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People = Male. Part 3

Published 17th December, 2020 in MRP Guest Blogger
by


The story so far: children’s books are biased towards males and the use of the masculine pronoun despite evidence being available for at least the last 40 years that ‘he’ is not a gender-neutral term. I wonder how my own childhood reading relates to this literary privilege for males.

I may not have said that I believed that people = male in my childhood, growing up in a female-dominated house, but I had definitely absorbed the feeling that interesting people = male, insisting on wearing jeans rather than skirts and generally cursing the fact that I was a girl. Being female seemed to involve a lot of undesirable pastels and florals. I didn’t read any of those standards written by women about girls – Milly Molly Mandy, Little Women, or Anne of Green Gables – assuming they would be soppy. I avoided girlie books (fairies, princesses) and refused to aspire to anything done by a female character, except maybe Ethel Turner’s creation, the wild and brave Judy Woolcot.

That restless fire of hers that shone out of her dancing eyes, and glowed scarlet on her cheeks in excitement, and lent amazing energy and activity to her young, lithe body, would either make a noble, daring, brilliant woman of her, or else she would be shipwrecked on rocks the others would never come to, and it would flame up higher and higher to consume her. [1]

The earliest books I remember are the Winnie the Pooh books by AA Milne, a world where women rarely feature. Kanga is the only female character and she appears sparingly, completely eclipsed by her energetic (male) baby Roo. Then there were the Beatrix Potter books, the ragged spines of our copies of The Tale of Two Bad Mice and The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle distinguishing them as the oldest and best loved of the series. I have crossed out my sister’s name and substituted mine in the inscription at the front of Two Bad Mice, unable to bear the thought  that she may have loved it once. The masculine pronoun is used as a general term (‘Each squirrel had a little sack and a large oar, and spread out his tail for a sail.’ [2]) but in Beatrix Potter it’s more a case of people = hedgehogs / rabbits / mice / dolls than anything as simple as a gender divide.

Once I started reading myself I would read anything, haunting the library and burrowing into the bookshelves at home. The library provided a seemingly endless supply of ‘William’ books by Richmal Crompton, and I relished William’s naughty escapades. Somehow I acquired the whole Laura Ingalls Wilder series, in which Laura (the main character) is the focus point but it’s Pa who decides the family should move West, Pa who sells their house, and Pa who generally does all the big exciting stuff. Ma accedes to all his schemes with good grace.

My two older sisters had read a number of books by Noel Streatfeild – I remember avoiding Ballet Shoes as if it would infect me with some terrible dose of sentiment – but I did read The Painted Garden which I enjoyed and then despised for being derivative (more likely using the term ‘fake’ or ‘copy’) once I read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. We also had Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children on our shelves, and I got Five Children and It and its sequels from the library.

Every Easter I would read Seven Little Australians, relishing Judy’s cheek, getting so close to the end with her still alive and rushing around that I would wonder if maybe this time it wouldn’t happen – then crying when it does, and she gives Pip her last smile. I read it every Easter because every Easter, after going to the Easter Show, we would drive up the torturous Pacific Highway from Sydney to Lake Macquarie to stay with the mother of some friends of my parents. This woman lived in an old weatherboard house right on the edge of the lake, a house with stuffed armchairs and a bookcase of books with hard covers and soft, thick pages. The holiday would pass in an ecstasy of lying spreadeagled on the jetty, watching strands of seaweed drift in the water, eating through my liquorice showbag (rationing the red liquorice strap for as long as possible) and reading, in awe of the boldness of Judy.

A family friend gave me Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson when I was about nine. I felt I was a bit too old for it, but I loved that it was mine, that I was the first in the family to enter that world and no-one could say ‘Oh yes’ in that knowledgeable way about anything in it. I fell in love with Moomintroll and Snufkin and the landscape they inhabited, oblivious to the fact that, like Winnie the Pooh, most of the characters were male, with the females taking subsidiary, soothing and tut-tutting roles.

But there I go, falling into the trap of disparaging women. ‘Soothing and tut-tutting’ are derogatory ways of saying that Moominmamma and the Snork Maiden were empathic, caring, thoughtful and attentive. Just as we are biased towards thinking that a male doing something is important (Ooh! A chef!) whereas a woman doing the same thing is dismissable (cue a reference to a mother in a kitchen burning chops and boiling vegetables to death) so we are biased towards thinking any traditionally female attributes are unimportant. In my own defence, Moominmamma is relegated to a background role, just like Kanga, or Laura’s Ma. Judy Woolcot’s mother was conveniently dead, her role taken by their young – delightful but ineffectual – stepmother Esther.

This didn’t bother me at the time. I would have said that I was biased towards males – authors and characters – in this early reading but after a bit of investigation I see that, unwittingly, I was heavily biased towards female authors, if not characters. I discover with surprise that Noel Streatfeild, Tove Jansson and even Richmal Crompton, creator of the quintessential cheeky boy, William, are women. Many of the writers I was reading made a good living out of their work, supporting their families and even, in Edith Nesbit’s case, supporting her husband’s lover and their children as well.

I also see now that there are surprising connections between these books. Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians is characterised by its ‘refusal to idealise family life’ [3] and  this could apply equally to Nesbit and Streatfeild. Nesbit is hailed as being ‘the first modern writer for children’ [4]. Streatfeild wrote, unusually, about everyday life and many of her books are about children as professionals, earning money for the family. The Moomin books have themes of independence and self-confidence (for the male characters). Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books are based on her own childhood, crossing and recrossing the top half of America in the 1870s. They’re probably highly romanticised accounts of that life, but to a young Australian girl in the 1960s they seemed incredibly adventurous, brave and exciting.

The first book in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series was published in 1932, but that wasn’t the oldest book I was reading. Seven Little Australians was first published in 1894, The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle in 1905, the same year as The Railway Children. The most contemporary book I was reading was Finn Family Moomintroll, published in English in 1950 (in Swedish in 1948). Not only was I reading as if people = males, but I was reading as if people = males two generations older than me.

I don’t know what lessons I drew from those books. Maybe that life in a Sydney suburb in the 1960s was a lot less exciting than any other time or place, and that girls were either foolhardy or subservient. The role models for womanhood that I was being offered were even more limited, with choices like Kanga with her Roo, or Moominmamma making up beds and cooking. Ethel Turner cleverly killed off Judy and her restless fire and didn’t have to deal with how ‘a noble, daring, brilliant woman’ would fare in the adult world.


Read Kathy’s first posts with us: ‘People = Male. Part 1’, and ‘People = Male. Part 2’.


Kathy Prokhovnik writes fiction (long form, short stories and microfiction) and non-fiction. Her blog covers all bases. Her story ‘Still life’ was a finalist in the MRP short story competition 2019 and published in We’ll stand in that place and other stories. She was recently awarded a two-week fellowship in the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre 2021 program to work on her second novel, The Dogs.


References

[1] Ethel Turner, Seven Little Australians, Puffin Books 1994 p.21–22.

[2] Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, Frederick Warne, 1903, p14.

[3] http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/turner-ethel-mary-8885

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._Nesbit

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