Thursday, December 13, 2012

Free to be, day by day

A burst of attention in its 40th anniversary year to Free to Be You and Me, Marlo Thomas' children's record devoted to shaking up sex role stereotypes in song and story, has put me in mind of an equally consequential work from the same era. That is Non-Sexist Education for Young Children by my mother, Barbara Sprung, first director of the Non-Sexist Child Development Project at the Women's Action Alliance, founded by Gloria Steinem and Letty Cottin Pogrebin in 1971.  Published in 1975, the book was the fruit of a then-three year old field project devoted to combating sex role stereotyping in nursery schools and day care centers.

When my mother undertook this project in 1972, she was an experienced nursery school teacher who had just completed a Masters at Bank Street College of Education. She got the job at the WAA from a posting on a Bank Street bulletin board. She did not know she was a feminist until Letty Pogrebin, interviewing her for the job, asked her. (It may be a false memory, but as I recall, I asked the same question after she took the job, and my mother answered, after a brief pause, "Yes, I am.")  The project began effectively as a listening tour at twenty-five daycare centers, and it reflects the common-sense, hands-on experience of nursery school teachers awakening to gross inequities they partly struggled against and partly promulgated day-by-day.  Four of the childcare centers became pilot sites for a revamped curriculum.

The book reads well today. Its goals and methods, laid out in the Chapter 1 excerpt below, are moderate, common-sense and concrete, its archaisms relatively few.  See for yourself.
     In 1972, at the very beginning of its existence, the Women's Action Alliance began receiving mail from women all over the country who were concerned that their children were being forced into rigidly stereotyped roles, even in pre-school. The Alliance did some research into the problem and came to the conclusion that although people were working to reduce stereotyping at every other strata of education, virtually nothing was being done at the pre-school level. The Alliance felt strongly that non-sexist education should start at the beginning of a child's educational life rather than somewhere further up the line when much that had already been learned in a sexist way would have to be "relearned."
     The Women's Action Alliance decided to undertake the development of a non-sexist early childhood program. It would free girls and boys of sex-role stereotyping and allow them to develop to their fullest potential, unhampered by societally imposed restrictions regarding appropriate behavior for each sex. The goals of the program were:
  • To present men and women in a nurturing role so that children understand that people are free to choose their work from an enormous variety of options unhampered by sex typing. In many cases, we have presented men and women in counterpart jobs to underscore the fact that most jobs can be performed equally well by men and women.
  • To encourage girls as well as boys to engage in active play and to encourage boys as well as girls to enjoy quiet play. In all media, girls are overwhelmingly presented as passive creatures watching boys at play, while boys are presented as always active, unflaggingly energetic dynamos.
  • To help boys and girls respect each other so that they can be friends throughout childhood and into adulthood. We do not mean that children of opposite sexes will always play together. Girls will want to be with girls and boys with boys much of the time. However, we feel that our social mores encourage this separation of the sexes rather than minimize it. We also feel that the way girls are presented in children's materials as passive fearful creatures who strive constantly for adult approval helps to create the derisive attitudes boys have toward girls.
  • To encourage boys and girls to develop and be able to express a full range of emotions. It is mostly boys who are shortchanged in this area. Very small boys are told, "Boys don't cry." They are expected to hold back when they are hurt physically or emotionally because to display feelings is considered a "feminine" trait and to develop any "feminine" trait is highly undesirable and leads to being called a "sissy."  We want all children, and consequently all adults, to feel free to experience a full range of human emotions.
  • To encourage the full physical development of all children. In this area, it is usually girls who are not encouraged at school or at home to develop their fullest potential. Boys and girls alike should know the joys of physical activity and be as strong and fully developed physically as they are able.
  • To present a more realistic (and therefore exciting) view of the world to children. We live in a pluralistic society made up of many varied racial and ethnic groups. Yet the world presented to children by the media and early childhood materials is overwhelmingly white. Although in recent years blacks have been more fairly represented, one hardly sees Hispanic, Asian-Americans, native Americans or Chicano people in early childhood materials or early elementary textbooks.
  • To present a more open view of the family. There are many alternative family groupings to the nuclear family. These alternative families can consist of two people or many people who live together and share food and shelter. A family can have one, many, or no children and still be a family. Although many of the alternative families are successfully and happily sharing life together, children are consistently presented the nuclear family as the norm and made to feel that their family is less acceptable if it does not conform. We would like to see teachers and children explore the variety of family life styles that actually exist side by side with the nuclear family and learn to accept and respect each of these family groupings (pp. 1-3).
There's very little here that anyone in the mainstream would object to. The Ross Douthats of the world might protest that the two-parent family should be presented as a positive model --though I think that few would disagree that the reality of other family types should be acknowledged and represented. And I for one, 47 years later, would like to see children of both sexes more encouraged to shake off a playground booboo -- I don't think that a taboo against boys crying is a problem any  more.  But most of these goals have been fully accepted, at least theoretically.  Note that there's no expectation expressed that girls and boys will not have somewhat different preferences -- only that all children be exposed and encouraged to try a full range of activities.

That was not the reality in preschool classrooms forty years ago. The book goes through the classroom and the preschool day area by area:
Take a look at the materials in your classroom. Are all the community worker block accessories male except for the nurse?  Is it possible to use the female block accessory from the family group as anything but a homemaker? Do any of your materials depict males in a nurturing role or females in work roles other than homemaker? Are there any books about children living in one-parent homes or in families other than nuclear families?
    Teachers help perpetuate stereotyped views when they fill their dress-up areas with absurdly feminine hats, shoes, and pocketbooks. These frilly props equate femininity with uncomfortable, dysfunctional  clothing that perpetuates pseudo-beauty as the female goal. The dress-up apparel in most classrooms is reminiscent of the kinds of ridiculous outfits the goose and hen (usually foolish creatures such as Petunia) wear in children's books (27-28).
In some ways this reality hasn't changed much. One area in which there's been considerable backsliding is toy design and marketing.  There too the project was a pioneer:
Before beginning our work in the four centers in the fall of 1973, we spent many months exploring the possibilities of convincing manufacturers that there was a need and a market for non-sexist toys. It soon became apparent that it would be a long, slow process to have materials made commercially, so we did what teachers have always done when they need special materials--we made them ourselves. We handmade a set of prototype materials and used our first grant money to have six sets of them hand-produced (p. 4).
Milton Bradley and Instructo ended up producing these materials, mainly play people of both sexes and a range of ethnicities in the clothing and gear of various professions. After some experimentation with less-gendered toy design and marketing, however, I gather that toy companies have mostly reverted, and the aisles are as pink-and-blue as ever. That partly reflects children's persistent preferences, but exaggerated and stereotyped as ever.

My mother has continued similar work to the present as co-founder (in 1982)  and co-director the Educational Equity Center, currently housed at FHI360.  EEC has developed a long line of curriculum materials designed to extend a full range of educational experience to all children, with projects focused on preschool science, bullying, disability awareness and inclusion and the educational problems of boys.

Non-Sexist Education for Young Children should be republished, with an updated forward. It remains relevant.

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