Silences, Sex-Roles and Subjectivities 40 Years of Gender in the Australian Journal of Early Childhood

By MacNaughton, Glenda | Australian Journal of Early Childhood, March 2001 | Go to article overview
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Silences, Sex-Roles and Subjectivities 40 Years of Gender in the Australian Journal of Early Childhood


MacNaughton, Glenda, Australian Journal of Early Childhood


The beginnings: silences and sex-role stereotypes exist (1960s-1970s)

In APQ's/AJEC's first 20 years there was considerable silence concerning gender issues. Only three articles in this 20-year period had a specific focus on gender in early childhood. The first dealt with preschool children's perceptions of sex-role appropriate toys and behaviours (Silcock, 1965), another with sex-role stereotypes in children's literature (Mortimer, 1979), and the third with how adults were involved in sex-role stereotyping young children (Holman & Williamson, 1979). Each article used empirical research to establish that sex-role stereotyping existed in how young children and adults thought and in young children's learning resources. These findings echoed those of international researchers who at that time had begun to focus on these aspects of how sex-role stereotypes operated in young children's lives (e.g. Flerx et al., 1976). Like fellow international researchers, the questions our researchers asked about sex-role stereotyping and their explanations of it relied heavily on sex-role socialisation theory. In this, they expressed a set of assumptions about gender relations and about how children learned gender that paralleled those of liberal feminists. Broadly speaking, liberal feminist approaches to gender centred on ensuring equal opportunities for women and men. To achieve this, liberal feminists felt it was important to first document how sex-role stereotypes restricted girls and boys, and then to counter those restrictions that came to the fore.

Davies (1988, p.10) argued that this strategy relied on simplistic accounts of how sex-roles were produced in young children's lives. Such accounts assumed that gender differences in our society were created and maintained through a process similar to osmosis. Osmosis socialisation theory assumed that children and adults absorbed such messages automatically and uncritically (MacNaughton, 1995). Hence, children who listened to sexist stories automatically and uncritically absorbed sexism. Likewise, children who played in gender-tagged areas such as blocks and home corner automatically and uncritically absorbed the gender messages in these areas. If these messages reinforced traditional gender-role stereotypes, then children learned to act in sexist ways. By implication, the reverse was also true.

Davies (1988) and others (e.g. Connell, 1987; Weiler, 1988) believed that osmosis theories were flawed because of their silences about key issues of human agency, human resistance, and an individual's ability to remake dominant practices, meanings, and understandings. As Davies explained:

   Children do not accept what adults tell them as having application to every
   aspect of their lives ... It is not possible for children simply and
   straightforwardly to accept the world as it is told to them, not least
   because the difference between the `real' and the `ideal' world is often
   quite marked in adult-child discourse (Davies, 1989, p.6).

These critiques of sex-role socialisation theory and the research it had generated emerged in the educational literature of the late 1980s and created a new focus on children's subjectivities and how teachers might work with these to produce gender equity. It took nearly 10 years for them to surface in AJEC (see MacNaughton, 1996).

Expanding horizons: sex-role stereotypes exist and we should do something about them (1980s)

There was a marked numerical increase in articles concerned with gender in AJEC during the 1980s. Most years saw at least one article published, and in some years two were published. There was also an increased number of issues tackled. Contributors were still concerned to establish the existence of sex-role-stereotyped thinking and behaviour in children (eg. Silva, 1980; Meade 1982; Rickwood & Bussey, 1983; Smith & Grimwood, 1983), adults (Warren, 1983; Ebbeck, 1985; Rodd, 1986), and their environment (Plummer, Braithwaite & Holman, 1983).

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