The role of schools in gender stereotyping

In 1972 Betty Levy published an article in Feminist Studies on the role of schools in gender sterotyping of girls. This week I want to discuss the observations made in this article and compare them with some more recent observation of gender-stereotyping of girls. Gender stereotypes are culturally-ingrained ideas about appropriate behaviours for females and males but this promotes inequality between the sexes and can set young people up to expect and accept power-imbalances within relationships.

The feminist critique of gender roles requires the study of how and where these roles are learned. Schools are important social institutions that play a key role in elaborating and reinforcing gender roles.

Children learn gender roles at an early age – it is one of the earliest concepts they learn.

As children grow their awareness of ‘appropriate’ gender role behaviour becomes increasingly more stereotyped.

Masculine activities are more highly valued than feminine activities – girls are allowed to do some masculine activities but boys cannot do feminine activities.

Students learn by observing how teachers treat each other, by the prizes they receive at school, or how teachers reward or discipline behaviour that adheres to accepted notions of gender, in particular preparing young women for their roles as daughter, wife and mother.

The gender role training of girls involves less tolerance for aggressive behaviour and greater encouragement of dependency.

Schools are an effective instrument of social control because of the functions they play: custodial care, social role selection, indoctrination and education.

Young people typically buy into these gender stereotypes and are often unaware of when and how stereotypes impact on their behaviours and choices.

Girls are so well trained in their gender roles that they continue to put domestic duties above their professional roles, a key reason why women do so many more hours of housework than men.

Gender differences arise through the interaction of biology and a child’s social environment. Schools affect gender differentiation through both teachers and peers.

The feminist objective is to make sure each individual can realise their potential and isn’t restricted by gender stereotypes, either the ones they have learned themselves or those forced on them by others.

It is sad that nothing seems to have changed and the same tired gender-stereotypes have only become more entrenched.

Girls who sit quietly are ignored, boys who act out receive more attention.


The Witch in the Mirror – Part 3

In the evening Emily sat with her mother in the sitting room in front of an open fire. She had been hoping to find a secret door somewhere in the cottage but there was nothing.

The kitchen was old but too ordinary to have anything as wonderful as a secret door. An iron stove sat coldly in the corner, clashing with the modern refrigerator. There was a row of cooking utensils hanging on the wall. On the mantelpiece were a couple of ornaments and photographs.

Emily had studied the photographs but they were just a bunch of old people with stony faces sitting upright and stiff. Above the mantelpiece was a painting of a forest. She had only glanced at it quickly. It was just another boring landscape painting.

She turned the page in her novel and tried to focus but the fire made her sleepy. Emily stifled a yawn.

There wasn’t much to see in the sitting room either—just the usual stuff found in an old person’s home—more photos, lots of lace doilies and ornaments and the oldest furniture Emily had ever seen.

But no secret door.

Emily put the book down and looked around the room again. A tapestry hung on the wall but when she had looked behind it earlier there was nothing. The opposite wall was lined floor to ceiling with a bookcase. Most of the spines were brown and dusty.

She was about to turn back to her book when she noticed something glowing high on the bookshelf. Emily sat up but the glow had disappeared. Maybe it was just reflection from the fire. As she studied the shelf, there it was again. Just a glimmer for a moment before it disappeared.

Losing Henry Lawson

Henry Lawson

As a young teenager I went through a phase of discovering Australian writers. I loved stories and poetry that resonated with the small country town that I grew up in. One of these writers was Henry Lawson, the Australian poet and short story writer that helped define popular images of early Australia.

So when last semester I found I was to study Australian writers from the era of Federation (which occurred in 1901) I chose to revisit my teenage love of Henry Lawson.

Some analysts have argued that Henry Lawson’s work was particularly inspired by his childhood experiences and an 1892 trip to Bourke. Decline in the quality of his later work was put down to exhaustion of inspiration from those same experiences, rather than decline in his physical and mental health as a result of alcoholism.

Lawson’s typical bushman represents one kind of Australian ideal in the decades around the turn of the century. His early writing took place during economic depression that was destroying the basis of that ideal bushman and driving such characters from the land and into the city.

