Monday, December 16, 2013

Against sexist conditioning: "Let Toys Be Toys"

Guest Blogpost by Tessa Trabue, Let Toys Be Toys Campaigner

"A Long History...

Among the texts denounced and attitudes demolished by Mary Wollstonecraft (“Writers Who Have Rendered Women Objects of Pity”, ch.5 of VRW*), is this from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, quoted on p.178 of the Penguin Classic edition: “Boys love sports of noise and activity; to beat the drum, to whip the top, and to drag about their little carts: girls, on the other hand, are fonder of things of show and ornament, such as mirrors, trinkets, and dolls: the doll is the peculiar amusement of the females; from whence we see their taste plainly adapted to their destination...” (Emile, 1762).

Mary, by contrast, contended that “a girl, whose spirits have not been damped by inactivity, or innocence tainted by false shame, will always be a romp.” She was clear about the tendency of Rousseau’s ideas: “To render [the person of a young woman] weak, and what some may call beautiful, the understanding is neglected, and girls forced to sit still, play with dolls, and listen to foolish conversations; - the effect of habit is insisted upon as an undoubted indication of nature.” (p.179 in same).

 * Mary Wollstonecraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, edited with an Introduction by Miriam Brody, Penguin Classics (1985) 1992."

It is over 250 years since Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote those words, over 220 since Mary Wollstonecraft’s riposte, and yet sadly, when we look at the way that toys are currently being marketed to children, it is apparent that many of these gender stereotypes are just as persistent today in the UK.

British women have fought for and made many gains over the last two centuries, including the right to vote, access to equal education, and in the workplace, the freedom to apply for all kinds of jobs (although the pay gap remains an ongoing issue). However, when we see the way that many toys are being manufactured and sold to children throughout the UK today, one might be forgiven for thinking that we were living in much more restrictive times. Toys that develop creative, caring, and indeed home-making skills, such as dolls, buggies, irons, play houses and kitchens, are often manufactured in pink and described as being for girls, whereas action, construction, vehicles and science toys (and sometimes even traditional games and puzzles) are marketed to boys. (Sometimes shops only have a sign for 'girls' toys; the inference we could take from this is that everything else is for boys).

This trend towards separate, gendered toys is very worrying. Don't boys grow up to become dads, teachers, nurses, chefs and hairdressers?   Don't girls become scientists, architects, pilots, and drivers? Children learn through play; how will they be able to access unlimited creative play, the fun role playing that might also help inform their future career choices, when so many types of toys are being cut off from them purely because of their gender?

Fortunately, there is a campaign that is addressing these very issues. Let Toys Be Toys is a social media campaign that formed a year ago off a Mumsnet discussion thread, made up of frustrated parents who were tired of seeing their children being sold these restrictive stereotypes, and decided to do something about it. The group uses a combination of tactics to contact UK and Irish retailers and ask them to remove ‘Boys’ and ‘Girls’ signs from their toy displays, including Facebook posts, tweets, meeting with the retailers themselves and old-fashioned letter writing.

The campaign has had huge success over the last year in getting 12 major retailers to agree to take down the gendered toy signs in their toy departments and let children decide for themselves what they would like to play with.

One of the group's first successes was Boots.  In April 2013, a shopper tweeted a picture of an in-store display showing a 'Boys' sign over their display of toys from the Science Museum. The picture was retweeted many times, causing outrage, and was picked up by the campaign, who contacted both Boots and the Science Museum. Eventually Boots replied and was very apologetic in their response, stating that they had "...always been proud of supporting women in science and in particular in their careers in pharmacy... It was never our intention to stereotype certain toys. It's clear we have got this signage wrong, and we're taking immediate steps to remove it from store." 

In the following month, members of the campaign met with senior management from the Entertainer toy store. This retailer had been criticised for having some of the most blatant gender segregating signage, with their stores being divided in half with huge pink ‘Girls’ and blue ‘Boys’ signs (often accompanied with a photograph of girl or a boy on the sign), and in some outlets this gender divide was further emphasised on the floor, with pink/blue carpet reinforcing the separation. The campaign received many pictures from supporters highlighting the ridiculousness of dividing the toys by gender; for example, in some Entertainer stores, all games, puzzles, science toys, costumes (including princess dresses), musical instruments and bath toys were under large ‘Boys’ signs, while all Teletubbies toys, arts and crafts items including crayons and modelling clay, and soft toys were under ‘Girls’ signs. (Some examples of the old signage can be see in the photos here). The senior management was very receptive to the campaigners’ and supporters' feedback. They agreed to get rid of the gendered signs, and are introducing new signs in their stores, with categories such as ‘Arts and Crafts’, ‘Construction Toys’, ‘Games and Puzzles’, and ‘Imagine and Play’, sometimes accompanied with photos depicting a boy and girl together.

