"Girls of Tender Years": Sex, Juvenile Delinquency, and Community in the Progressive Era

Saturday, January 7, 2012
Sheraton Ballroom II (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Vivian E. Deno, Butler University
In the opening years of the 20th century, Indianapolis wrestled with the simple yet significant question of how to treat girls and young women between the ages of 12 and 20 alleged to be sexually and socially deviant. Daughters or Delinquents? Victims or vamps? This poster presentation draws on a rich array of archival material—editorials, letters to the editors, newspaper cartoons, letters to the governor, institutional reports and investigations, and the like—to better understand how community opinion and interests in Indianapolis were forged and honed around the question of adolescent female sexuality in the Progressive Era.

Between October 1904 and February 1905, two sensational episodes involving girls between the ages of 13 and 15 forced Indianapolis and other mid-size cities to reconsider what community meant in light of rapidly shifting social conditions: urbanization and industrialization, the growth of commercial amusements, and the emergence of adolescence as a distinct and normal part of human development among social workers and increasingly, the public. The first event that drew wide spread attention involved the superintendent of the Indiana Girls’ School (the first institution to sex and age segregate juvenile offenders in the nation), Emily Rhoades.  Charged with gross negligence and physical abuse of her young charges Rhoades she was also rebuked for her “lack of motherly concern.” In the other Indianapolis gambler and loan shark, Augustus Rahke was accused of seducing underage girls by luring them into cheap, downtown hotels with promises of money, candy, and a good time.  For the local press the vulnerability of the state’s young workingwomen and girls was exemplified by these cases.  As one newspaper editorialized: “It was the purity of the working girl and the future of the working classes” that was at stake in the Rahke trial and by extension the Rhoades investigation. The safety of these and other working-class girls became a focus for the local papers in their efforts to demand the reform urban spaces of vice: cheap hotels, dance halls, skating rinks, movie palaces and the like. The imagination of the city and the state, and the extensive news coverage of the two cases illustrates the power of the local media to shape public opinion and to force the hand of municipal and state politicians as well as the ability of news reporters to wield tabloid journalism into a powerful form of public scrutiny and surveillance of state institutions. Together the two episodes focused the community’s attention onto a discussion of communal responsibility and standards of care and conduct. This poster presentation traces the complexities of communal concerns and attitudes towards ‘girls of tender years’ as local papers labeled such girls and young women and nuances our understanding of Progressive Era responses to adolescent sexuality and delinquency.

See more of: Poster Session, Part 2
See more of: AHA Sessions