We speak with Lyn Wall from The Museum of Childhood about the issues with books and toys aimed at girls and why we should be demanding more adventure!

The Museum of Childhood holds over 60,000 objects in its collection and the vast majority show a gender bias in one way or another.  Be it through colour, subject matter or images, there are messages to children about who they should aspire to be, how they should look and behave. This is especially represented throughout the book collection and is obvious in what has been produced for girls in the last 150 years.

Messages are often mixed – girls are encouraged to be adventurous, but also to make sure they look attractive and know how to catch a man – be it through obvious instructions in Jackie magazine about how to have glossy hair, or through nineteenth century moralistic fiction about how to be modest and god-fearing. It is often clear that once you’ve caught your man your aspirations for education, sports, solving mysteries and a career are to be put to one side.

You can track the history of attitudes to women and their place in society through the children’s book collection.  The books from the 1920s and 30s reflect the progress women were making in the post World War One era.  Some women had been given the vote, Amelia Earhart was performing aviation feats, Gertrude Ederle swam the English Channel and Margaret Bondfield became the first woman cabinet minister.  However, girls and boys were still being informed of what was expected of their gender.

Herbert Strang’s Annual for boys in 1921 contains adventure stories, explains how ships and locomotives are designed and built, and features the art of wrestling.  Mrs Strang’s Annual for girls from 1923 also contains adventure stories alongside a guide to embroidery stitches and a story which has the opening line of ‘In the kingdom there lived a maiden who was not at all pretty and therefore could not have expected to marry a prince.’  Presumably this meant she had the freedom to pursue an academic career and find the cure for the common cold!

However there are many books of this era that encourage girls and young women to emulate the older generation who were pushing the boundaries for women, but after World War Two the focus shifts and the 1950’s girls and young women were once again encouraged into domestic settings, as men returning from war found their roles in society.

Sexism is not new, women have been fighting for a voice and for equality for centuries.  But what we predominantly think about in feminist conversation is the voice of women, adults – not necessarily how children are directed and moulded by seemingly innocuous toys and books.  The 1960s and 70s saw more and more focus on teenagers and their music, fashion and how they interacted with the opposite sex.  Magazines became the go-to oracle of advice.  Confusingly for girls Jackie magazines from the 1970s carried adverts for young women to join the Navy or Air Force, or study midwifery alongside articles on how to get a boyfriend and wear the fashions of the moment.

Today’s equivalent to earlier publications are no less gender specific. Hello Kitty is clearly targeted at girls with its bright pink cover and cutesy drawings, whereas footballing annuals, whilst possibly read by female football fans, have no coverage of women’s football and perpetuate the male domination of the sport.

In many ways the messages sent to children through mainstream books, toys and clothes have gone backwards in equality, rather than forward. Clothes shops have stands of pink and purple clothes for girls, and boys have the choice of dark blue and khaki. Similarly racks of children’s birthday cards are often stereotypically gender specific. Television talent and reality shows tell our teenage girls they should have false eyelashes and a fake tan to be successful.  We still have a long way to go to empower girls to know it is OK to be themselves and aspire to what interests and satisfies them – certainly in mainstream culture. This starts at a very young age. Of course these materials have to be judged alongside the wider social and family context, but certainly for the girl who wants-to-know most present-day materials don’t challenge the staus quo of gender stereotyping. We just have to hope that the adults around young children can help them to find more unusual materials or simply challenge the existing mainstream ones.

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