Girl Power: History Lessons and Challenges

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I’m enjoying Women’s History Month. It is supported by The U.S. Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum with abundant research and memorabilia to showcase and educate about women’s  abundant contributions to the world.

Nice, as women are more than deserving! Hold that thought… superhero 3

A common goal is to raise kids to become avid readers. It follows then that kids should be given  solid book choices early on in their reading careers. By that I mean they should be allowed to choose books that interest them. Books in which they can see themselves and others. Books they can embrace as personally affirming, positive and rewarding contributions to their own growth.

Given that, I was surprised to encounter a 2016 Washington Post article titled, “Why are there so few girls in children’s books?” Citing a comprehensive 2011 survey of nearly 6,000 children’s books[1] published from 1900 to 2000, the author found that even the animals in those books were three times as likely to be male than female.

As it turns out, part of women’s history (within the last century or so) is that women and girls as protagonists are rarely found in published children’s books. According to that study of a century of kids’ books, males are represented nearly twice as often as females in titles and 1.6 times as often as central characters. In 79 Caldecott Medal winners, only four had clearly identified women or girl leading characters.

Why? One popular explanation is that girls will read books with boy main characters, but boys won’t read books with girls as main characters. We have probably all seen that, but this leaves me with a distinct impression of institutionalized gender bias by authors and publishers.

Is it that boys naturally can’t seem to bring themselves to enjoy “Sarah, Plain and Tall,” “Harriet the Spy,” “The Great Gilly Hopkins,” “Because of Winn-Dixie,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Eloise,” “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” “The Book Thief,” “Seraphina,” “The Hunger Games” and so many more wonderful books with girls featured as smart (or challenged) in school and kind (or snippy) to others and courageous (or shrinking) as leaders, just like their male counterparts?Superhero 1

Perhaps not. Maybe our culture is teaching boys AND girls that young men NOT choosing girl-centric books is not only okay (which of course it is), but that it is okay because those books are not stereotypically male enough, which is absolutely NOT okay.

Such hidden sexism is everywhere. Maybe a look at women in history this month can spark a new conversation among adults for bringing all kids out of the archaic past and into a full appreciation of the complexity and power of girlhood and the immense varieties of boyhood. That could lead to building a more balanced history in the future, detailing the amazing contributions to come…by both genders and for both genders.

 

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[1] McCabe, J. Fairchild, E. Grauerholz, L. A. Pescosolido B. & Tope, D. 2011. Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books. Gender and Society. Volume 25, Issue 2. pp. 197–226.

 

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