Gender Constructs

Children's literature performs a variety of cultural functions. Indeed, the tales reflect and influence the attitudes, values, and behavior for each gender. These agents of socialization outline what certain cultures expect of their young boys and girls. In particular, the Female Guardian (1784) is a juvenile text that acting as an invaluable resource for students of women's cultural status and literary production during the eighteenth century.22

The gender constructs within children's literature changed as a result of the late eighteenth century expansion of the middle class women's reading public and women crowded into the juvenile market. In addition, the narrative construct allowed for women authors to discover their role as the maternal mentor. That is, the instructive genre of the storybook granted the women a mode in which to have her social say. Furthermore, society was very accepting towards this new role for women. Even the male theorists of the time supported literature that portrayed women as mentors. For instance, Dr. William Buchman claimed that the mother's "instincts and example will have a lasting influence... and will go farther to form the morals than all the eloquence of the pulpit, the efforts of the school-master, or the coercive power of the civil magistrate."23

This early group of professional women created and advocated the idea of enlightened domesticity. They flavored their stories with didacticism and a moral tone to promote this perception of women. For example, in Mary Wollstonecraft's Original Stories, Wollstonecraft creates the picture of the ideal mother. This cultural perception depicts an all-powerful mother who is responsible for her children's education and fate. Wollstonecraft believed that children should learn from living examples and not direct teaching: "the first inlets to the heart, and the improvements of those instruments of the understanding is the object education should constantly have in view, and over which we have most power."24 Hence, the paragon of the all-powerful mother was important for practical reasons.

Original Stories features one of the most prominent mother figure, Mrs. Mason. She is the maternal person who forms the text with her explanations, anecdotes, and histories. In the story, two adolescent girls, Mary and Caroline, do not have a mother ; thus they lack a guide to lead them out of their shameful ignorance and prejudices. Under the tutelage of Mrs. Mason , they become inculcated with all the women's ways of coping with the maternal ethic of self-command, charity, reflection and religion. Mrs. Mason exemplifies the enlightened maternal affections that later becomes central to Wollstonecraft's feminine agenda in the Vindication on the Rights of Woman.

During the late eighteenth century, women were barred from participation in much of the Georgian sociopolitical life. However, through the figure of Mrs. Mason, Wollstonecraft suggests that women can redefine power as the realization of internal capacities as spiritual aspiration, as pedagogic and philanthropic power. The book demonstrates how qualities culturally associated with women such as nurturing, empathy, and the habit of thinking in terms of human relationships, are vitally needed in the larger community.25 For the women in society, the act of nurturing became a source of power and also reflected a longing to have been nurtured themselves. The social message in these books show women's ability to mold literary and cultural conventions to suit their own needs.

Children's literature can be valued for women writer's self-expression. Yet, women's verses have been presented as uncomplicated texts written at a child's reading's level, overlooking the ways in which works overtly written for children hide covert messages intended for adult readers. The devaluation of woman's children's verses is rooted in the aesthetic politics of the Romantic era. The canonical writers mythologized the child, turning pedagogy into a poetic "master narrative-the Romantic story of emergent male self."26

At the same time, despite the creation of the mother-nurturer role, children's verses are critiqued for representing a patriarchal literary authority in symbolic family dynamics. For example, Charlotte Smith's (hyperlink for Smith) Conversations Introducing Poetry is a mother's manual on teaching children the importance e of poetry. In her work, Smith places the brother and sister under the supervision of the mother-poet, a figure similar to Wollstonecraft's Mrs. Mason. The "mother-poet" insists that girls must be educated in the fundamental skills of poetry, reading, and analysis. Smith presents the brother and sister pair under the guidance of an authoritative mother who is teacher, poet, naturalist, and literary criticism.27

On the other hand, the relationship between the siblings shows the overarching patriarchal construct of the culture. Children texts with sibling tropes is written for the children, but it is also used to send a message about the gendering of culture to adults. For instance, Smith tropes the gendering of literary authority as the big brother and uses this trope to reveal and to alleviate the debilitating effects of a patriarchal poetic discourse.28 In general, "brothers" are taught to educate their sisters in classical languages, in poetry, math, and science, and "sisters" are taught to demand a literary education from them. Unfortunately, such tropes reinforce the patriarchy by encouraging the benevolence of brothers. The superior position of the brother who has control over knowledge and education is ultimately supported.

Despite the criticism of this trope, women are allowed to negotiate a place within the patriarchal structure without being overwhelmed by or locked into a fruitless struggle against patriarchy. Sisters need not overthrow their brothers, they just need to negotiate a space that is relational yet allows for some independence.29

In conclusion, children's literature shapes and defines the gender relations in the literary and cultural contexts. The texts presents tropes that reinforce patriarchal designs. However, women can be portrayed as nurturing yet powerful figures and girls are depicted as having the right to ask for an education from the male-biased system. Additionally, children's literature gave women writers an outlet to reconstruct their perception of the woman's role in society. Overall, the eighteenth century marks a growing genre of literature that helped to change the gender roles in literature and society.