It was a common assumption that the 1920s “flapper”— her hair bobbed, stylish clothing, and penchant for consumer spending—was an American phenomenon, a figure who spread her style and influence to other cultures thirsty for Westernized ideals and products. However, an interdisciplinary research group comprised of six feminist scholars from across campus, including Alys Weinbaum, find something quite different. Their interdisciplinary collaborative work on the questions of modern femininity and consumption discovered the global existence of an unprecedented female figure the group labeled “the Modern Girl.” The American flapper was only one manifestation of this figure for, as the group discovered, the Modern Girl was a global phenomenon that emerged near-simultaneously around the world between the first and second world wars.
In their co-authored and co-edited book The Modern Girl Around the World (Duke UP, 2008), group members explore how “the multidirectional and international production of the Modern Girl” occurred and, in so doing, suggest that “globalization was happening before previously thought, in a historical period before the invention of the term,” says Weinbaum. One important outcome of the project is that “the concept of the Modern Girl as a global figure has been put on the table. The research group has argued that the Modern Girl should now be considered a heuristic device—a figure that needs to be studied if we are to understand modern femininity in the context of capitalist expansion and racial and national formation.”
In many ways, the collaborative methods by which the book was produced are just as important to scholarship in the humanities as the group’s research findings. “The group’s unique methodology was a product of transnational feminist collaboration that manifested itself, at least in part, as coauthorship,” explains Weinbaum. The group collaborated on and co-wrote the first two chapters of the book, one on method and one on race, style, consumption, and the Modern Girl, with each scholar contributing the principals and methods of inquiry from her discipline along with an individual case study. “The project could not have been produced by any one scholar working alone in a single national context; the global scope and multilingual nature of the research necessitated collaboration,” Weinbaum says. “We came together with a shared question: How and why was femininity being produced in particular ways in the early 20th century? The nature of the question required the use of multiple languages and deep historical knowledge of multiple contexts that no one person could possess.”
The success of the research group and the book would not have been possible without the support of various entities on campus, most notably, multi-year funding from the Simpson Center for the Humanities. “Kathy [Woodward] recognized how important it was to support this completely new type of research collaboration—not simply a think-tank or a colloquium, but rather a group that offered a new model and method for substantive cross-disciplinary research in the humanities.”
IMAGE TOP LEFT: GUO JIANYING'S LINE DRAWING FOR THE COVER OF
FUREN HUABAO, NO. 22, 1934.
IMAGE CENTER: KASHMIR, “NILE QUEEN,” THE CRISIS, DECEMBER 1919.