This year, women’s history month follows what seems an unprecented upsurge of events that revealed the widespread abuse of women in both professional and private life. So it is not surprising to also see an increased interest in the representation of gender in literature – or rather, as a recently published big data study shows, a significant under-representation of women in literature.
Both female writers as well as female protagonists have been lagging behind their male counterparts for centuries. Gender inequality has naturally become a contemporary topic that has also made it into schools. To mark World Book Day, which we celebrated on the first day of women’s history month, Votes For Schools, a voting platform for schools, in collaboration with Let Toys Be Toys, a campaign promoting gender equality in the toy and publishing industries, published a lesson plan for primary schools asking the question “Do bestselling books encourage sexism?”
Votes For Schools then put this question to primary school pupils and got an interesting result: 79% of students said “No” and only 21% said “Yes”. But another vote on “Do we need more female villains in books?” tells a bit of a different story: the result is 67.5% “Yes” and 32.5% “No”. The response further revealed that 80% of female pupils wanted more female villains in books compared to 54% of male voters.
Books for boys and books for girls
Stories in which male heroes go through all sorts of adventures before they come to the rescue of the beautiful, but passive, princesses are all too familiar. The Observer newspaper collaborated with Nielsen research on a large market study which found that lead characters were 50% more likely to be male than female, and male villains were eight times more likely to appear compared to female villains. This kind of gender stereotyping is, however, just a continuation of a tradition established in children’s literature much earlier than that.
It was in the latter half of the 19th century that booksellers and book reviewers – “the cultural gate-keepers” as the American literary critic Anne Lundin calls them – started to distinguish between reading suitable for boys and that for girls. At the beginning of the 19th century, the book market was much more general, it did not even clearly delineate between adult and child readers.
From the 1880s, The Times newspaper started to devote separate review essays to literature for boys and for girls. Lundin notes it was rather critical particularly of the books addressed at girls – and it was not the quality of writing that was criticised so much as the subject matter: “Writing for girls … lacked the dynamism of boys’ books.”
Good girls and brave boys
Research at the University of Birmingham looks at gender in children’s literature with the help of corpus linguistic methods. As part of the GLARE project, which explores gender in children’s literature from a cognitive corpus stylistic perspective, a specialised corpus of 19th-century children’s books has been collected. This collection of 71 books was selected to represent what has been called the “Golden Age” of English children’s literature and contains classics such as Alice in Wonderland and The Water Babies.
A quick look in the GLARE corpus confirms observations on bias of gender representation. Among the books written by female authors, there are only seven where the word “girl” is used much more frequently than “boy”. Among the books by male authors, there are only two where “girl” is used more frequently than “boy”.
The highest relative frequency of “girl” is in the 1886 book A World of Girls: The Story of a School by the female author L. T. Meade. The book was greeted by The Academy review journal on publication (November 20, 1886) as “light and pleasant reading” with “many a quiet, useful hint about the education and general training of young girls”. The highest relative frequency of the occurrence of “boy” can be found in the 1858 cautionary tale Eric, Or, Little by Little: A Tale of Roslyn School by Frederic William Farrar.
But women who wrote books for children also often dealt with male worlds – the relative frequency of “boy” is similarly high in the 1883 novel Jackanapes by the female writer Juliana Horatia Ewing. A review described it as: “The wistful tale of heroic sacrifice in which the orphaned son of a Waterloo cavalry officer … dies saving the life of his childhood friend on the field of battle.”
These books are good examples of reading expectations of boys and girls at the time – and the following selection from the corpus provides us with some insights.
In these examples, girls are well behaved and beautiful – and they certainly appear inferior to boys. Boys are strong and brave and ready for the adventures ahead of them. But boys are also trouble sometimes. In many respects, this has not changed much.
Wicked witches and evil queens
Male villains in children’s books outnumber their female counterparts. In fact, not everyone might easily come up with a top ten list like that of the British author MG Leonard. Her list features the likes of Mrs Wormwood in Matilda, Bellatrix Lestrange in Harry Potter, Cruella de Vil in The Hundred and One Dalmatians or Mrs Coulter in His Dark Materials.
The female villain is usually represented as a witch – as the White Witch from Narnia – or a queen, as the wicked queen in Snow White or the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. Witches embody an unattractive (often old), powerful female figure who is turned to for advice or help when everything else fails – as with the witch in the Little Mermaid fairy tale. Witches are feared and excluded from society, as illustrated in this example from The Book of Dragons (1899) by Edith Nesbit quoted from the GLARE corpus:
And besides a King he was an enchanter, and considered to be quite at the top of his profession, so he was very wise, and he knew that when Kings and Queens want children, the Queen always goes to see a witch. So he gave the Queen the witch’s address, and the Queen called on her, though she was very frightened and did not like it at all. The witch was sitting by a fire of sticks, stirring something bubbly in a shiny copper cauldron.
Children’s books are not only fiction. They provide vital opportunities for children to make sense of their own world. How many more women’s history months will it take to see a greater variety of fictional female characters, not just beautiful princesses, good girls and evil queens?