The Image of Woman in Textbooks

PART II Woman is made, not born

Males and females do not receive equal educations under our present coeducational system. Their educations reflect the roles that society intends them ultimately to occupy. In our society the male, rather than the female, is taught to achieve, to advance, to create. This deference to the male is particularly evident in the textbooks used by children in primary grades.
In recent years these books have gained much in fine appearance and in social interest. Illustrations are usually excellent; the stories are varied; and the racial and social backgrounds reflected have begun to expand beyond the white middle-class suburban family unit. The child of a minority race can now expect to find successful representatives of his own people in the more up-to-date textbooks, and thus he is taught that ability does not depend upon skin color. Unfortunately, whereas racial biases are disappearing, sexual biases are not. In the most recent textbooks adopted or recommended for second-through sixth-grade use in California, at least 75 percent of the stories' main characters are male. This figure itself does not offer a full picture of the preference given to masculine characters. Accounts of adult females are almost nonexistent, though adult males appear frequently; stories about females are not as long as those about males. As a result, in page by page calculation, the average book devotes less than 20 percent of its story space to the female sex. Furthermore, many of the stories centered around a male figure include no female characters; while the female-centered stories, in nearly every instance, include several males with whom the lead females interact. Apparently the male world is more readily taken as complete in itself, while the female world is dependent upon male support and interest.
Most stories about girls are not only far shorter than stories about boys, but are considerably less interesting as well. Those based on what are thought to be female interests will typically be restricted to domestic settings. Girls rarely leave the confines of the family and rarely receive community recognition for their achievements; boys, on the other hand, are allowed great freedom of movement and choice. Moreover, the adventures that boys encounter often stretch the limits of probability and place the boys in situations demanding a freedom few parents would be willing to grant to children of either sex.
A close look at one third-grade text entitled Winging through Lights and Shadows will illustrate these points. Seven out of the eight stories in the book have main characters who are male. The one tale centered around a girl, »A Story of Numbers Long Ago«, is ten pages long, while the stories about boys range from twenty-five to sixty pages. »A Story of Numbers Long Ago« tells about Nom, a girl living in the stone age, who »has many tasks to do. She helps her mother and her brother find food for the family to eat.« In addition, Nom helps clean hides while her brother fishes. What is both typical and noteworthy in this account is the way it immediately defines Nom in relationship to her brother and places her in subordination to him as well as to her mother. Admittedly, there are accounts of boys helping with adult chores, but more often boys work at independent tasks, and they are never under the direction of a female sibling. This subordination of the sister to her brother is so common a stereotype in textbooks that it is rare to find a story where a female is the older and therefore potentially more dominant sibling.
Nom's story is based on her interest in a male activity. As the men in her tribe return from hunting, Nom begins to record the number of deer brought back to the cave. She scoops a shallow hole in the cave floor and places in it one pebble to represent each deer; when the number of pebbles reaches seven, she scoops out a new hole in which she places one pebble representing collectively the seven pebbles from the first hole. Nom has discovered a method of counting in sets of sevens, but there the tale ends. She is never recognized for her achievement; she has never once left the cave. There has been no activity, no excitement. »A Story of Numbers Long Ago« is, in fact, a very dull little story, as the illustrations help to demonstrate. All the pictures are of the cave. We see Nom peering out at the returning hunters, and working at a domestic task, but most of the illustrations show nothing more than the process of scooping out a hole, followed by repeated drawings of the hole itself with various numbers of pebbles.
It is hard to see how present-day schoolgirls could find much to identify with in this short, uneventful story. Although a tale of real adventure in the stone age would make excellent reading for any child, what could be more removed from modern experience and less inspiring than counting in sets of sevens in the confines of a prehistoric cave?
This same book is full of long, exciting tales where men and young boys, in a more modern world, solve complex problems that earn them considerable social recognition. »Black Gold«, a sixty-page account of a young boy's adventure at the turn of the century, deserves special attention since it seems to be the male counterpart of the »female interest« story about Nom. The hero of »Black Gold« is a boy perhaps ten or eleven years old who earns his pocket money by dipping an old blanket into a pond that contains a mixture of water and oil; by wringing out the water from the blanket, he is able to collect small amounts of oil which he then sells. One day the boy, who is already established as enterprising and industrious, is approached by a gentleman who has been observing him at work. He asks the boy if he would care to join a team of two adults in drilling for oil. The boy is happy to accept and leaves to help the two men with their project. He does this without parental approval; in fact, we never see any member of his family, though the reader is made aware that he belongs to a respectable and reasonably well-off household.
