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An American History

Miriam Forman-Brunell

Publication Year: 2009

On Friday nights many parents want to have a little fun together—without the kids. But “getting a sitter”—especially a dependable one—rarely seems trouble-free. Will the kids be safe with “that girl”? It's a question that discomfited parents have been asking ever since the emergence of the modern American teenage girl nearly a century ago. In Babysitter, Miriam Forman-Brunell brings critical attention to the ubiquitous, yet long-overlooked babysitter in the popular imagination and American history.

Informed by her research on the history of teenage girls' culture, Forman-Brunell analyzes the babysitter, who has embodied adults' fundamental apprehensions about girls' pursuit of autonomy and empowerment. In fact, the grievances go both ways, as girls have been distressed by unsatisfactory working conditions. In her quest to gain a fuller picture of this largely unexamined cultural phenomenon, Forman-Brunell analyzes a wealth of diverse sources, such as The Baby-sitter's Club book series, horror movies like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, urban legends, magazines, newspapers, television shows, pornography, and more.

Forman-Brunell shows that beyond the mundane, understandable apprehensions stirred by hiring a caretaker to “mind the children” in one's own home, babysitters became lightning rods for society's larger fears about gender and generational change. In the end, experts' efforts to tame teenage girls with training courses, handbooks, and other texts failed to prevent generations from turning their backs on babysitting.

Published by: NYU Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v

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pp. vii-xi

I was a teenage babysitter. Yet my scholarly interest in babysitting stemmed from a previous book on the history of dolls in the lives of American girls. I had been intrigued by anecdotal evidence of girls who had purchased dolls with money they had earned pushing carriages as “baby-walkers” or “baby tenders.” These early twentieth-century babysitters proved to be ...

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pp. 1-20

A year earlier, a mother blogged that “babysitters seem to care nothing about kids and charge $16 an hour to watch TV and text message their boyfriends.”2 And then, of course, reported Living Safely magazine in the 1990s, there were the “horror stories: parents arriving home to find their sitter has thrown a party, or gone to one. . . .”3 Intrinsic to such typical complaints is a longing for the golden ...

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1. The Beginnings of Babysitting

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pp. 21-44

Steer clear of “high-school girls” who “take charge” of children, warned the authors of Wholesome Childhood in the mid-1920s, more than a decade before the concept of the “babysitter” and suspicions about her became widespread. That active and athletic girls attended sports events and flirted with men on street corners, especially in front of the innocent babies ...

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2. Suburban Parents and Sitter Unions

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pp. 45-68

... girl who spoke for many in the 1945 March of Time newsreel “Teen-Age Girls.”1 But by 1947, the sober realization that babysitting had become the only way middle-class girls could make money led some to seek out better ways of dealing with the new employment realities.2 Drawing upon the rising authority of teenage girls’ culture and the residual wartime support for ...

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3. The Bobby-Soxer Babysitter

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pp. 69-92

In an article entitled “Know Where You Stand with Your Sitter,” Better Homes and Gardens magazine described young mothers out for the night, who often found themselves stealing “glances at the clock half-wishing they hadn’t left home.”1 While many adults today look back longingly to the 1950s as a time when babysitters were both abundant and affable, that ...

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4. Making Better Babysitters

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pp. 93-120

In 1957, Jack Fletcher, a father and an engineer, climbed onto the roof of his suburban house in West Covina, California, in order to install a “closed circuit” camera. That device would at least enable his wife to watch on the TV their children playing outdoors while she ironed indoors.1 What led to Jack’s child-care innovation was a new reality—the scarcity of sitters— unforeseen by those riding the wave of suburban expansion. Many young ...

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5. Boisterous Babysitters

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pp. 121-138

The litany of complaints about irresponsible “bobby-soxers” disappeared from popular periodicals during the early 1960s. However, uncertainties about teenage girls remained. In fact, girls’ growing rejection of such traditional ideals as domesticity, virtue, and submission and their pursuit of new pleasures—sex, drugs, and freedom—heightened ...

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6. Vixens and Victims:Porn and Horror

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pp. 139-158

The sexually provocative film about a liaison between a babysitter and her middle-aged boss featured Candy, who represented the “sexually active girl”—at least as adult males in the 1960s imagined her. Exaggerated fantasies about female adolescent sexuality in movies like this expressed new erotic possibilities for American men excited by the sexual freedom of teenage girls. In numerous ...

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7. Sisterhoods of Sitters

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pp. 159-180

In 1979 the Kansas City Times reported that “[o]ne of the most indispensable persons in the world—and one around whom your social life revolves to some extent—is the sitter.”1 Just a few years later, the newspaper would cover the case of a babysitter serial killer. During the 1980s, many teenage girls in movies turned into monsters as dangerous as the maniacs who had ...

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8. Coming of Wage at the End of the Century

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pp. 181-200

So began The Bad Baby-Sitters Handbook (1991), a slim and sardonic volume aimed at girls who had had enough of the Baby-sitter’s Club book series—and of babysitting. It was sentiments like these that led one girl to write author Ann M. Martin to suggest “[k]illing off all the [BSC] girls.”1 ...

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9. Quitter Sitters: The Fall of Babysitting

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pp. 201-220

In 1989, Parents Magazine published “How We Survived Our First Night Out,” about a yuppie couple who hired Jennifer, a gum-chewing sixteen-year- old babysitter, to watch their five-month-old while they dined at a bistro. But before she arrived, the mother (“remembering her own babysitting days”) had spent hours sweeping the house clean of liquor bottles, ...


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pp. 221-269


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pp. 269-306


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pp. 307-314

About the Author

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E-ISBN-13: 9780814728536
E-ISBN-10: 0814728537
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814727591
Print-ISBN-10: 081472759X

Page Count: 328
Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Babysitting -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
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