Are mothers always at the party in children’s books?

Here’s an interesting fact to stop by for Mother’s Day. In children’s books, the common name “mother” is the word most often used to denote female characters, and has been so since the 19th century.and century. Despite this, these mothers are rarely the heroines of child fiction – often they do not even have a first or last name. They are part of the supporting roles, and sometimes they are even dead or completely absent from the plot.

We explored these gender issues in children’s literature by analyzing the frequency of words like “mother” in a selection of texts ranging from Beatrix Potter narratives to contemporary titles. Comparing 19th-century books with contemporary novels has allowed us to understand how the repetition of certain linguistic patterns translates a gendered vision of society.



Read more: Children and teenagers: nine novels against gender stereotypes


What’s important, by reading the data in XIXand as recent data shows, it is inequality in gender representations. When we examine word pairs such as the articles “he” and “she”, the nouns “man” and “woman”, the extent of the imbalance is clear: in the 19.and century, “he” is twice as frequent as “she”, and remains 1.8 times more frequent in recent texts. In addition, “man” appears 4.5 times more frequently than “woman” in the corpus of the 19.and century against 2.8 times in contemporary fiction.

gender stereotypes

The range of occupations occupied by men and women is also revealing. In all the incidents noted in 19and century, as you might expect, the roles assigned to women are very limited: queens, princesses, nurses, servants, nannies or governesses – there are not many other options apart from this list.

While there are fewer maids and governesses in recent texts, there are always queens and princesses. But even though they are theoretically open to women, the professions (from driver to doctor, including teacher, officer, spy, boss, judge, farmer, pilot, scientist or minister, to name a few) are still largely embodied by male characters in children’s stories.

It’s yet another example of what author and activist Caroline Criado Perez calls the “gender data gap” when she highlights the invisible bias in a world designed for men. In this sense, fiction and the real world are very similar.

Comparison between the way women are referred to in 19th century children’s books and modern children’s literature.
Michaela Mahlberg / Anna Cermakova, University of Birmingham, Author indicated

Mothers are all the more highlighted when the context of gender representation is biased. They are present in most of the texts we have studied, and much more than other typical female characters in children’s books such as witches and queens.

Mothers and confidants

But if the mothers are present, they are rarely at the center of the story and often defined by the simple fact of being the mother of such a character: “Martha’s mother sent me a jumping rope. I jump and run, “writes France Hodgson Burnett in her 1911 classic, The secret garden.

The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Houghton Library, Harvard

The role of mothers is primarily to take care of their children. “I am known for my reading skills, which I largely owe to my mother,” Rachel writes in her diary in the novel. Back to lifeby Joanna Nadin.

Sometimes the rules they impose evoke the protagonists’ anger or frustration. “My mother denied what I asked, just ‘because it’s like that,'” Rachel says in another book in the same series. But mothers are always there to support their children, as Maya’s mother demonstrates in a fiction by Tim Bowler:

Maya continued to cry; “it will be fine,” said his mother, “it will be fine.”
“It can not be okay, I’m awful,” Maya says
“You’re not terrible,” her mother replies.

And as you might expect, mothers are often the ones children confide in. “Usually I keep my mother informed about everything that happens in my life. But I can not tell her about Jack and his failed kiss, or the shock of seeing her with Sybil, ”says a heroine of Julia Clarke.

If the mother of John, Rhiannon Lassiter’s hero, is dead and his father remarries, she remains constantly present in the young boy’s mind: “he remembered the smell of his mother, like apples and soap, the way she took him in. his arms to wish him good night. They were little souvenirs, but they were all his. “

Although the mothers often remain in the background, the story certainly would not be complete without them. In fact, they play many more and different roles in their children’s lives. And they are not just mothers.

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