Three difficulties confront the workers over the following weeks. When water gets in the way of the drilling operation, the boy suggests a pump. The pump is successful until mud becomes a problem; the boy proposes holding off the mud by drilling through a pipe. But how are they to get a pipe through the mud? The boy's suggestion of using a log as a pile driver works. Oil is struck, and the heretofore doubting townspeople are forced to admit that there is much to be said for this new method of drilling for oil. The venture makes newspaper headlines; the boy becomes a public hero; and the final illustration shows the original hill covered with oil derricks. The implication of financial success is strong.
There are striking contrasts between this story and the story about Nom. Most obviously, »Black Gold« is six times as long as »A Story of Numbers Long Ago.« The characters in the one are all male, and in the other, though the main character is female, events are centered around male activity. The boy in »Black Gold« is extremely independent; Nom is extremely restricted. The boy receives considerable social recognition for his work; the girl's somewhat dubious achievement goes undetected. The boy becomes a leader of men and deals successfully with original and difficult situations; the girl remains her mother's and brother's assistant in routine tasks that lead to no specific goal.
Some have raised the argument that girls face a more domestic and routine adulthood than their male counterparts, and that it is therefore appropriate to present girls with stories about what is likely to be their future experience. Yet stories for boys are not restricted by this same »reality« concern. There are no stories which treat of or anticipate an office job, none which touch on the reality of the factory line or glorify the role of the salesman. Boys, on the contrary, are encouraged to aim for those levels of achievement that our society most values, though in fact most males will have routine adulthoods, devoid of the high adventure they have been taught to dream of.
"Black Gold« is followed by »Burning Up the Track«, a forty-page account of how a young boy persuades his elders to accept a novel idea in car racing. As a result of the boy's plan, an elder brother is able to win first prize in the final race: »It was Hugh's advice that helped his brother Lou to win the most important race of his life.« Once again the boy is independent and enterprising in an all-male world; his success is recognized and lauded; the plot is far from lacking action. The opening sentence asks, »Does a race excite you?« »A story of Numbers Long Ago« can hardly compete on that level.
In crowd scenes females are rarely named; a female is »the little girl in red« or »the girl sitting next to Tom.« Nor do girls stand up against the press of opinion; nearly always they go along with the popular position. The first story in Winging through Lights and Shadows deals, on a child's level, with the questions of mob rule and false accusation. The main character again is male, he is granted a forcefulness and versatility never allowed to females. Even his name emphasizes this stereotype. »Bob Quick was bigger than the other children and a little bit older. He was like a leader to the rest of the children. When he came into the park, he was carrying his baseball mitt in one hand and a banjo in the other hand.« When Bob's banjo disappears, all the children, except one boy named Tom Sanchez, accuse an absent boy, Sam Kaplan, of the theft. All the females in the group, none of whom are named, proclaim Sam to be guilty. Only the arrival of a policeman, Officer Woods, who, incidentally, is black, settles the issue; he applies skill and understanding to teaching the children a kindly lesson in the errors of hasty judgment and proves the innocence of Sam Kaplan.
Officer Woods appears in another story in the same third-grade reader. As a character he serves particularly well to demonstrate the textbook adult stereotypes. In »The Glass Bank« Officer Woods solves the problem of his son's difficulty in comprehending numbers. Howard has fallen behind in arithmetic, though his sister does well in the subject. While this sister does contribute to the dialogue, she serves mainly as a support character to the father and son; it is not her story. Nor is it her mother's. In the thirty newly issued textbooks read for this study not one presented a family crisis wherein the mother so much as suggested a solution; in every case father came home and took over. In »The Glass Bank« when the family has finished eating dinner, »Mrs. Woods went to work washing dirty dishes, and Officer Woods set about his plan.«
Invariably the father solves problems in the world as well as within the family; he is presented as the builder, the controller, and the creator and executor of ideas. This produces a striking contradiction with reality. Most of our elementary teachers are female, but all of our primary texts bear the message that it is men rather than women who work with ideas and who seek, gain, and dispense knowledge. Even the illustrated cartoon figures used to indicate and enliven points of grammar are male.
Primary texts present the mother figure as a pleasant, hardworking, but basically uninteresting, individual; her life offers little excitement; she has no effect upon the world beyond her family, and even within the family her contribution is limited to housekeeping and cooking. Often she is merely a prop-man for the story; she enters a scene* only to place a cake on the table and then disappears, or she plays foil to her husband by setting him up for his line. It is mother who asks what can be done and invites a speech from father.
