Document Type

Thesis - University Access Only

Award Date


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department / School


First Advisor

Mary O'Connor


Francis James Child's collection of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads remains the largest, most complete, and most influential text in the field of balladry. This is due in part to his devotion to recording every ballad and its version he could find without editorializing, unlike Bishop Percy and Sir Walter Scott, who have been accused of tampering with their texts. Long perceived as relics that provide a window into past societies and their people, Child ballads still circulate and portray women as weak, dependent victims and as degraded sources of sin. These images of women have rarely been the objects of discussion. Instead, ballad scholarship has largely focused on origin and oral tradition, which includes Thomas Percy's theory of minstrel authorship, Francis B. Gurnrnere's communal authorship theory, and David Buchan's oral-formulaic theory. Ballad structure, classification, and the connection to music have also been subjects of intense scrutiny in ballad scholarship, for example by Gordon H. Gerould and J. W. Hendren, who felt that ballad tunes and their words were interdependent. Female singers provided most of the songs for 19th and 20th century collections. The nature of balladry promotes faithfulness and adherence to tradition, especially among women singers, like Mrs. Brown of Falkland, a traditional singer known for preserving the ballads exactly as she heard them. Therefore, the degrading images of women presented in the ballads have gone unquestioned, even by women singers. This thesis interrogates the images of women presented in representative Child ballads through a feminist reading. This approach sheds light on women's roles historically, as well as on the effects of these traditional ballads today. Finally, this thesis examines how the ballad tradition continues despite its unquestioned images of female oppression, using Peggy Seeger's contributions to the Anglo-American ballad tradition and the Feminist Movement as illustrative of a subversive position. Seeger's contributions include a workshop entitled A Feminist View on the Images of Women in AngloAmerican Traditional Songs, where she argues through explanation and song that the Anglo-American song tradition, including ballads, can indeed continue without compromising the socio-political gains that women have made in the 20th century.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Child, Francis James, 1825-1896. English and Scottish popular ballads.
Ballads, English -- History and criticism.
Ballads, Scots -- History and criticism.
Women in literature.


South Dakota State University



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