When the social constructs of “femininity” and “masculinity” are perpetuated, children are socialized to accept society’s gender roles. They learn which characteristics are “appropriate” for their gender and are less likely to adopt nontraditional roles. Therefore, girls end up with low aspirations because they are subtly taught that their opportunities are limited.
If children are continually exposed to sexism and misogyny (no matter how subtle) it will ultimately have an effect on their behavior as adults. If boys continue to receive the message that women are inferior, they are likely to treat women as second class citizens when they grow up. If girls continue to receive the message that men should be aggressive and women should be passive, they are likely to accept mistreatment from men.
Stereotypes can lead to the legitimatization of actions. The date rape and domestic abuse rates are evidence enough of that: 92 percent of adolescent rape victims are acquainted with their rapists. I believe we can reduce the victimization of women, by combating sexism and other stereotypes in children’s literature and education. Of course this is only part of the solution.
As parents, it is our duty to challenge stereotypical and sexist viewpoints early on. So what can we do??
Don’t Pretend It Isn’t Happening.
- Call attention to sexism when you see it and use it as a teaching tool. When books with strong female characters are hard to find, substitute female names for male names and vice versa.
- Reinforce non-stereotypical behaviors. Encourage your daughters to speak up; to state their opinions; to participate in sports and be physically active; to develop skills in math, science, computers, mechanics, building and other male-dominated areas; to make decisions; and to take risks. Let your sons know that it is okay to show your emotions; it is okay to cry; it is okay to be scared; they don’t need to be strong or athletic. Encourage them to pursue creative endeavors such as art, music, drama, dance, and cooking.
- Speak to the administrators of the school about sexism and gender bias before it happens. Maintain the same standards at all levels of education, as early as nursery school and as late as college.
- Find out if they have a policy on gender bias and sexual harassment. Find out if the teachers have been trained to avoid unconscious gender bias. Don’t forget to inquire about other faculty and staff (including teacher’s aides, guidance counselors, coaches, hall monitors, bus drivers, etc.)
- Make it known to teachers and school officials that you are concerned about gender equity issues. Make it known that you will not stand for the perpetuation of gender stereotypes; for the separation of children by gender; or for gender domination in any area.
- Observe class lessons. Visit the library, cafeteria, and playground. Suggest class projects or field trips.
- Join the PTA. Join the team of parents that selects books for the Book Fair. Participate in the planning of special events and assemblies. Schedule visits from positive role-models.
- Scrutinize the textbooks, worksheets, and bulletin boards. Do not tolerate textbooks and biographies that exclude women’s contributions to society.
- Do not tolerate children’s books and class readers that have unequal representation of male and female characters; that do not portray females in dominant or capable roles; that do not portray males and females in nontraditional careers; that contain derogatory, stereotypical, or sexist portrayals.
- Do not stand for the use of traditional fairy tales in lessons without a discussion of their extreme violence and cruelty; their focus on physical beauty as a girl’s most important asset; the portrayal of female characters as either passive/naive victims or wicked witches and evil stepmothers
- Research books about intelligent, resourceful, active, female characters, as well as biographies of important women in history.
Think Before You Speak.
- Do not allow the usage of homophobic and misogynistic words like “faggot,” “dyke,” and “sissy”. Do not allow phrases such as “all boys ___” or “____ like a girl”.
- Replace “man” and “mankind” with “human” and “humankind”. Reduce your usage of suffixes such as “-ess” or “-ette” to signify females.
Check Your Stats.
- Although female students start school ahead of boys, by high school they have fallen behind. Females score lower than males on the PSAT, SAT, ACT and the College Board Achievement tests. They also score lower on all sections of the Graduate Record Exam and on most tests needed to enter professional schools, such as the GMAT, LSAT, and MCAT. Therefore, males are more likely to receive state and national college scholarships, and are two thirds of merit semifinalists.
- About one million females fall victim to eating disorders every year and 150,000 die, according to the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association. One survey concluded that 53 percent of girls were unhappy with their bodies by age thirteen and by age eighteen, 78 percent were unhappy with their bodies. And here’s one really disturbing fact: 81 percent of ten year olds are on diets.
- The age of intercourse is way down, especially among girls. In 1997, 49 percent of high school students and 17 percent of seventh and eighth graders had heterosexual intercourse. Over one million teenage girls become pregnant every year and one in ten teenagers contracts a sexually transmitted disease each year.
- The abuse rates are up: 95 percent of domestic violence victims are women and it is the leading cause of injury to women in the US. Every year, one out of six wives is beaten by her husband and between 2,000 and 4,000 women die as a result of abuse. Thirty percent of women who are killed each year are killed by their partners. One out of six teenage girls will be abused by the time turns 18.
- Things Will Be Different For My Daughter, by Minday Bingham and Sandy Stryker (Penguin Books)
- Beyond Dolls & Guns, by Susan Hoy Crawford (Heinemann)
- Girls, Boys, Books, Toys: Gender in Children’s Literature and Culture, by Beverly Lyon Clark and Margaret R. Higonnet, eds (Johns Hopkins University Press)
- Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls, by Myra and David Sadker (Charles Scribner’s Sons).
- Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School, by Barrie Thorne (Rutgers University Press).
- Gender Positive! A Teachers’ and Librarians’ Guide To Nonstereotyped Children’s Literature, by Patricia L. Roberts, Nancy L. Cecil and Sharon Alexander (McFarland & Co.)
Abby Rose Dalto