harriet took more of a lead in the business as Edna got married, moved to Florida and spent less time with the syndicate.

After writing The Clue of the Velvet Mask in 1953, Benson parted ways with Nancy Drew and the Stratemeyers, and Harriet wrote all but one of the remaining 26 original Nancy Drew books.

Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, author of many of the original Nancy Drew novels, pictured in the 1940s. (From the collection of James D. Keeline)

By the '80s Harriet Stratemeyer Adams had claimed most credit for the Nancy Drew books, which eventually led to Mildred Wirt Benson also getting public credit for the books she wrote for the series.

The last book in the original Nancy Drew Mystery Stories series, The Thirteenth Pearl, was published in 1979.

A strong female role model

The modern feminist movement was in full swing by the 1960s and '70s, and Nancy Drew had a role. The girls who read the bestselling books in the '40s and '50s were now women with goals of their own. 

"A lot of feminists have latched on to Nancy Drew as the ultimate feminist ideal that inspired them growing up as they were reading these books. She wasn't designed to be a feminist. Certainly [Benson] was not a feminist. Stratemeyer certainly was not a feminist, and nor were his daughters," explained Fisher.

The Clue of the Dancing Puppe, ghost written by Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, was published in 1962. (Penguin Random House)

"And so you have this character that evolves over the generations, and by the '60s, we have another wave of feminism hitting. A lot of feminists are really responding to this character and holding her up as an ideal."

As Rehak points out, Nancy Drew was the first fictional role model for many women of that era.

"I think that that generation, the Ms. magazine, and the feminists and all those people, they hung on to her as that first role model," said Rehak.

And they also helped keep Nancy Drew alive as a role model for future generations.

"They brought her back and then they gave the books to their daughters, and so it was kind of a cascading effect." 

Written and produced by Laurie Allan.

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