WILLA, the newest NCTE journal, has been created to provide a forum for research, book reviews, classroom teaching ideas, and continuing discussions of women and girls in conjunction with reading and the language arts.
Too little has been written about gender issues relevant to these early years, particularly in relation to the language arts areas. Yet we know that gender roles and gender expectations in children's literature, on television, in textbooks, and in classroom practice create assumptions which shape attitudes and sustain behaviors that are retained through adulthood. The cumulative effects are that young girls eventually become convinced of their limitations and marginality, while young boys are socialized to succeed.
S. Nieto (1992) writes of Yolanda, a young Mexican-American girl who reflects confusion about her family's expectations of her. She says she will never marry, rejecting family and its attendant problems, while thinking this is a liberating decision. But she has decided to become a flight attendant which she describes as a "kind of maid. " Yolanda has already learned that she was born to serve -- she has merely opted to perform it in a more "glamorous" or less conventional setting. She has no grand illusions about tasks she will have to perform.
Mulac, Studley, and Blau (1990) found evidence of differences in the language behavior exhibited in the writing of male and female students. These gender-linked language effects were fully developed by the time students were 9-10 years of age. "The similarity of this effect with sex role stereotypes suggests the possibility that such language-based judgments help reinforce the stereotypes, which might in turn indirectly influence language use," pp. 465-66.
Children's literature is being viewed more critically for evidence of racism and sexism. The Council on Inter-Racial Books for Children (CIBC) produced Guidelines for Selecting Bias-Free Textbooks and Storybooks in 1990. While this is a very valuable tool for parents and educators, it hasn't awakened many who do not yet acknowledge the existence and/or the influence of gender stereotyping. Unfortunately, it doesn't respond to the wide-spread use of so many of the literature classics for children which have for generations created clear pictures of gender roles.
Sadker, Sadker, and Klein (1991) report on the findings of a recent (1985) study by Scott and Schau regarding the impact of instructional materials on readers' attitudes. Their findings included:
(1) Exposure to sexist materials may increase sex-typed attitudes, especially among young children;
(2) exposure to sex equitable materials and to same-sex characters results in decreased sex-typed attitudes in students from 3 to at least 22 years of age;
(3) the effects of sex equitable materials do not usually generalize to areas specifically covered in the materials, especially for pre-school and elementary age students, although there may be some generalizations for older students, especially those who are initially more sex-typed; and
(4) attitude change toward equity increased with increased exposure. (p. 279)
These few studies alone demonstrate our need to respond on behalf of children growing up with distorted feelings and beliefs. I hope you will feel compelled to join us in making parents, teachers, colleagues, and ourselves more keenly aware of and will actively share in our efforts to shape new directions.