The Sound of One Hand Smacking: History, Feminism and Childhood

By Hetherington, Penelope | Journal of Australian Studies, December 1998 | Go to article overview

The Sound of One Hand Smacking: History, Feminism and Childhood


Hetherington, Penelope, Journal of Australian Studies


The history of childhood provides us with insights into the ways in which individuals construct their understanding of the world and into the ways in which generational changes occur in cultural practices. This history should encompass the study of changes in family size and the situation of families in relation to the economy. It should explore the situation of children before the law, in education and in health services in terms of class, gender and ethnicity. The apparent purposes and actual practices of institutions set up by charitable bodies, or by the state, need careful analysis, as do child-rearing practices over time. These are subjects which reveal the fundamental values of any society and the nature of the inescapable connections between changes in the material world and the gradual cultural shifts which accompany them.

Feminist historians now generally eschew the construction of linear narratives in favour of the kind of historical analysis which will reveal the nature of the gender order in the past and reflect, in some way, on the present. But too little attention has been paid to the ways in which cultural practices are passed on from one generation to the next, or why particular cultural practices come under attack or are abandoned. The history of childhood, still largely neglected by historians, offers the best way for us to enlarge our understanding of these process and, therefore, the greatest insights into the ways in which feminists might usefully intervene politically.(1)

It is during the period of childhood that individuals construct their understanding of the world in terms of their gender identity, their class position and their ethnicity, all of which may be either unequivocal or shot through with ambiguity. It is in this period that personality is formed out of the complex interaction between powerless children and powerful adults. Deeply held convictions and strongly felt emotions, some of which maintain patriarchal structures, are passed on from one generation to the next through the funnel of childhood. We need to look critically at the construct `family' at various times in the past, in order to understand the reality of the lives within that institution.(2) Under what circumstances does it provide a secure and creative environment for children who will be able to respond positively to other a people when they are adults? Under what circumstances does the family become a place of insecurity and violence?(3) How far can we prevent patterns of violence and aggression repeating themselves in generational terms? This is the site which needs examination in order to imagine the construction of a different world.

It may be that feminists have been reluctant to devote much time to this research because they unconsciously fear that the reproduction of the gender order has been largely their own responsibility. Yet this would be to misunderstand the nature of the forces which determine our destinies. The kinds of lives women lead in this society, or in any other, depend on historical factors. This is why we need to deconstruct the grand narratives which position us, and which we learned in our childhood, and try to discover whose interests they serve. This is why we need to look critically at the ways in which children are socialised, in order to understand the forces which have compelled our obedience in the past. We need to be able to explain in historical terms why it is that women have historically done so much of the child rearing in nuclear family situations, yet children have been in the primary care of men in many institutions.

We need to know when and why the state began to intervene in the lives of ordinary families and under what circumstances this is a positive or malign influence. The provision of services for children, including education, and for those who need help, is part of the apparatus of the centralised state which gradually increased its intervention from the late nineteenth century. …

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