'Exploding glitter in your face'
Dr Helen Limon, of Newcastle University, asked one of the UK’s leading activity book publishers to recommend any children’s books that portrayed women either in the military or any of the broad range of roles undertaken as part of peacekeeping activities. But she soon discovered that all their titles were ‘very girly’ and full of fairies and daydreaming princesses, where the boy’s versions were all about action.
“It’s like the book explodes and throws glitter in your face – it’s the pinkest thing I’ve ever seen,” says Dr Limon of one particular example. “There’s a distinct absence of women in these military, action-oriented books and when they do appear, there’s something not quite right,” she adds.
Working with female veterans
Women are increasingly involved in military roles and deployed in all areas of UN peacekeeping as part of a broader humanitarian approach all over the world. However, they do not feature in any of the ‘action rich’ children’s books – and even those about explorers, history and sport seem to show a world that is entirely male.
So, Dr Limon, who is a writer and researcher based in the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts (NCLA ) brought together women veterans in the North East and pulled apart these books, using stickers from the ones targeted at boys to create a more accurate portrayal of what it’s like to be a woman in the military.
As her colleague, Professor of Children’s Literature Kim Reynolds, argues, despite sometimes ‘flying below the cultural radar’, history shows children’s books can have a strong formative influence upon the young. “By eradicating women’s participation in military history and contemporary peacekeeping it becomes more than just about the books – it’s about children’s relationship with the world and how it is presented to them,” explains Dr Limon. “It’s not just girls that are badly represented if there are no women of action in these books – it does all genders a disservice.”
Adjusting to civilian life
Dr Limon is working with Northumberland-based charity Forward Assist to develop gender-specific support for women veterans, who are much more invisible than their male counterparts. She is interviewing women to help create a blueprint for the kind of services that would best help them adjust to civilian life.
She first became involved with military veterans about two years ago when she began working on a joint creative writing project with the NCLA and the Laing Gallery in Newcastle around WWI commemorations.
Dr Limon then started to think it might be interesting to hear what the veterans thought about children’s picture books and, with funding from Newcastle University’s Institute for Social Renewal, she ran three sessions at Seven Stories - The National Centre for Children’s Books in Newcastle. “They gave a number of picture books a very close reading and found that in all of them, their voices were missing,” says Dr Limon. “These women were concerned about the immense distance between the reality and the aspirations offered to young women today.
“Gender stereotyping is far from over – you just have to look at children’s toys to see that,” she adds. “Both boys and girls are made to feel bad about their choices if they don’t conform to what is expected of them – the inference is that there’s something not quite right about a young girl who wants to play with trains or a boy who wants to dress up as a dancer.
“Girls should not be made to feel uncomfortable about aspirations outside of what may have previously been expected of them and this is not about creating a boy’s or girls’ version,” she adds. “Women have been active participants in defending their countries and civilian citizens throughout history – they’ve always been there alongside the men and it’s about time this was acknowledged.”
Profiling women from all over the world
Dr Limon is hoping to profile the amazing women from all over the world who have been active in peacekeeping and the military throughout history in a new book (maybe even a sticker book!) and welcomes suggestions about who should be included.
The collaboration between Newcastle University and Forward Assist is believed to be the first of its kind in the UK. “Newcastle is a civic university that focuses on not just what we are good at, but what we are good for and so it is a real privilege for us to be collaborating with Forward Assist on this important work,” says Dr Limon.
Dr Limon is now also working with women veterans’ associations in the Netherlands and the USA on a creative writing project, Beyond the Uniform, that will help inform a new gender-specific veteran support service.
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