Mary Madden

Date of Award


Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Constance M. Perry

Second Committee Member

Lyn Mikel Brown

Third Committee Member

Sandra Caron


In the past decade, feminist researchers have re-framed girls’ developmental issues examining the complexities inherent in growing up female in a patriarchal society. In particular, these studies have provided information on the complications girls encounter in their efforts to negotiate ideals of white middle-class conventions of femininity. In the few studies that examine how these ideals of femininity effect girls’ sexuality, rural girls from poor and working-class families are rarely considered. The goal of this study was to deepen and expand the current understanding of adolescent girls’ sexuality by bringing the voices of rural girls from poor and working-class families into the discussion. The study explored the way these girls negotiate conventions of femininity, particularly conventions that apply to sexual desires, behaviors, and relationships. The research design employed both qualitative and quantitative methods. The primary method for collecting data was an adaptation of focus group methodology.While generally focus groups meet one time, in this study each group met five times. In addition, a survey, which incorporated two scales for measuring constructs of adolescent femininity ideology, was conducted with girls in the focus groups, as well as a small number of girls not participating in the focus groups. Transcripts from the discussions were transcribed and analyzed using the Listening Guide Method, a method developed by researchers at the Harvard Project on the Psychology of Women and Development of Girls. The results of this study showed that poor and working-class rural girls have a complex relationship with middle class conventions of femininity and sexuality. Struggling to determine the boundaries of the good girl bad girl dichotomy, they reproduce, maintain, and challenge the ideals that are meant to control their sexuality. The study highlights the importance of listening to poor and working-class girls’ constructions of sexual desire, behavior, and relationships in a nonjudgmental manner. Only then will it be possible to create a supportive environment which facilitates girls’ attainment of sexual health.