Rethinking Gender in Early Childhood Education


Glenda MacNaughton

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    This book would not have been possible without the energy, generosity and friendship of the women whose work with young children forms its substance. In the book they are represented through pseudonyms to protect their privacy and that of the children, parents and colleagues with whom they worked. My thanks to each of them: Cheryl, Judy, Leanne, Jan, Ruth, Gwen, Helen, Michelle, Trish and Fairlie. The debates and questions that formed in the research group have continued within the Research and Gender Equity Network in Early Childhood (RANGE) that formed from the research project, and more recently with postgraduate students. My thanks to RANGE and to my postgraduate students for continuing to support and challenge my everyday work on gender in early childhood. Patrick Hughes has offered incisive comments on the substance and detail within the book and constant support for its politics and mine.

    I have presented earlier versions of the ideas contained within several chapters at a variety of conferences, in journal articles and in chapters in other books. This book builds on this work and in doing so draws on the comments and questions that these earlier papers have provoked. To those who took the time to offer comments and questions, my thanks. My thanks also to Bronwyn Davies, Jennifer Gore and Catherine Patterson for their comments on and encouragement to publish the doctoral research upon which this book is based and to Robin McTaggert for his astute supervision of the research and for his margin notes.

    Thank you to the University of Melbourne for providing the institutional base from which to undertake the research on which the book is based and to Elizabeth Weiss at Allen & Unwin for believing in the book's possibilities.

    My final thanks go to a group of special women who have in very different ways inspired me and continue to inspire my search for feminist questions and answers in early childhood. They are not insiders to early childhood but feminists outside it. Each has supported me in different ways and at different times to stay as a feminist within early childhood. What they share is a willingness to take the business of early childhood seriously and to take my work within it seriously. I want to acknowledge them now as my thirty-year project as a feminist in early childhood takes flight in this book. In the 1970s I joined my first women's group and in it Brenda, Annette, Liz, Dianne and Perri taught me about the strength to be found in coming together as feminists. They always took my attempts at non-sexist teaching seriously and gave me a thirst for the political and intellectual challenges of feminism which still drives my work.

    In the 1980s when I moved to London I joined my second women's group. To Emma Tait, Jane Dempster, Lois Arnold and Sue Lees my thanks for sharing the challenges and joys of living feminism each week as we struggled to do our work as feminists in local government. It was while I was in this group that I learnt to think strategically about how to be a feminist in large institutions. I have much to thank Emma for on this count. While living in London I had the extraordinary experience of working in the Equal Opportunities Unit of Greater London Council, where I found a collegiality that has been unrivalled in my working life. To everyone who was part of the Unit my thanks for taking child care and what happened in it seriously. Judith Hunt was an inspirational leader who used her political skills and intellect to ensure a strong institutional base for child care work. Judith, thanks for that and for the personal friendship and support between us that flowed from that.

    This book is in part my attempt to answer the questions that so often puzzled us about how to make anti-discriminatory practices a reality in the day nurseries. Marion McAlpine has been both friend and colleague whose conversations have always challenged me to stay and seek feminist answers in early childhood. For those conversations that have been so sustaining and supportive, my thanks.


    In 1991 it took seven months to find twelve early childhood teachers who were interested in gender equity and prepared to join a research project about it. Eighteen months into the project several teachers had been seen by colleagues, parents, friends and family as ‘weird’, ‘odd’, ‘radical’, ‘mad feminists’, and ‘over-the-top’ and ‘out-of-step’ with good early childhood practice.

    These reactions themselves seemed out-of-step with the rhetoric of early childhood texts and policies of the time. There had been twenty years of advice to teachers about the need to treat girls and boys in the same way, to work in non-sexist ways with children and to ensure that all children irrespective of gender reached their full potential.

    So why did it take so long to find a small group of early childhood teachers willing to explore gender issues in their classrooms? Why did the teachers face the reactions they did? This book tackles these questions through theorising several stories from the action research project on gender equity in early childhood that I initiated in mid-1991 as part of my doctoral studies.

    The answers I offer are neither simple nor comfortable for those committed to early childhood traditions and ‘truths’. I know this as one who has been committed to them for nearly thirty years. Early childhood traditions and ‘truths’ incite inclusiveness, acceptance of difference and the right of the individual to reach their full potential. It is uncomfortable to hear that these very traditions and ‘truths’ can have the opposite effects in practice. Yet this is a key theme throughout this book. How early childhood traditions and ‘truths’ exclude difference and restrict potential is complex. They do so by relying on understandings of childhood that present simplistic images of how children learn, know and live gender. They do so by insisting that the best way to know and to interact with children is developmentally. They do so by valorising the achievement of the individual's potential above all else. They do so by cloaking the moral, ethical and political nature of teaching.

    To show these complexities I use feminist poststructuralist theory. I do this because I think its ‘toolbox’ of ideas offers powerful tools for seeing the complexities of how children learn, know and live gender and of how teachers learn, know and live teaching. It also offers powerful tools for imagining how to practise early childhood education with feminist intent. These possibilities build from the potentials within feminist poststructuralist theory for new readings of the child, for deep understandings of knowledge-power relations in early childhood education and for generating change with early childhood teachers.

    In seeking a publisher for this book I have often been cautioned that early childhood educators do not read theory and that to talk of theory is to doom the book to the remainders list. However, in working with teachers and students in recent years I know that they revel in talking about their teaching, why things happened the way that they did and what they can learn from it. They revel in talking about their ‘theories’ of teaching. They also seek other people's stories of teaching that excite them to look afresh at their everyday teaching.

    The theory in this book arises from teachers talking about their teaching and reflecting on what ideas or principles might help them solve their gender problems. It is grounded in the everyday gender concerns and practices of teachers and the children they taught. It is used to generate questions about what happened in their everyday lives together, how it happened and to provide ways of understanding it. It is also used to provoke debate about what could and should happen about gender in early childhood education. At times these explanations and provocations are unsettling, at times complex and at times intellectually challenging. However, given that teaching young children is unsettling, complex and challenging, would early childhood teachers really accept explanations of it that are not?

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