If anything has changed in human relations it is the expectations of girls and boys and the relationship between women and men. For many girls and boys today it is incomprehensible that the two sexes have been treated as differently as they actually have been.
Museum exhibitions about children’s cultural history focused on gender may – apart from giving today’s children an aha-experience of earlier discrimination – also give them a basis for understanding the large differences between the sexes among children and young adults from other cultures. But first and foremost it can provide children with a self-knowledge about the reasons for the large differences in preferences and networks depending on whether you are a girl or a boy, and why acceptance from your peer group is so important all through childhood.
The exhibition is an important contribution to contemplating something as omnipresent as gender identity which is a major part of our cultural heritage. It is about children’s cultural history, showing elements of children’s circumstances in the common and upper middle classes with games, school and child labour then and now, family structures and siblings, children’s diseases and infant mortality rates. Differences in demands and expectations for boys and girls is a common theme in the topics' displays:
Family size and infant mortality rate
Many children grew up with a lot of sisters and brothers even though many babies didn’t live to be one year old. Until 100 years ago the infant mortality rate in Denmark during the child’s first year, as in most of Europe, was app. 20% in the cities and a little less in the country. (In a lot of family portraits from the 17th century the children are often painted with girls on one side of the parents, boys on the other, and dead siblings floating in white above or below the other children.) It was not rare for mothers to die in childbirth – which meant that rather more children than today grew up without their biological mother. ’The evil stepmother’ did not just exist in fairy-tales, but – evil or not – was a reality for many children.
Death was a reality for everybody of every age. Superstition and humility in the face of death were guiding principles for many stories.
Today the infant mortality rate is low and families are smaller, but separation threatens in another way. The divorce rate is increasing and stepmothers and stepfathers enter many children’s lives.
Children who lived in the country during early industrialisation had to work.
Children were mouths to feed, but also hands that could work. From the age of three all children helped with the work. Until 60-70 years ago many children went into service at the age of ten as shepherd boys, stable boys or scullery maids in the kitchen. In the cities they got small jobs at the factories, and apart from that the boys could serve as messengers for the craftsmen and the girls as domestic help.
Until 50 years ago all children, except those from the wealthier classes, went into service at the age of 14, the girls as maids, the boys as farm hands or junior apprentices. When the girls had time off they wove, sewed and embroidered clothes and linen – but what did the boys do with their rare spare time while the girls knitted and embroidered?
Schooling and children’s institutions
Boys had the opportunity of schooling long before it became common to offer this to girls. In the larger cities grammar schools were built for boys and several convents had boys’ schools while only a few convents offered girls’ schools as well.
In 1814 Denmark passed the bill of common schools (when did this happen in other countries?) and both girls and boys between the ages of seven and fourteen went to school. However, the discrimination continued as only boys had access to further education and it was not until 1903 that girls were allowed to enter public high schools. In the 17th century Chr. IV’s institution for homeless children was built in Copenhagen and in 1787 the Convent of Our Lady in Århus started a ’spinning school’ for the hopelessly poor, i.e. homeless children. Around 1900 day nurseries were set up to take care of the children of single or married working class mothers during the day while the mothers worked – the forerunners of kindergartens and day-care centers.
At the same time a number of reformatories were founded for older children who misbehaved, as well as institutions for disabled, retarded or other children who were difficult to handle at home. Until the 1970s, reformatories were divided into girls' homes and boys' homes.
Sweden declared the 20th century the century of childhood (Ellen Key), which meant that a new educational theory based on children’s needs, was about to replace the old idea of beating sense into children.
Play and toys
What children were given and what they played with in the top layers of society reflected the two sexes. Girls were meant for housework, playing with dolls and fabrics and later the decoration and maintenance of the home, while boys were meant for soldiers’ lives, society and extroverted work.
Among the common classes the toys were simpler, but ithey still reflected the two main lines: soldiers and action for the boys and dolls and nurture for the girls. Today, when we take care to treat girls and boys equally and expect the same from them, the toys have become extremely gender oriented.
Body and clothes
The first years of their lives little girls and boys were dressed alike and they all looked like little girls – in the upper classes with white collars and dresses and many of them even with long curly hair. All the children in the family could inherit and use the same clothes. When factory-made clothes became more common than homemade ones, it also became common to have light blue clothes for boys and pink for girls. The distinction between the clothes of the two sexes above the age of 4-5 has been pronounced from as far back as we have pictures of children, with trousers for boys and skirts for girls. During the 1970s all little girls looked like boys in their overalls – but since then red and girls’ colours alongside blue and boys’ colours have come back with a renewed emphasis on the sexual character.
Sports have always been gender divided – historically mainly girls have had to overcome many boundaries of movement, freedom and state of undress. In the 1990s people said: ’Life’s too short for women’s handball’, and in spite of many examples of fine players in women’s sports it is very hard to get rid of this difference.
Books and media
Boys’ books and girls’ books became common in the 1950s with boy heroes and girl heroes – long before the idea of women’s literature became a fact in adult books. Unisex-books came with the books about ’The Five’ – at least these books were published in Denmark. Unisex has had a renaissance with Harry Potter, if you disregard Hermione’s girlish diligence and good behaviour and Ron’s boyish love of pranks and jokes.
Today’s computer games are mostly for boys. Not that games with and for girls don’t exist, but because boys spontaneously chose to spend time on computer games and netsurfing alone or with their friends, while girls, in spite of equal access to computers, don’t make the same choice.
With artefacts, lot of photos, tapes, films and the newest technology we will build the exhibition in a 200 m2 room supplied with a welcoming room and a place for archives.