American Girls and French jeunes filles: Negotiating National Identities in Interwar France

Whitney Walton

11 juin 2004

This paper analyzes how feminine national stereotypes structured the experience of American women who studied in France in the 1920s and 1930s. In both the French and American popular imagination, the American girl connoted freedom, independence, autonomy, and possibly sexual promiscuity. By contrast the French jeune fille referred to the sheltered, highly regulated, naïve, and virginal daughter of the respectable bourgeoisie. The latter was the model of behavior to which American women students were required to conform during their stay in France. How women negotiated these two competing identities in popular consciousness and in daily life is the subject of this paper, based primarily on archival documentation, including student letters, from two American study abroad programs in the interwar years.
This transnational and comparative study briefly addresses American women students’ encounters with French and American feminine national identities, heterosocial practices in France, and French women students. It demonstrates how feminine stereotypes regulated women, and how they helped American women students construct and reconstruct identities for themselves as they realized the limitations of stereotypes. It also suggests that American and French educational systems sustained different student cultures of achievement and success for women.


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