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  • Making Modern Girls: A History of Girlhood, Labor, and Social Development in Colonial Lagos by Abosede A. George
  • Alicia C. Decker
Making Modern Girls: A History of Girlhood, Labor, and Social Development in Colonial Lagos, by Abosede A. George. Athens, Ohio University Press, 2014. x, 301 pp. $80.00 US (cloth), $32.95 US (paper).

Making Modern Girls is a history of girlhood and the fascinating contestations that played out in colonial Lagos over the meanings of childhood more generally. Beginning with the Alien Children Registration Ordinance [End Page 620] of 1877, which sought to register and protect children who were new arrivals to the colony, Abosede A. George traces the ways in which government officials constructed African children as distinct colonial subjects and themselves as benevolent caretakers. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the colonial state was determined to “articulate a form of governance based on saving Africans from each other and from their own repugnant practices” (p. 6). Much of their focus was on saving those whom they deemed the most vulnerable, namely, girl children. As George clearly demonstrates, the colonial state was not alone in their efforts to “save” young girls. Elite women reformers also sought to improve the lives of working-class girls, although their strategies were not always in line with those of the state. Both groups had competing visions of what it would take to “save” them.

George approaches the history of girls and girlhood through the lens of labour, focusing on the constitutive relationship between gender, class, generation, and work. Because of the dearth of scholarship focusing on girls as historical subjects, the author had to determine the different types of work that girls performed in public spaces and how adults responded to their labour. To determine what people actually thought about African girlhood in colonial Lagos, George consulted a wide variety of archival and oral sources including maps, audio recordings, newspaper accounts, photographs, literary sources, juvenile court records, organizational reports, and government documents, among others. Given that most of her sources were biased toward juvenile delinquents, especially boys, the author had to conduct several rounds of interviews with Lagos residents. She was able to speak with elderly women who had been hawkers between the 1930s and 1950s, as well as others who spoke more generally about issues related to “problem youth” during this period. These interviews allowed her to begin making sense of the gendered silences that exist within the archival record.

Making Modern Girls is organized into seven main chapters, as well as an introduction and a conclusion. In the first chapter, the author introduces readers to the elite women reformers who sought to modernize working-class girlhood in colonial Lagos. She pays particular attention to the work of the Lagos Women’s League, which developed social reform projects to uplift women and girls of questionable character. Chapter two considers the increasing importance of African children, especially boys, to the colonial state in the 1930s. Through a case study of the first juvenile reform institution in Nigeria, the author discusses changing meanings of (male) childhood. Chapter three focuses on the emergence of the developmentalist state in 1940, which coincided with the creation of the colony’s first social welfare office. It examines the racial, gender, generational, and class tensions that arose as colonial social workers met with women reformers to address juvenile reform. [End Page 621]

The next three chapters are the most analytically interesting because they focus explicitly on girls and their experiences. Chapter four examines girl hawkers, or petty traders, and the discourses that circulated about them within welfare-activist circles. Despite the economic significance of their work, most salvationists imagined such girls as sex workers. Some girls were, in fact, engaged in the prostitution economy. In chapter five, the author examines the various ways that people talked about underage prostitution during the mid-1940s, and how these conversations heightened anxiety about the sexual dangers confronting young urban girls. Chapter six analyzes how girls entered the juvenile justice system, as well as their gendered experiences there within. The final chapter examines debates within the press about girls’ labour regulations during the nationalist period, and focuses...


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pp. 620-622
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