Nancy Drew: The Smart Woman's Role Model

Hillary Clinton, Sonia Sotomayor and others share love of the detective series.

July 8, 2009, 4:37 PM

July 9, 2009 — -- Modern female role models might include Hannah Montana or Beyonce, but there was a time when pre-teen girls would pick up a Nancy Drew book and be transported to a world where a brave, smart young woman fought villains and solved mysteries.

Nancy Drew became a role model for some very accomplished women, including Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, whose hearings begin next week.

Clever, gutsy and decidedly independent, the legendary girl detective has been around for quite a while. Nancy Drew actually sprang to life in 1930, just 10 years after women got the right to vote. Some say she was America's first feminist.

Nancy Drew made brains seem well worth having. She was all about smarts appeal, rather than sex appeal.

"She really used her mind. She had deductive skills and reasoning and logic -- she was a very logical person," said Jennifer Fisher, the author of "Clues for Real Life: The Classic Wit and Wisdom of Nancy Drew." "She also had a lot of determination -- no matter how many things got in her way, no matter how any obstacles, no matter how many villains [tried] to get her off the case, she had this great determination to succeed, no matter the odds."

The books, written by numerous authors under the pen name Carolyn Keene, targeted girls between the ages of 8 and 12 and were hugely popular through the 1930s, '40s and '50s.

"Nancy hailed from ... a Midwestern town; no specific state was ever mentioned," Fisher said. "[Drew] was about 16 when the books first debuted. Later, she aged to age 18 in the 1950s."

Nancy Drew's can-do approach to solving mysteries within the pages and on the silver screen inspired generations of women.

It's notable just how many fans she has in high places. They include former first lady Laura Bush, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and Sotomayor, whose brother Juan Sotomayor recalled the fictional heroine's influence on his big sister's life in an interview with ABC News.

Nancy Drew: 'Intrepid Young Woman'

Calling his sister "a habitual reader," Juan Sotomayor said reading the books were "one of her favorite pastimes."

The character appealed to his sister, he said, because of her industry and the fact that she was always persistent, a skill Sotomayor clearly made her own.

It comes as no surprise, really, that the two other women on the top bench -- Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg -- also were fans. Nancy Drew was fearless, Ginsberg once explained.

"She was very bold, you know, going out at night in the woods, searching in secret attic rooms and musty passageways, chasing after facts at night," Fisher said. "She did all kinds of bold things that most of us would never dream of doing."

The underlying message that women could go out and achieve greatness on their own resonated across social, racial and generational lines, even in the "Good Morning America" family.

"I discovered that all around me, among my friends, are Nancy Drew fans," "Good Morning America" anchor Diane Sawyer said in 2007. "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 was the first person that wasn't a princess or looking for her man," said "GMA" contributor Lee Woodruff. "She had stuff to do."

"I was always impressed with her bravery, because I was not a brave kid ... and I used to marvel that she could go in the dark with a flashlight to the unknown," said O magazine editor at large Gayle King. "I'm still not very brave."

"Nancy Drew had a job," said actress Ellen Barkin. "She was the first woman I was aware of that, that she wasn't paid for it, but she was a woman with a purpose."

Nancy Drew's 80th Anniversary

The series continued in hardcover until 1979, and Nancy Drew experts say the most popular books in the series are "The Secrets of the Old Clock," "The Hidden Staircase" and "The Secret in the Old Attic."

"When you read them, they sort of take you back to that time when kids weren't so much about society and peer pressure and so much more of what's going on today," Fisher said.

The annual "Nancy Drew sleuth convention" will be held this fall in Las Vegas, and next year, fans will commemorate the 80th anniversary of the series.

Still, the modern movie version of Nancy Drew didn't really catch on, and today's role models, by comparison, are different -- to say the least.

"I think the great thing about Nancy was that whole sense of fighting for justice and helping others and righting wrongs," Fisher said. "I think that sort of strikes a chord with a lot of us."

So, Paris Hilton, Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears -- listen up. Consider taking at least a page out of one of Nancy Drew's books. Think about making smarts look as good as sass.

After all, you never know what young girl watching you might have the potential to grow up to be the next secretary of state, Supreme Court justice, or even president -- with a little inspiration.

More Information on Nancy Drew:

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