A neighbor gave me Daughters for my ninth birthday on behalf of her dog, a basset hound named Gorgeous George. It (the book, not the dog) dated from 1939, and had a cover and two interior color plates by Eduard Dulac. It had only two plates, I found out years later, because it was published in wartime and the book was rushed into production before the paper ran out.
Where the Role of Women in Society is concerned, this is an hysterically subversive book. To capture the setting, think Thin Man movies or "My Man Godfrey," except all the bejeweled. begowned, black-tied sophisticates are up in the sky or under the sea.
It seems that all of nature (the progression of sun and stars across the sky, the workings of the sea, the rain, the thunder) is governed by a bureaucracy rivaling the British raj. Most of the cleverest bureaucrats are women, and the men in positions of power tend to be ruled from behind the throne by mothers, sisters, or wives. None of this is stated outright, you understand--it's just the norm.
A foreword by the author comments that few fairytales feature mothers--they're always dead or lost or otherwise absent, leaving the heroine to fend for herself. Depressed by this in childhood, Crary writes, she "made an early resolve to create a young heroine whose Mother should possess, besides beauty and rank, the additional and stupendous virtue of being alive."
That mother is Astrella, Daughter of the Stars and Luminary of Two Continents. In the first half of the book, she and her daughter, Perdita, must travel from the First Continent to the Second Continent so that Astrella can illuminate it properly. They follow a shining path through the sky, tangling en route with the evil Moon Queen and her minions. Astrella accepts help from a man at one point, but only the way Indiana Jones accepts help from some adoring damsel. Otherwise, she's perfectly capable of taking care of herself and her daughter, thank you.
In the second half, Perdita goes off on adventures of her own with a young sidekick (Noel, Prince of Two Planets) whose most useful attribute seems to be that he has pockets that button. Perdita rescues people all over the place and reunites her disgraced aunt with the rest of the family, all the time keeping her hair tidy, her hands clean, and her promise to learn French irregular verbs firmly in mind.
Here's a typical speech, when Astrella's father has attempted to forbid the restoration of his disgraced daughter.
"Very well," said his wife. "I hope I am not a disloyal woman when I say that this must and shall be. I have been your wife for nine hundred and twenty-one years, and although I disapprove of you in many ways, I am sincerely attached to you. But I am not to be commanded, nor will I permit you to come between me and either of my Daughters at any time. I am sorry to say this, but Mamma is now at a distance of only three thousand miles, and I am certainly going to send for her."
The Star's face lengthened considerably.
I remember reading somewhere that, back in the 50s and 60s, females in picture books and early readers seldom had hands. Little girls stood with their hands behind their backs and watched little boys play with trucks. Moms had their hands in their apron pockets.
I don't think Mary Crary would have approved.