In 1900, Henry Lawson and his wife, Bertha, headed to London where Lawson hoped to further his name and fortune as a writer. But he struggled to find his way in London, struggling with the weather, the culture and the attitudes toward a writer from the colonies. When I read his work from that time I can see Lawson was trying to recreate characters and themes from the same material he used in Australia—the poor and working class people. Is the fact that these writings were less successful a reflection of Lawson’s lack of skill with such material, as has been suggested, or because he was really a writer of Australia and that’s what he did best? I think he saw similar problems in England to Australia, but to Henry Lawson England lacked that ‘typical bushman’ type that he found to be an ideal. How could you write about social problems without your ideal hero?

One critic described Lawson’s writing as ‘a cleverly executed photograph’, even though he criticised Lawson’s lack of art. Many other critics have also commented on the true to life aspect of Lawson’s writings. So many people have made similar comments that it seems accepted as the truth. Lawson saw the real Australia, he wrote about it, and nobody could deny it was the truth. But while there is likely some truth in what Henry Lawson portrayed, his focus on the ideal Australian meant that he did not sympathetically portray other experiences of Australia.

The real Australia is a myth. We all create our own myths while some buy into the myths created by others—through literature during Lawson’s time and more recently in other forms. Lawson wrote for others like himself that longed for a bygone era when things were somehow better. This was a time of romance based, I’m guessing, on stories told to a young Henry by his father. When things in the modern world aren’t going so well it is natural and common to yearn for those seemingly easier days from our childhood. From this yearning, Henry created his own myth and it resonated with many of his readers.

Lawson’s ‘realism’ in describing life in the bush was partly motivated by desire for change, a revolution to improve life for the working class. He recognised the disparity between the wealthy and the poor in Australia toward the end of the 1800s, a time that saw the beginning swell of the labour movement. By describing how things really were was perhaps one way that Lawson could effect change, much in the same way the Charles Dickens did in novels such as Oliver Twist  and Nicholas Nickleby.

Nevertheless, it is a little too simple to suggest that Henry Lawson portrayed only one type of ideal bushman. Lawson’s world was highly stratified and he was well aware of social structure. At the top of the pile was the squatter, wealthy landholders that claimed their land early in Australia’s history and made their money from wool. Various land Acts forced the squatters to relinquish some of their land for closer settlement. For the most part it was the poorer quality land that was made available while the squatters retained the better land. The selectors were required to work and improve the land while paying off their debt to the government. For most of these people life was hard. Another strata was the itinerant workers, particularly the shearers that would travel from shed to shed following the wool season. It was from this group that Henry Lawson took his ideal Australian bushman. All other types were to be pitied or despised to varying degrees.

There are parallels with Henry Lawson’s nostalgia for bygone, better days and the current political scene where an aim is to ‘make Australia/America/England great again’. But Lawson’s nostalgia is for an Australia and a freedom that largely never existed. His is a belief that he was born for better things and a return to a romanticised past would restore him to his rightful position.

More complicated is Henry Lawson’s relationship with women. In most of his stories women are portrayed as either virgin angels or broken down housewives. The inference is that young women can only stay virginal angels if they don’t settle down as a wife on a small selection. There is an underlying hint of domestic violence in many of these stories, often based on the man’s drunkenness, which is excused on the basis of trying to deal with the struggle and heartbreak of being a small selector.

Lawson idealises his angelic virgin but despises any woman that is not. This is usually done indirectly, such as through a comment made by a character or an aside from the narrator. In Lawson’s eyes women are small minded, concerned with details rather than big picture things. His male characters are often portrayed as being concerned with the wrongs of the world and are constantly frustrated by wives that want them to stay at home and worry about the family. According to Lawson it was women’s fault that men made fools of them self. He saw women as unjust and unreasonable, spoiling men’s pleasures with their domestic concerns.

Henry Lawson’s repeated exhortation of mateship as an Australian ideal is problematic from a feminist perspective. The use of mateship in Lawson’s writing is seen as membership of an exclusive group—the group of noble bushmen, shearers, drovers, wanderers on the track—that by definition excludes women. Women are always seen as ‘other’, outsiders to the group of ‘mates’.

