Thanks to the women's rights movement, of the last 120+ years, women have come a long way in society's view. Many women have worked hard and courageously to make progress in dissolving the sexism so deeply rooted in our culture. Sexism hurts both males and females, but living in a world that exalts men and subjugates women, sexism has crushed the lives of too many women and girls for far too long.
We see it in our imbalances in pay scales, when women with leadership skills are rejected as “ball-busters” for being able to keep up with men in leadership positions, when women are expected to put raising babies and cleaning the house ahead of finding herself and her career path in the world, when women are considered too emotional/hormonal/impractical/unstable just because they're female -or viewed as less-than because they're not men, when women are displayed on TV as hysterical or demure and men would never be shown that way, and in our media which display women as ditzy sex objects who will do anything to feel loved and sexy (then shame them as “sluts” for trying to live up to this cultural expectation), and even worse in other areas of our culture.Looking at the history of these things we can see that first and second wave feminism made incredible changes in beginning to dissolve sexism, yet we still have a long way to go toward true equality; using children's literature is a smart and powerful way to do this.
Children's literature is an important place from which to make dramatic and long-lasting changes in the views and beliefs of our society because it can be used to subvert those same messages that have been telling children for centuries that men are powerful and women are meant merely to aspire to be lovable, acceptable, and deemed worthy by a man. The impact here can be huge considering our sense of identity begins so very early in life and our childhood stories often shape, inspire, and nourish us in our upbringings. The World Health Organization, and early childhood experts, report that the human brain develops incredibly quickly during the first three - four years of life and during that time, neural pathways either develop due to stimulation or are lost forever due to neglect. It's the first eight years of environment, and stimulation or neglect, that shape the rest of the child's life. The messages we feed our children during this time are paramount in how they come to see themselves and the world. So, while it's remarkable to work to enlighten people who are set in the ignorant ways of their culture, it's also wise to raise millions of children enlightened from youth.
So much attention has been brought to the importance of eliminating gender bias from children's stories, in fact, that in 2001, the Amelia Bloomer Project was put into effect by the American Library Association Social Responsibilities Round Table's Feminist Taskforce, creating an annual list of “quality feminist literature for youth” (Law et al 5). The project aids us, parents and teachers and librarians and so on, in attaining the very literature that helps dissolve sexism when it can be so tricky to find on our own in a vast sea of traditional written works. As described in “All About Amelia: The Amelia Bloomer Project,” When many books continue to present stereotypical images of women and girls, young people of all genders need to be able to find books that celebrate courageous women and girls who are portrayed not simply as "spunky" or "feisty," but as brave, confident females actively shaping their own destinies and breaking barriers to defy stereotypes and societal limitations. Girls need books that will help them to recognize, understand, and resist systemic sexism around them, to claim their voices, and to be self-possessed. These books also encourage girls and young women to overcome issues of body image and to love themselves for whom they really are, in defiance of the mainstream media's ongoing obsession with glamour, weight loss, and conventional appearance. In the process, new cultural contexts are created, honoring the diversity, validity, and beauty of all girls and women (Law et al 4).
Possibly following in the footsteps of the Amelia Bloomer Project, there are even suggested reading lists on Amazon.com, put together by consumers, like “Charming Children's Books with a Feminist Message,” for example, created by “femmie mom” who describes herself as a “feminist mom of one of each” (Amazon.com). More and more parents are paying attention to the stories that fill and guide their children's minds.
Of course, there are those who argue against feminist principles and seek to maintain old-fashioned cultural views. Phyllis Schlafly, in particular, opposed the Equal Rights Amendment of 1973. She insisted that because women give birth and men do not, our roles and requirements in life are completely different from the other's. She argues that because only women become pregnant and nurse the babies, they belong in the kitchen, and men's purpose in life is to provide the financial support required for the family to thrive. Schlafly believes that fighting for feminism is fighting against our human nature and has taught anti-feminism to her children and others', including her niece, Suzanne Venker, who recently co-authored her newest book, The Flipside of Feminism (npr.com).
In addition, others argue against changing the structure and style of traditional children's stories and fairy tales. For example, as Time magazine published in “Feminist Folk and Fairy Tales,” from as far back as 1981, Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim thinks traditional fairy tales are important as they are because, “beauty or handsomeness is a routine signal to the child of moral worth. Marrying and living happily ever after tells children that they are worthy of love and can find it when the time comes” and that children identify with the weak character rather than the strong one and need to make sense of the world through that identification.
However, these are typical justifications of worn out practices, seen through the traditional anti-feminist goggles of our sexist society. A view that is puppeteered by those thriving on our system of white male privilege. It's long past time to see outside of that confine, but there can be no change in vision if we don't remove our blinders! In other words, it won't be the poster children of a sexist society telling us how to dissolve our sexist society. Fortunately, we have authors who see outside the box, who are breaking the rules, breaking the mold, and producing children's stories in which, hold onto your hats, the females are also empowered.
One story which not only empowers the leading female character, but also shows us how ridiculous it seems when one sex is deemed more powerful and respectable than another, is Mary Pope Osborne's The Brave Little Seamstress, illustrated by Giselle Potter. The lead character is a young seamstress who, on a journey, becomes mistaken for a warrior-woman. The seamstress is quick-thinking and courageous and comes to experience a great adventure of tricking giants, taming one unicorn, and catching a wild boar for a king who then betrays her. One of his knights who had grown to appreciate the spirit of the seamstress warned her. She then devised a plan that sent the king and his knights running and screaming from her. She went on to propose to her knight, who joyfully accepted, and ruled over the land as everyone's beloved Queen for the rest of her long, wonderful life. She was so loved and admired that her story became a legend that many people often sang about:
Out of a seamstress
A great queen was made,
As kind and wise
As she was strong and brave.
And attempting to balance the scales in a much subtler way, we have another book of Osborne's, titled Kate and the Beanstalk, also illustrated by Potter. This story takes the traditional tale of Jack and the Beanstalk and provides us with female characters instead. Here, Kate bravely conquers the mean, nasty giant (with indirect help from the giant's kitchen-bound wife) and returns her mother to their rightful castle. Surprise! The castle really belongs to Kate and her mother, her fairy godmother gave her those magical beans, and the conquered giant's lovely wife gets to stay on cooking for them.
Although Kate and the Beanstalk could have done so much more to break through the typical barriers of traditional children's stories, the changes it did make are a small step in the right direction toward empowering girls and women. I especially like the part where Kate was asked if she was afraid to right the wrongs of the mean, nasty giant and she responded, “I don't think so. I fear nothing when I'm doing right. How can I help?” More than just the typical “be a good girl who everyone likes” message, this moral tells girls that they can right the world when they bravely follow what they feel is right. It tells them to listen to their hearts and instincts, to trust themselves, and to allow that trust to fuel their bravery. Imagine a world in which girls are taught they're safe to follow their own paths and define who they are on their own. Imagine a world in which women believe in themselves. Now, there's a story worth writing.
“Charming Children's Books with a Feminist Message.” Amazon.com. 20 Jan. 2005. Web. 31 July 2013.
“Feminist Folk and Fairy Tales.” Time 20 July 1981: 64. Academic Search Premier. Web. 31 July 2013.