Early Childhood Education

Feminism in Early Childhood Education


Feminism is the worldwide struggle to end sexist oppression. Often misunderstood as a radical push to make women equal to men in our society (i.e., “women’s lib”), feminism does not aim for social equity; rather, the emphasis is on ending sexist oppression for all women. Although in industrialized countries white middle-class women have made significant strides in gaining access to education and economy, most women throughout the world continue to suffer under male control. In the broadest sense, feminism is the political movement for global gender equality. It is one of the most powerful struggles for social justice in the modern world and is becoming more and more recognized and established within the educational community.

Across educational settings, sexist oppression is perhaps most visible in early childhood. The predominance of female teachers within this field is illustrative of the long-standing social belief that working with young children is women’s work, and that women are instinctively good at teaching because they innately love children. Furthermore, it is widely held that women are by nature maternal beings and thus provide nurturing mother-images in classrooms; male teachers, on the other hand, provoke harsh, authoritative father-images. By juxtaposing females as maternal and soft against males who are abrasive and punishing, women are socially positioned as the weaker sex. A significant objective of feminist research in early childhood education is the deconstruction of this sexist definition of teaching. A great deal of current feminist work focuses on what being both a woman and a teacher of young children means within present-day United States society.

The work of Robin Leavitt (1994) is a hallmark example of feminist work in early childhood education. Leavitt challenges the “teacher = mother” notion, revealing sexist power structures that keep female teachers marginalized. She explains that, regardless of how instinctive or innate teaching and loving children may appear to be for women, the emotional investment that is required of teachers is not natural. Rather, she says, it is bought and sold labor:

The emotional labor of the caregivers is complex, as they are expected to develop a sense of investment in each child that enables them to sustain caring throughout the day and over time, but also each day release children to their parents. In short, caregivers are expected to emotionally engage intensely, and disengage gracefully, and do both upon demand. (p. 61).

Feminism also challenges the gendered nature of that which is considered to be acceptable knowledge in early childhood education. Worth considerable note is that, despite the fact that approximately 98 percent of early childhood teachers are female, the predominant theories upon which most practices are based were generated by men. Friedrich Froebel, John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, Sigmund Freud and Arnold Gesell are frequently referenced as sources for the field’s knowledge base. While there are many females who have made a mark on early childhood education (e.g., Maria Montessori, Elizabeth Peabody, Patti Smith Hill, Constance Kamii, to name a few), the overall early childhood philosophy is dominated by male worldviews. This notion is underscored in the field’s written history, such that kindergarten has a father (i.e., Froebel) but not a mother.

Feminist ideology challenges the structure of the traditional “malestream” approach to early childhood education (Coffey and Delamont, 2000) and suggests alternative classroom practices via inquiry into curriculum content and the establishment of classroom communities with democratic values—in other words, a feminist pedagogy. Feminist pedagogy is the political effort aimed at dismantling the masculine culture of power in education and building instead a society which benefits and values all students and all knowledge, not just that of males. In this approach to education, stereotypic female traits that keep women socially marginalized (e.g., care) are repositioned as strengths (e.g., an intellectual and moral relationship). Feminist teachers maintain an awareness of male privilege in education—and society in general—and work to develop an education appropriate for women. For instance, within this approach life histories and personal stories are recognized as valid ways of knowing. Within early childhood settings, feminist pedagogy is represented by supporting gender-free play zones, encouraging the boys, for example, to help take care of the babies in the dramatic play area and creating spaces that invite and support girls’ efforts in the block corner. Some educators strategically move those two traditionally separate play spaces so that they are integrated, thereby discouraging easy gendered segregation of children’s play activities and social relations.

A central challenge to the feminist movement in education, however, is the lack of any unified, consistent definition of, or theoretical approach to feminism; rather, there are “feminisms.” Because of the broad and often misinterpreted conceptualization of feminism, teachers are discouraged from using the term as a form of personal or political identity. It is encouraged, instead, that teachers “advocate feminism” in their practice, noting that “the foundation of future feminist struggle must be solidly based on a recognition of the need to eradicate the underlying cultural basis and causes of sexism and other forms of group oppression” (hooks, 2000, p. 33). See also Gender and Gender Stereotyping in Early Childhood Education.

Further Readings: Belenky, M. F., B. M. Clinchy, N. R. Goldberger, and J. M. Tarule (1986). Women's ways of knowing: The development of self, body, and mind. New York: Basic Books; Brady, J. (1995). Schooling young children: A feminist pedagogy for liberatory learning. Albany, NY: SUNY Press; Coffey, A., and S. Delamont (2000). Feminism and the classroom teacher. London: Routledge Falmer; Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women's development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; hooks, b. (2000). Feminist theory: From margin to center. Cambridge, MA: South End Press; Humm, M., ed. (1992). Modern feminisms: Political, literary, cultural. New York: Columbia University Press; Jipson, J. (1995). Teacher-mother: An imposition of identity. In J. Jipson, P. Munro, S. Victor, K. F. Jones, and G. Freed-Rowland, eds., Repositioning feminism and education: Perspectives on educating for social change. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, pp. 20-35; Leavitt, R. (1994). Power and emotion in infant-toddler day care. Albany, NY: SUNY Press; Maher, F. (1999). Progressive education and feminist pedagogies: Issues in gender, power, and authority. Teachers College Record 10(1), 3559; Noddings, N. (1984). Caring. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press; Weedon, C. (1997). Feminist practice and poststructuralist theory. 2nd ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell; Weiler, K., ed. (2001). Feminist engagements. New York: Routledge.

Candra Thornton