The three remaining stories in Winging through Lights and Shadows are about adults; they fit the stereotypes presented in the other sections of the book. In one chapter photographer of wild animals, Commander Headly, relates the close calls he experienced while hunting for game in Africa. Set in a Mexican village, another story recounts the struggles of an old man who, alone with his pet female wolf, captures the killer wolf of the valley and earns a belated respect from the villagers. But only »Safety-Pin Stew«, an inane tale about a hobo who wants to marry the best cook in the world, contains anything like an adult female main character. The woman he chooses is a plump, generous, simple-minded widow who is all too happy to cook for free and to marry the hobo, who can hardly be said to have earned such a comfortable setup.
In the thirty textbooks studied, only one adult female character was allowed ambition for herself. This exception was a short, factual biography of a woman athlete; it fit easily and naturally into the text without appearing forced or inappropriate. But far more often the adult female (found in only about 4 percent of those stories with an adult main character) is pictured in the role of assistant.
In one account of Madame Curie she appears to be little more than a helpmate for her husband's projects. The illustration that accompanies this section even portrays Madame Curie peering mildly from behind her husband's shoulder while he and another distinguished gentleman loom in the foreground, engaged in a serious dialogue. Certainly the male sex provides more historical figures than the female sex, but even famous women in history rarely appear in textbooks or, as in the case of Madame Curie, are unjustly played down.
Most stories about adult males do not concern specific, historical figures; rather, the greater number of such stories are fictional attempts to describe the lives of imaginary heroes and typical modern professionals. As a result, there are chapters on »the explorer«, »the scientist«, or »the architect«, the latter being described in one text simply as »the man who shapes the plan."
Only one working female appeared in all the various descriptions of present-day professionals; this was a woman scientist who is described in a chapter on scientific achievement. The three other scientists mentioned are males who are depicted working alone on projects that demand originality and exacting mental effort, but it is repeatedly mentioned that the female scientist is not independent. An illustration shows her at work, and beneath the illustration is the following explanation: »The project the young woman is working on is not her own idea. She was assigned to work on it. And she has been using her scientific knowledge to help develop a useful, safe drug which her company can then produce and sell. As an employee working on someone else's idea, she is typical of thousands of scientists working in industry today.«
The textbook writers are apparently uncomfortable with the idea of a female succeeding in her own right. If she does make use of a talent, it must be for the benefit of others, under the direction of others; any contribution she makes to her field of knowledge should preferably be made quietly, without fanfare or public recognition. Thus, Madame Curie is reduced to a laboratory assistant, and few girls receive any community publicity for contributions they have made, though they may be praised by members of their immediate family for work done in the house or at school. In thirty textbooks only two girls receive public acclaim.
The belief that females do not need or perhaps should not receive public recognition is paralleled by the attitude that women should not be interested in financial success for its own sake. The hero of »Black Gold« was lauded for working hard and making money, though the money he earned was apparently intended for his own use, not for anyone else's. On the other hand, it is only a virtue for a girl to earn money for others' use. It is therefore possible to find one story about a girl who has great success selling tickets to a benefit gathering; yet a girl who seeks material gain for its own sake, however honestly, appears in stories only as a negative example. This is not to say that the world would benefit if more women were encouraged to strike it rich, but an obvious double standard is revealed when an ability considered praiseworthy in one sex is deplorable in another.
In 1946 Irvin Child, Elmer Potter, and Estelle Levine discovered that elementary textbooks show females using undesirable means of acquisition far more frequently than males.[1] While girls are often depicted as helpful and less likely to bring harm to themselves, these same characteristics render them dependent and unoriginal. Girls risk little and gain little. But more strikingly this emphasis on dependency seems to make female characters more manipulative. A girl in a textbook story is less likely to strike out directly after a goal; by being indirect she is not always perfectly   honest.   Furthermore,   the   passivity   ascribed textbook females causes them to be portrayed as lazy far more often than males.
The emphasis on masculine strength extends beyond physical qualities. Males of all ages are pictured as having greater mental perseverance and moral strength than females. Not only are females more often described as lazy and incapable of independent thinking or direct action but they are also shown as giving up more easily. They collapse into tears, they betray secrets; they are more likely to act upon petty or selfish motives. This last somewhat contradicts girls' typical representation as helpmates both to adults and to males of their own age.
In nearly every story intended to be humorous, the butt of the joke is a female. In one story a fat, selfish queen keeps all the ice cream in the kingdom to herself, even denying any to her undersized husband, the king. When at last the queen is reformed, she loses weight, becomes pretty, and gives away ice cream to all. This particular story opens with the following: »You expect a kingdom to be run by a king, but this one was run by a queen.« As a finale to a play, the shrill, nagging wife of a kindly inventor is dumped into a trash can by one of the inventor's own robots - a robot, it should be mentioned, created specifically for the job of trash collecting. In still another story a man who finds it accidentally lucrative to have killed his wife (albeit unintentionally) inspires the other men of the town to »bump off their old wives«, too.
