Deviant, deranged, or damsel-in-distress?: missing women and the American press, 1900-1920

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Ginter, Cara
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On June 20th, 1917, the Buffalo Evening News made the shocking claim that “800 GIRLS DISAPPEAR FROM NEW YORK HOMES." This article, featured on the newspaper's front page, informed readers that more than eight hundred girls had gone missing in the last six months. The article went on to reassure readers that a police inquiry was underway. By 1917, the “missing girl” problem was well-established in American newspapers. Dozens of articles were published in the first two decades of the twentieth century lamenting the crisis and demanding answers. Although many of these “missing girls” had fallen victim to violence, others disappeared in the pursuit of opportunity, freedom, and passion. These disappearances often served as fodder for a hungry press looking for compelling stories that would sell papers. Scandal and sensation featured prominently on the front pages of newspapers as they competed for larger shares of the reading public. Reports of missing women, especially from among the middle and upper classes, were particularly useful in catching and holding the attention of readers. Missing women narratives developed into a genre of their own. Progressive Era journalists generally categorized missing women in one of three ways: deviant, deranged, or a damsel-in-distress. The application of these categorizations and the scope of coverage a story received were determined by a woman's class and race. Whereas both upper and middle-class women received significant coverage, the tone of that coverage varied. While suspicion of deviance almost immediately tainted stories about upper-class women, journalists presented middle-class women as vulnerable to danger due to their presumed respectability. In sharp contrast, working-class women, immigrant women, and women of colour generally received little attention when they went missing. When journalists did pick up the story, they generally portrayed these women as insane or deviant. These stories provide insight into the anxieties of the Progressive Era and demonstrate how journalists used specific missing women narratives to highlight larger social issues of the period.
American History, American Women, Missing Women, Missing American Women, Newspaper History, The New York Times, The Evening World, The Boston Globe, Crime History, Violence Against Women, Women and Crime, The Missing Girl Problem, Progressive Era, Progressive Reformers, White Slavery Panic