Rachel Devlin


In the week of October 29, 1951, the pictures of three white, middle-class teenage girls from a suburb outside of Boston appeared in Time and Newsweek. Both magazines showed the girls smiling broadly while holding up lingerie, clothing, and pearls for the cameras, a cigarette dangling from each of their gloved hands. The place was a New York City police station and the pictures were taken while the girls, aged fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen, were being arraigned for theft, running away, and "immorality." According to the magazines, the girls had stolen $18,000 from a safe in the house of a family they were baby-sitting for, jumped on a bus, and headed for New York. "Ravenous for excitement," one reporter tells us, they first "engaged in a surrealistic shopping spree" and afterward went to several night clubs, picking up men and dropping outrageous tips to doormen and taxicab drivers along the way. Their plan had been to buy a car and drive to Mexico, but they were spotted outside their hotel by a detective carrying their description the next day. The girls "seemed unconcerned about their plight," and told the photographers to take some "real cheesecake pictures." Both magazines ended their stories with what was called the "curtain line of the week": As the flashbulbs went off, one of the girls admonished reporters, "Don't tell my father I've been smoking. He'd kill me if he knew."

One of the great contradictions of the postwar period was that the relationship between fathers and daughters appeared increasingly strained even as the era of "family togetherness" progressed. James Gilbert has shown how concern about juvenile delinquency during the 1950s reflected the widespread apprehension that new forms of youth culture - including aggressive music, the dominance of working class fashions, the interest in "souped-up" cars - threatened traditional, middle-class social values. The female juvenile delinquent, however, posed a specific kind of challenge to America's postwar culture that has not been investigated by historians: She became a site for the expression of cultural anxiety about the authority of the family generally and of fathers specifically. In this Article, I argue that postwar depictions of female juvenile crime reflected and helped produce tensions concerning the appropriate nature of the relationship between fathers and adolescent daughters. This focus on father-daughter relationships held particular sway in a society where girlhood was increasingly marked by social and sexual precocity and where female juvenile crime was visibly on the rise.