AS a young woman in a more modern world I found it very difficult reading Henry Lawson’s open misogyny, particularly in his later writings when he was often drunk or in prison for failing to pay maintenance to his ex-wife. These stories openly advocate domestic violence and justifying it on the basis that ‘all women are liars’.

By the time I had finished reading and thinking about Henry Lawson’s writing I had lost something. Yes, there was that familiar childhood excitement about reading stories that were based on the same streets that I played. But now I’m only too aware of how Henry Lawson’s misogyny is still repeated today. Somewhere since I was thirteen years old I have lost my innocence of the world, and that is how I lost Henry Lawson as well.


I believe in love and Wonder Woman

In case you hadn’t already guessed, today I went to see Wonder Woman at the cinema. I have read so many reviews about what a wonderful movie this was but none of them prepared me for just how fantastic! There was so much to love about Wonder Woman – Gal Gadot is my new favourite actor, the storyline kept me enthralled, young Diana was played endearingly by 8-year old Lilly Aspell, enough feminist themes to upset your average action movie fan, Diana’s awesome fight scenes,  particularly the way the slow motion action shots showed her hair twirling and hopefully inspiring a whole generation of young girls and women to stand up for what they want. But all that aside, one of the main themes that continually leapt out at me was the futility of war.

I clearly remember visiting the Australian War Memorial in Canberra when I was 7 years old. The dioramas of First World War battle scenes gave me nightmares for years afterward. The mud and bodies and barbed wire kept cropping up in my dreams whenever my anxiety got out of control. I could never understand how anyone would knowingly put others in such situations.

As I am writing this, the television news is full of North Korean missiles, conflict in the Middle East and yet more terrorist acts. Have humans learned nothing?

Okay, so superhero action movies are escapist entertainment, but I felt like the most important statement in the movie was ‘I believe in love’. Maybe if we spread love instead of hate there would be no more 7 year old girls anywhere in the world having nightmares.

A day in Bathurst

Despite a cold, foggy start to the morning the sun soon came out and it was a glorious winter day. After an early morning swim I went to Bathurst for the day to meet up with my sister.

Bathurst is Australia’s oldest inland city and there are so many beautiful old buildings. This week is Bathurst’s winter festival and my sister and I started with a ride on aferris wheel followed by lots of laughing and falling over on the ice skating rink. We then wandered around the shops, exploring lots of lovely boutique shops. I contented myself with buying some scented candles because I have a thing for candles, oh and scarves… I just love scarves! The shop assistants were so friendly that I just have to go back.

After lunch in a delightful little bakery we ventured out to the Mount Panorama motor racing circuit. This is where Australia’s most famous race – the Bathurst 1000 – is held each year. I felt so racy in my little black Focus tearing around the track (at 60 km/h, it is a public road after all!).

All too soon the day was over and I’m now sitting snug in front of the heater waiting for my dinner. I wander what tomorrow will have in store?

Winter in Orange

This week I am having a break from uni and visiting family in my hometown of Orange, New South Wales. This is the place where I grew up so it’s always special to spend some time here wandering amongst my memories.

Orange is provincial city in the central west of New South Wales. It sits in the foothills of Mount Canobolas which gives Orange it’s cooler climate than the surrounding countryside.

After a long drive I arrived here last night in the dark, just as the temperature was starting to fall below zero.

When I woke this morning there was a light fall of rain but the air was icy. After brekky I went for a drive into the countryside, stopping to walk down a farm lane and breathe the serenity. This is where I really come alive!

Six years on WordPress

I was surprised to receive a notification the other day that it was my sixth anniversary as a blogger on WordPress. I don’t even remember what I called that first blog all those years ago but it would have been about poetry spilling from my 15 year old fingers. I turn 21 in two weeks and I guess this is as good a time as any to reflect on how my life and writing has changed in those six years.

First there was an empty space

At 15 I was a shy, unconfident girl who preferred spending her lunchtimes on her own in the school library reading. It was there that the urge to fill that empty space called out to me, getting stronger and stronger. That’s when I wrote my first, embarrassing poems about loneliness and desire.