The fact that such textbook stories are quite frequently written by females suggests the low opinion many women have of their own sex. This is not surprising; individuals generally adopt the attitudes of their culture even when these attitudes are directed against their own kind. Experiments show that preschool children learn very early to discriminate against themselves. Given a choice of white and black dolls, for example, and asked to pick out the prettiest, both black and white children in our culture choose the white doll.
Females fare even worse in the illustrations than in the stories. Many books devote only 15 percent of their illustrations to girls or women. In all but a few group scenes, females appear only as background figures. The most important illustrations, those on the book covers or at the heads of chapters, are invariably male-dominated. More-Over, a photograph Of an everyday street scene will yield a normal mixture of the sexes, but a drawing of a street scene will show far more males. The significance of this imbalance is obvious. We tend to forget the simple fact that the female sex is half the species, that women are not merely a ladies' auxiliary to the human race.
In one long beautifully illustrated book, each of six main sections had a two-page drawing on the appropriate theme. A large male figure dominated each of these illustrations; below were ten to twenty smaller figures. Only two of the  drawings had  any female characters;  both times these were small background figures, partly covered by one or more males in the foreground. It is perhaps not surprising that the textbook illustrators drew no females for the section on »Striking It Rich«, but no women were represented   in   another   section   entitled   »Fair   Play.« Whether one takes »fair play« to mean nothing more than athletics or sees in it the broader themes of honesty and fair dealings, it is still an area that should encompass both sexes. However, neither the illustrations nor the text gave any indication that fair play is expected of the female sex. Certainly none of this is intentional. The textbook writers are not consciously conspiring to keep females out of their books, but stereotypes get in the way. Perhaps we are too eager to offer children a »normal« world in their reading; in doing so we confuse what is actually normal with what is simply most apparent. We like to imagine that each child lives in a two-parent household; and by taking this as a norm, we forget it often is not so. It is an everyday event to see a mother in the kitchen, but that is not necessarily the only feature of a mother's existence. We like to imagine that each child has two parents, who are also separate human beings, but by presenting women only as mothers we create a norm contrary to this view, Perhaps because mother is usually a youngster's main source of security, textbook writers present women only in the role of mother; yet many women work, by choice or necessity, and are nevertheless mothers. Perhaps the worst transgression is that any women who do not marry are destined to be seen by children as women-manque since no other female existence is acknowledged in our texts.
In trying for what we consider a normal standard, we often fail to present what is true since cultural stereotypes are not always based on what is factual or even desirable. For example, it is a common sight to see women driving cars, and yet textbooks only occasionally show women doing so. There are women in medicine, law, and business; yet when describing the professions, textbook writers reserve these fields solely for men. Furthermore, mothers are individuals with individual projects, interests, and talents. It is not unusual to find a mother who does the repairs, the yard work, and even the carpentry for her family; still we continue to see these as male activities. Textbook writers seem to have reduced all women to a common denominator of cook, cleaner, and seamstress. And when a story mother is needed, this cardboard woman is picked off the shelf and put, as is, on the page.
It would be far better if young girls could look to the role of mother and housewife as something they might choose to be and could see this role as only one of a number of possibilities in life. In the word »choose« lies the key. Beyond the occasional mother figure the textbooks give the young female little to model herself after. The message is that nothing happens to women, that women tend to the routine needs of others, but accomplish nothing unique themselves. It is important to present children with stories about girls who endeavor and women who succeed on all levels.
Quite simply, education should direct and inspire the individual to make the highest use of his or her particular abilities. Yet in the case of women, we seem to forget this obvious fact. No one becomes a professional without encouragement; in a world that encourages few women to use their talents, it is inevitable that few women do so. Girls are not so much told that they cannot do something as not told that they can. And, if in spite of all, a girl does decide to tackle a traditionally male profession, others are more likely to discourage her than to offer support.
Oddly enough, textbooks written for coeducation early in this century present a much more favorable picture of the female sex than do textbooks written from 1930 on. Mothers in these stories sit down with their children, instruct them, help them, and participate in their activities. There are stories of girls who handle physical dangers or stand up against popular and false opinion. Women are given a greater place in history, and frequently there are biographies of the women writers whose selections appear in the books.
These older textbooks - written under the nineteenth-century tradition of rough frontier equality - prove that stories about girls need not be dull, and that women may be active and talented without in any way being harsh and unsympathetic. No one asks that stories be artificially measured out part by part to assure an absolute equality of material. What is asked is distribution of stories that inspire all peoples and both sexes to aim high and achieve their best, and an end to a textbook world where male figures outnumber and dominate, and female characters lack spirit, curiosity and originality.