In 2007, first lady and former librarian Laura Bush held an event at a middle school library extolling the virtues of Nancy Drew. At her side sat Emma Roberts, who at the time was the latest actress to play the teen detective on the big screen.
But when the Nancy Drew series first came out in 1930, librarians across the United States were waging a war against series books, which they claimed caused “mental laziness” and “intellectual torpor” and lowered one’s taste, according to literary historian Nancy Tillman Romalov.
Harriet Adams, the publisher who inherited Nancy Drew and other series from her father, saw the books differently. “They don’t have hippies in them,” she told the New York Times in 1968. “And none of the characters have love affairs or get pregnant or take dope.”
Nancy Drew was creator Edward Stratemeyer’s female answer to the detective series “The Hardy Boys.” The teen daughter of a well-to-do attorney, Nancy zipped around her hometown of River Heights in a blue roadster, solving mysteries and catching criminals. And sure, she had beauty, cute clothes and a “special friend” named Ned — but those took a back seat to her intelligence, courage and sense of justice.
More than 70 million copies of Nancy Drew Mystery Stories have sold since 1930, according to current publisher Penguin Random House. Over the years, Nancy has undergone a variety of updates to make her older, more modern and, er, living in a society with fewer characters who conform to racist stereotypes.
Feminists have embraced Nancy’s independent streak; for many girls growing up, she was the only example of a young woman who had a job (though it’s unclear if she was ever paid), drove a car — and even knew how to fix it.
Now as the latest Nancy Drew movie hits theaters, here’s a look at some of the successful women who have cited the girl detective as an influence.
Three female Supreme Court justices
As Sonia Sotomayor was gearing up for confirmation to the Supreme Court in 2009, she said that when she was a child, reading was a “rocket ship” out of her family’s apartment in the Bronx. And Nancy Drew was her favorite: “I can’t say it was one particular book,” she told The Washington Post. “It was the whole series. I read them all.”
At a party marking the 50th anniversary of Nancy Drew books in 1980, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then the first tenured female faculty member at Columbia Law School, told The Post: “I liked Nancy Drew, yes. She was adventuresome, daring and her boyfriend was a much more passive type than she was.”
And in her 2002 memoir “Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest,” retired justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote of her dad having to rip her away from Nancy Drew books so he could teach her about ranching.
(No word on whether Justice Elena Kagan is also a fan.)
Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton
As mentioned above, Bush told students that Nancy Drew was “a favorite book of mine when I was your age” at Washington Middle School for Girls in 2007. “You might this summer go to your library and check out Nancy Drews,” she told them. “And if you’re a really, really fast reader, you could read all 57.”
And in an interview with author Cheryl Strayed in 2017, former first lady, senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton said, “I think like a lot of young girls of my time, you know, I read every Nancy Drew book. … She just seemed like such a go-getter, and really smart and brave. She was, dare I say, a bit of a role model.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wrote a letter to the New York Times in 2009, saying “I read many of the books when I was young. I remember how proud I was that her name was Nancy.”
Former congresswoman Pat Schroeder also told the Times, “I needed Nancy Drew. She was smart and she didn’t have to hide it! She showed me there was another way to live.”
Gayle King, Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer
“CBS This Morning” anchor Gayle King, who has been lauded lately for her “brave” interview with R. Kelly, cited Nancy Drew’s pluck in 2007. “I was always impressed with her bravery, because I was not a brave kid,” she said. “And I used to marvel that she could go in the dark with a flashlight to the unknown.”
At the same 1980 party Ginsburg attended, Barbara Walters recalled reading the books when she was young: “Seems to me I read all of them. It was escape. When you had some time to yourself, you could curl up in a chair in a corner with Nancy Drew.”
And in 2007, ABC anchor Diane Sawyer said that in her early career, “I discovered that all around me, among my friends, are Nancy Drew fans. Back in the ’50s, back in the ’60s, in the world of Donna Reed and then Barbie dolls, there was an intrepid young woman who inspired women like this.”
Nancy Drew is still a force, nearly a century after her creation.
correction: An earlier version of this story quoted a 1980 Washington Post article which incorrectly stated Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the dean of Columbia Law School at the time. She was not.
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