In my last years of high school I discovered Romeo and Juliet, the essays of James Thurber and other classic readers were followed by King Lear, contemporary playwrights David Williamson (The Club and The Removalists) and Ray Lawler (Summer of the Seventeenth Doll), the poets Judith Wright, Geoffrey Chaucer and John Keats, and classic novelists Jane Austen and Emily Bronte.

When I finished school there was only ever one choice. I knew I had to write. I took a year off and worked on my first novel, Molly’s Dreams, which I self-published on Amazon (you can find it there if you look!).

Last year I started a Bachelor of Creative Writing at university in Canberra and moved away from home for the first time. I started this current blog at the same time. Sometimes I post with lots of energy, but at other times I get overwhelmed with my workload and the blog slows down. Through it all there have been many readers that have followed me, clicked like, left comments, and given me the encouragement to keep writing. I love you all.

Right now I am nearing the end of first semester and working hard on my second novel. It is a young adult fantasy about a 15 year old discovering she has a special power. With that power comes the ability to do good but also to hurt the people around her. She has to learn how to deal with this before others use her power against her.

Anyway, thank you all again for taking the time to visit and read my blog. You don’t know how much it means to me.

Love and best wishes

Molly-Louise Ashton




Thursday fragments 19

I met Mum outside school at the end of the day. ‘Hurry up, Molly,’ she said. ‘We have to meet the truck at our new house.’ She was so anxious to get going that she didn’t even notice that my dress was dirty and smelled like smoke. I climbed into the car and squeezed in between Catherine and Jasmine in the back seat as we drove across town.

‘Aw Molly, you smell! What have you been doing?’ said Jasmine.

‘Jasmine!’ said Mum, ‘That’s not a very nice thing to say to your sister.’

‘But she does smell Mum, like she was in a fire or something.’

‘Molly, what have you been doing?’

I was just about to tell her about the fire and Ellen and how she was a fire monitor when Mum pulled up in front of an old house. ‘This is it!’ she said.

I wondered why she had stopped in front of such an ugly house and where our house was.

‘No,’ Mum said, ‘This is it.’ I couldn’t believe it. How were we meant to live in that old thing? It looked like an old man who had stopped taking care of himself and let his beard cover the scars on his cheeks where it grew all long and straggly, and eyelids that hung down like broken window awnings. I felt tears coming back again when Mum said, ‘Come on kids, we have a lot of things to unpack before I can cook dinner tonight.’

Inside the house wasn’t much better. The carpet was old and worn and I could see threads showing through. There were only three bedrooms so the three older girls had to share one room; I was in another room with Stephen, while the third was for Mum and Dad. My bedroom only had space for two beds with a narrow gap between them. The walls were painted a pale blue that had faded and I could see marks where there had once been picture frames.

Our furniture was already in the house and all I had to do was unpack my box. I took some of my dolls out of the box and sat them on my bed. There didn’t seem to be anywhere to put my toys or books so I just left them in the box and sat on the bed and played with my dolls.

Mum tucked me in bed later that night and left the light on for me until Stephen was ready for bed. From my pillow I looked across at Stephen’s side of the room. There was a pair of boots on the floor by his bed, one lying on its side where he had tossed it. His denim jacket was hanging on the corner of a chair and his blue jeans were in a pile on the floor with a brown striped tee shirt. On the little table beside his bed was his watch with a leather strap, sitting on top of a magazine about cars and next to the radio that he liked to listen to in the afternoons when he was reading his magazines. The blanket on his bed was turned down and I could see a little dint in the pillow, like a comma from where his head had paused earlier. He had already stuck a poster of a racing car on the wall above his bed.

Stephen had finished school now and he spent the day looking for work in town. When he got home in the afternoon he told me he was going to be working at a supermarket. Soon he would be able to save enough money to buy a car. He seemed excited about his new job, but I wasn’t sure if he was just being brave. What happened to his dream of joining the army?

