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Lecturer examines gender, citizenship

| Sunday, December 7, 2014

Claudia Nelson, an English professor at Texas A&M University, examined the definitions and implications of child citizenship in the lecture titled “The Lady or the Tiger? The Shifting Gender of the Girl Citizen” on Friday in McKenna Hall.

The keynote address, part of the Fun with Dick and Jane Gender and Childhood Conference, explored the phenomenon of “child citizenship” in Victorian and contemporary literature. Nelson defined child citizenship as the process by which children learn to understand and engage in their social roles and become active participants within a community.

“For some years now, critical debate in the field of children’s literature has been addressing the question of the child’s citizenship,” she said. “The term citizenship embraces a range of areas, if not the ability to vote or the requirement to pay taxes, then the expectation that the child will nonetheless engage in other activities that contribute to the community, from fulfilling domestic responsibilities to engaging in religious and or patriotic movements.”

Although the role of child citizenship is often examined from a historical perspective, Nelson said it is not commonly examined from a gendered perspective. Nelson, who focused mainly on the process of child citizenship in young girls, said textual analysis of children’s literature through a gendered perspective reveals unique details about differences in child citizenship between boys and girls.

According to Nelson, while the process of citizenship for boys requires conforming to social norms, young girls achieve growth when they reject traditional female gender norms.

“The process of creating the girl citizen in a particular community is often represented as involving acts of public nonconformity to gender norms that the text identifies as inadequate,” she said.

Nelson focused on texts ranging from 17th century to contemporary literature and analyzed the work of authors such as James Janeway, Sarah Fielding, Louisa May Alcott, Carol Ryrie Brink and Suzanne Collins.

Nelson said the trend she noticed in religious Puritan and even secular, morally-focused literature is to use the child’s process of denouncing conventional gender roles as a path towards morality, while more contemporary literature focusses on young girls adopting gender roles from parental and societal figures.

“The principled nonconformist becomes crucial to the text’s presentation of the twin ideas that the girl is indeed a potential citizen and that her citizenship requires a particular stance within her society,” she said.

An important part of the narrative of child citizenship in young women is the transformative process of trauma, which Nelson said is usually represented by a central conflict within the novel that forces the girl to break from conventional gender norms.

“In gendered terms, the pain works to establish a girl’s feminine vulnerability or sensitivity while later events establish that, as a mature citizen, she is nonetheless strong,” she said.

Nelson said children’s literature that explores the process of child citizenship in girls is able to provide valuable criticisms against dominant cultural values and norms. Nelson said these novels help create alternative roles for young women and demonstrate the constructive power of childhood trauma.

“It is time to turn our attention from the victimized child to the empowered child,” she said.

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