Little Women

Many teachers choose books for their children from the Caldecott or Newbery award lists. Caldecott books are chosen for “excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed” and “excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept”. The Newbery criteria are equally open-ended. Characters have to be well developed, but there are no criteria as to how they are developed or portrayed.

Engel (1981) analyzed the percentage of female characters appearing in Caldecott Medal and honor books for the period from 1976 to 1980. Only 28% of the characters were female and only 26% of the total exposure via images was female.  Engel concluded: “One of the reasons artists have a tendency to see males rather than females in their imaginings is that, as a culture, we have a strongly sexist literary heritage that they are simply building upon…”

Collins and colleagues (1984) hypothesized increased female involvement in the labor force would be reflected in literature for children. Content analysis indicated a drop in the ratio of males in titles, males in the central role, and males in pictures. The data also showed that when women were in a central role, they typically took on non-traditional male-associated characteristics. When women were not in the central role, they reverted to stereotypes of weakness and passivity.

Allen, Allen, and Sigler, (1993) compared Caldecott award books from 1938 through 1988. In this study, the representation of females increased over time in the categories of character gender in text, image, title, and central role.  The dominant gender across categories was male by an average ratio of five to three.  Despite the increase in female representation over time, there was no positive change for female characters in the areas of non-traditional roles, diverse occupations, or active participation in the plot. Hamilton and colleagues (2006) reviewed a sample of best-selling children’s books and concluded occupations were gender-stereotyped and that there had been no change since the 1980’s. D’Angelo (1989) examined female protagonists in the context of Havinghurst’s ten developmental tasks of adolescence. Ten award winning pre-1971 novels were compared with ten post 1980 novels. The post 1980 period included more independent, socially responsible females but there was no difference in terms of the female social role, preparing for a meaningful occupation, or assurance of economic independence. Surely, choice of occupation, financial independence, and expansion of the female social role would represent gender fair portrayal of women? Civic competence is not the same as leadership in business, economics, government, or law.

Gooden and Gooden (2001) used content analysis to examine more subtle messages about sex roles in children’s books. In a comparison of novels previously classified by researchers as sexist or nonsexist, they found no differences in portrayals of the female stereotypic personality, domestic roles, or leisure roles. White (1983) examined dependency themes in fiction for older children using plot summaries from 113 reviews appearing in Publisher’s Weekly. While females and males were represented equally as main characters, females were more likely to be followers and receivers of help than leaders. Stensland (1984) examined adolescent literature from the University of Iowa Books for Young Adults poll and found negative messages for young readers. Stensland noted: “The idea that a girl’s main concern should be to find that very special friend is still alive…”  Several examples of traditionally expressed stereotypes regarding division of labor, the dependent woman, and women giving up career ambitions for men were noted.

Another significant archetypal role for female characters in literature for children is the tomboy (Kolba, 1984; Levstik, 1983). The tomboy is independent, headstrong, and intelligent. The tomboy also needs to be tamed. The struggle against accepting a passive role results in terrible injury and/or social ostracism.  It is only through subjugation that good things such as love and family are allowed to happen (Kolba, 1984; Levstik, 1983).  Diekman and Murnen (2004) hypothesized that sexism of this sort would persist even in books recommended as nonsexist.  Using an item analysis from the Bem Sex Role Inventory, they found the determining factor in whether a book was judged nonsexist was the adoption of male-associated characteristics by the female protagonist.   The message is, of course, that in order to be vibrant heroines, women must adopt male-associated characteristics.

Most studies of sexism in children’s literature are based on content-analysis. There are few qualitative studies of gender role themes or the actual influence of gender role themes on the attitudes and beliefs of young women. It is also concerning that there are no major studies of sexism in the most popular literature anthologies purchased by schools, or the most popular books read by children and adolescents. Which characters are the literary role models of girls today? Who were the literary mentors of successful women in math and science related fields? A paucity of female characters in children’s literature delivers a tacit message about the importance of women in our society. Characterization of females in passive or male-gendered roles sends an even more explicit message about the expectation of females in the real world.


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