Later on, when everyone else was in bed, I lay there listening to the strange sounds of the house creaking. ‘Stephen, are you awake?’ I asked quietly, but there was no response, only the sound of his breathing – long and slow. I couldn’t close my eyes so I watched the reflections of the street light from across the road and wondered if my old bedroom was feeling lonely now I wasn’t there. I could still picture it clearly, my bed in the middle with its pink bedspread and Mr and Mrs Bear sitting on the pillow. Beside the bed was my dressing table where I always put my book when I had finished reading for the night. At the foot of the bed was a rug where Stephanie and I often sat and played with my toys; I wondered what Stephanie was doing now, I hoped she wasn’t sad at school now I wasn’t there. Then I started to think about Ellen, my new friend. I wondered where she lived. We didn’t get to talk very much at school but she seemed really nice with the way she held my hand and let me help her with the fire.

As the night wore on I still couldn’t get to sleep. There was an old tree outside; I could hear its branches rustling in the wind. All the trees around here seem old; everything seems old. Does that mean I will grow old if we stay here? My skin will dry up and my arms and legs will get all bent just like those trees. I could feel the tears coming again. I hopped out of my bed and walked into Mum’s room. It was really dark in there but I could just see the outline of the bed. I walked quietly over to Mum’s side. ‘Mum, are you awake?’ I said in a whisper.

‘Molly, is that you?’ Mum said sleepily. ‘What are you doing there, sweetheart?’

‘I can’t sleep, Mum’.

‘Oh Molly, you just need to lay there and close your eyes.’

‘I’ve tried that, but I can’t get to sleep.’

‘What’s the matter, honey?’

‘I don’t know. Can I hop in with you?’

‘You’re getting too big for that. Why don’t you go back to bed and try again?’

‘Okay.’ I sadly climbed back into bed and held Mr and Mrs Bear tight as I watched the reflections of the street light from across the road. I didn’t have any nightmares simply because I couldn’t get to sleep.

Outside I could hear strange noises, like someone was moving around the house and scratching on the walls. I wriggled a bit deeper under my blanket, but I could still hear the noises.

From further away I listened to the sounds of trains moving around. Every now and then there was a bang, then the roar of an engine until it eventually faded away. Then there was another roar and more banging and a whistle blew, over and over again throughout the night. I thought it sounded like dragons were moving around and as I lay there I pictured them flying in and out of their castle, roaring and breathing fire before flying off again. Sometimes the dragons would wrestle with each other and that explained what the loud banging was.

I still didn’t know what the scratching sound was as I lay there in the dark with my eyes wide open. I tried to picture the horses eating green grass on the farm across the road from my old home, but all I could see were dry dusty paddocks. I closed my eyes, but the harder I tried to concentrate the more the horses kept fading from my mind until they turned into grey sheep. Everybody looked sad because there were no princesses to ride through the kingdom and the only houses in the village were small and old and broken down.

Thursday fragments 18

I started school the next day while Mum and Dad tried to find a house to rent.  It was just like starting my first day of kindergarten all over again. I sat there looking at my feet while Mum talked with the school headmaster. He looked like he was a hundred years old and as dry and gnarled as all those trees along the road. His eyes were cold and grey as they looked at me without interest.

When Mum left I was taken to my new classroom by a lady with shoes that clicked loudly on the tile floor of the corridor. She knocked at the classroom door and pushed it open to be greeted by the noise of strange children chattering and giggling. I was taken across the classroom to meet my new teacher, Mr Anderson, who was sitting at his desk reading a book. Slowly, the class started to become quieter as some of the children noticed a new girl amongst them. I could hear the ones at the front whispering to each other and I just knew they were all looking at me standing there in my unfamiliar school uniform.

When the lady left, Mr Anderson stood up with me at the front of the classroom. He held his hand up until everyone was quiet and looking toward the front. ‘Class, this is Molly White. She has come to join us here in 4KA so I hope you will all make her welcome.’ I knew my face was bright red, I could feel it burning and I heard some boys toward the back of the room whispering to each other. I just wanted to run away and I knew tears were starting to form in my eyes. ‘Molly, there is an empty desk over near the window. You can sit there. Okay class, it is time now for maths so I want you to open your books at chapter three and we will have a look at number lines.’

