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May 7, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Letters to Dot

Gender, letters to the editor, and the passing of century.

“It seems I am offending another girl just by calling her a girl.”

It would not be hard to believe that this statement appeared in a letter to the editors in the back of Salient, as Steve Cones defended himself against those who disagreed with his verdict that girls at Victoria just weren’t “taking pride in their appearance”.

But it didn’t. It begins a letter from “Bob” to “Dot” that was published in The Otago Witness on ‘Dot’s Little Folks’ page in 1898. Louisa Baker was the first Dot but she was succeeded by both men and women. The page allowed children and teenagers to discuss their lives with each other and with Dot. The female readers had been voicing their disagreement with Bob’s misogynistic outlook.

“Did I ever say to you Dot that I disliked or despised girls?” said Bob in an earlier letter. “…I think they are all ‘much of a muchness’. But that isn’t despising them.”

It has been suggested that Bob’s letters were commissioned by the Witness to incite more girls into writing for the page. It worked. Bob was trolling—Victorian style. Maybe Cones was trolling too, but the gender conflict they provoked is genuine. Both readers of ‘Dot’s Little Folk’ and Salient readily defended and aligned themselves by gender.

Many maintain that gender conflict is the result of society’s expectations that the sexes uphold opposing values. But despite the century of feminism between them, the structure of gender conflict in the letters to Dot and Salient is amusingly similar.

Because Cones is the product of modern society, we can assume, or perhaps blindly hope, that he believes females and males should have equal opportunities. But he did not consider the possibility that boys at Victoria weren’t taking pride in their appearance either. He may not have intended to be offensive, but he did not hesitate to hold different standards for each gender. On the other hand, Bob was raised in a culture steeped in gender prejudice, yet he didn’t seem to occupy himself with Victorian gender roles—he claimed he could sew.  Bob’s main gripe was that girls thought he ate too much.

You would expect Cones and Bob’s stories to be reversed. If a century of transforming social norms and blurring gender roles does not diminish the prevalence of gender conflict then what does? Can we even call it “gender” conflict? It becomes tempting to say that the conflict is rooted in unavoidable biological differences, rather than the clash of abstract identities. But this isn’t true.

Research led by Beverly Fagot of the University of Oregon found that babies were able to distinguish the difference between pictures of male and female adults. Babies were also shown pictures in which the women had shorter hair and wore masculine clothing. The changes in these gender attributes did not affect the results. Researchers concluded that the ability to distinguish people by sex develops naturally but the ability to categorise people based on gender attributes has to be learned. This seems obvious to most people.

However, the ability to distinguish people by sex does not cause children to discriminate between their peers. The same team conducted research at playgroups. Two year old children who could correctly assign gender labels to pictures were far less likely to play with the opposite sex than those who couldn’t. Why do children discriminate against others based on gender but not sex?

According to Diane Ruble of New York University, young children have a “growing awareness of membership in a [male or female] social group”. Children begin to search for ways in which they can further identify themselves with the group. Parents provide many when they give their children gender-typed toys. The consequence of identifying with a social group is a wariness of anyone who does not belong to the group. Members will discriminate against those who do not subscribe to their gender ideals, even if they are of the same sex.

Gender roles have changed since Bob wrote his letters. But what connects his world to Cones’ is the continued presence of two predominant gender groups. Regardless of whether there is social equality, the mere existence of two gender groups means they will pitch themselves against one another.

We’re back where we started. Gender exists and it creates conflict. What should we do about this?

Some parents are trying to close the gender divide. They believe that children should not only respect other genders, but that they should be “gender neutral”.  According to The Telegraph, Beck Laxton and Kieran Cooper attempted to raise their son Sasha as gender neutral for the first five years of his life. Only close relatives were informed of the child’s sex and were asked to keep it a secret. He was only allowed to play with gender-neutral toys. The attempt is not unique.

According to the same article, Dr Daragh McDermott, psychology lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University, has said that there is “little empirical research” investigating the long term of affects of attempting to raise gender neutral children. Sasha’s story raises the question: how much should parents interfere with their child’s gender development?

Sasha’s parents want to him to develop his own identity. But by concealing Sasha’s sex and referring to him as “The Infant” have his parents denied him the important process of identifying with a social group? Furthermore, by only allowing Sasha to play with gender neutral toys have they really given him opportunity to experiment with his gender identity? Ethicist and Professor Margaret Somerville at McGill University also asks us to consider whether “the parents [are] doing this for the kids… or… for themselves?”

Deborah L. Wisnowski wrote a piece for the Clinics about her experiences raising a gender non-conforming child. Her son Bobbi never identified himself with a male social group. Of his own accord, he developed a feminine gender identity. Wisnowski recounted “many moments for parents of gender non-conforming kids that are heart-breaking”. Bobbi struggled to make friends and have a fulfilling school life. Sasha’s parents have raised a child in a gender-neutral environment with the knowledge that he may experience the hardships common to the experience of  gender non-conforming children.

“Children are the gender they are identifying as, so they should live as the people they really are” says Wisnowski. Gender neutrality is not the answer to gender conflict. A culture in which children can confidently acquire gender identities is preferable, even if those identities are stereotypical and conflicting. We definitely should not deny them their sex and prevent them from belonging to social groups.

“I like reading Bob’s letters very much and I wish I could write one like him, but he is a boy and I am only a girl” wrote Jessie C to Dot. We should be glad these attitudes are not as common as they were in the 1890s. Conceptions of gender and the acceptance of diverse gender identities have come far. Gender identities make us who we are. But as long as Salient is published, genders will continue to fight amongst the letters pages. That’s pretty funny and just fine.

A collection of letters to Dot can be found in the book Dear Dot I Must Tell You, edited by Keith Scott.

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  1. Keith Scott says:

    Interesting article. The history of gender is a very strong theme in that section of my book, especially the Jessie C. story. I am pretty sure that “BOB'”s letters were either by or influenced by his mother, who was a journalist herself – which adds another dimenson to what you say
    Glad to know you have seen the book!
    Keith Scott (author)

    • Hugo McKinnon says:

      Hi Keith, I’m glad you found the article interesting. I found your book very enjoyable and well put together!

      My word limit didn’t allow me to elaborate on BOB too much. I chose his letters because I felt they were the best for narrative purposes but I hope I clearly acknowledged that he may not have been the sole voice behind the letters when I said the Witness may have recruited him to write them.

      I found it incredibly bewildering that Jessie C went on to describe her stereotypically masculine job and I was originally going to use that discussion as the basis for the Victorian aspect of this article but felt BOB’s humour was needed.

      Thanks for taking the time to read,

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