I slid into my seat and opened the book Mr Anderson had handed me, but everything looked blurry and instead of number lines I saw rivers of tears running across the page. Cool autumn sunlight came through the window and I could see wisps of cloud drifting by in the pale blue sky as Mr Anderson’s voice droned on about something to do with numbers and lines and hopping from one to four. I thought about the railway line and wondered how many hops it would take before I got back to Stephanie.

At lunchtime I sat on a bench in the playground. It was all bitumen and there was no grass, just lines marked out for all sorts of games. It was like one of those unhappy playgrounds I had seen when we were driving through the city. I looked at the sandwiches in my lunchbox, but I didn’t feel at all hungry because my stomach was tied up in a little knot. I started to think of Stephanie again and began to cry.

After a while I noticed someone had sat on the bench next to me. ‘Are you okay?’ I heard a little voice say. I could see a pair of white cotton socks and dusty black school shoes poking out shyly from beneath a checked school dress.

‘I thought you looked sad,’ the voice said again. ‘I wondered if you would like some of my vegemite sandwich.’ The voice belonged to a little girl, about the same size as me with a face covered in freckles. ‘My name is Ellen,’ she said.

‘I’m Molly,’ I said quietly as I finally found my tongue.

‘Don’t be sad, Molly. School isn’t that bad when you get used to it. Do you want to come and play handball?’

‘I don’t know how to,’ I said.

‘Well that’s okay, I can teach you.’

She took my hand and we walked across to where a crowd of girls were lined up watching two other girls hitting a tennis ball to each other with their hands. As we stood in the line, Ellen explained that I was meant to hit the ball to the other person with my hand, but it had to bounce before going over the line. If you missed it or hit the ball outside the squares then you were out and had to go back to the end of the line. Everyone wanted to get to the king’s square.

Soon it was my turn and I stood in the square opposite a big girl with short hair. Suddenly there was a tennis ball flying towards me and I threw my hand at it but missed completely. Some of the girls giggled as I walked off to the end of the line.

‘Don’t worry, Molly,’ said Ellen. ‘You’ll soon get the hang of it.’

Before I had a chance to have another go, the bell went and we had to go back into class. ‘Let’s play again tomorrow, Molly,’ Ellen said. ‘You’re going to have a lot of fun.’ I wasn’t so sure that I would be able to hit the ball so I was glad that the bell went and saved me from further embarrassment.

The classroom was kept warm by a log fire. Ellen was a fire monitor and she asked Mr Anderson if I would be allowed to help her gather some logs from a box outside the classroom before we went back to our desks.

Ellen told me there was an old man that worked at the school and one of his jobs was to keep the firewood box stacked with wood for the classrooms. She said he was a bit creepy and that I should keep away from him, but there was no sign of the caretaker as I followed Ellen to the back of the classroom. She skipped along and seemed so happy and that made me feel a bit lighter, but the logs were really heavy and I got dirt and little bits of bark stuck all over my school dress when I carried them back to class.

The fire was in an iron box, like a little stove, and I watched Ellen carefully open the door and rake among the embers with a poker. When the flames were dancing around like little devils, I passed her a log and she put it on top of the fire. A shower of sparks and smoke rose into the air and me cough.

When I got back to my desk, I saw that my hands were all dirty. But I wasn’t game to ask Mr Anderson if I could go to the bathroom to wash them so I tried to wipe them clean on my school dress. My hair smelled all smoky as well and I started to worry about what Mum would say when I got home.

Then I began thinking about home and I realised that I didn’t even know where home was, or if we had one. I looked out the window at the clouds again to try and stop myself from crying, but a couple of teardrops still leaked out and fell on my cheeks.

I looked around and saw Ellen watching me. She gave me a little smile and I tried to smile back but my lips wouldn’t move in the right shape. Things improved later in the afternoon, though, when we had some quiet reading time. I picked a book out of a box that was on the floor and we were allowed to sit on the mat in the middle of the classroom and read. Ellen came and sat next to me and held my hand.

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