Let Toy Be Toys’ successes have continued throughout the rest of 2013, with other major retailers such Toys R Us, and most recently, Debenhams, agreeing to phase out the gendered signs from their stores and replace with signs based on age or theme. The campaign also won the Progressive Preschool Marketing Award 2013 for their impact on sexism in the toy industry.

In addition to publicising and calling for change in problematic stores, Let Toys Be Toys also wants to promote shops and online retailers who are selling toys, books and sports equipment in a gender inclusive way. The campaign launched its ‘Toymark’ scheme in October, which awards retailers displaying good practice and labelling items by age or theme with the Toymark badge, and promotes these retailers on the Let Toys Be Toys website and on social media. So far, only a handful of retailers have achieved Toymark status and received this award, including Letterbox Library for their fantastic selection of inclusive books for children (see here for their news for the upcoming The Little Rebels Children's Book Award for Radical Fiction).

So what is next for the campaign?  The group has received feedback from retailers that, even when they take down the gendered signs and arrange toys by type, they will still appear to have displayed their toys in a gendered way, and that the problem is down to manufacturers packaging. In other words, a retailer can stock toys by ‘theme’, and place all of the dolls together, and all of the vehicles together; but if those toys are packaged respectively in wholly pink and blue packaging, it will look like a gendered display. Let Toys Be Toys plans to start approaching manufacturers to discuss the possibility of using wide range of different colours for toys packaging, so as not to put off children who have internalised that 'pink is for girls, blue is for boys.'

The campaign relies on help from its large numbers of supporters, and there are many ways to get involved. You can become a 'mystery shopper' by taking pictures of sexist toys displays and tweeting them both to the @LetToysBeToys and the retailer's twitter addresses. This often brings rapid results (using the #NotBuyingIt hashtag often produces a quick response as well). Similarly, posting pictures of displays or toys to the Let Toys Be Toys Facebook page ( is a good way both to publicise the issue and generate more in-depth conversation about it. For those who wish to remain anonymous or do not use social media, you can email pictures or general concerns to the campaigners at

Let Toys Be Toys receives no funding apart from donations from our supporters,  and is run by volunteers in their spare time. Contributions are gratefully received - no amount too small!  If you would like to help by giving a small donation, say the price of a cup of coffee, please see our Donate page for more details:

Finally, if you are interested in getting involved as a volunteer, please email us at

Campaigners against gender stereotyping in childhood:
Tessa with street-art portrait of Mary W., N E London 2013

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Opposition to the First World War

How it was motivated and sustained: An outline

Because those who took an anti-war position were in a minority, and challenged basic tenets of the dominant ideology, there was a tendency for them to be ignored by or written out of orthodox history for much of the 20th century. More recent mainstream work has partly compensated for earlier neglect. At the same time, their awareness of disapproved, dissident status along with a strong conviction of being in the right, led activists to propagate their opinions by publishing their own versions of events, and in some cases gave their political successors an interest in rescuing them from oblivion.

Socialists and Libertarians

With socialist parties gaining ground in the early years of the century, and employing rhetoric about workers uniting across international boundaries against the common capitalist enemy, governments might well have had misgivings about the likely popular reaction to a declaration of war. Although in the event the initial upsurge of patriotic fervour in each of the belligerent countries rather exceeded expectations – some of the most prominent labour leaders immediately came out in support of the war – there were groups and factions who took a principled stance, holding meetings and distributing leaflets denouncing the aims and actions of their rulers. Notable among those, in Britain, were the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and sections of the Herald League such as that in North London. Ken Weller’s case-study of the latter uses a variety of sources to give a picture of a population far from united in support for the war, and disinclined to suffer its effects passively.

In 1912 an anti-war leaflet, “Murder is murder” was published by well-known anarcho-syndicalist Tom Mann, incurring a prison sentence; he continued to speak out during the conflict, sometimes sharing a platform with Sylvia Pankhurst. Anarchists and libertarians, by definition “agin the government” and hostile to authority, on finding themselves in a situation where the state explicitly arrogated to itself the ultimate power over every citizen, were more or less bound to deny any justification for war. They were therefore, it is probably true to say, more consistent in their adverse response than other sections of the left – although the foremost anarchist theoretician, Kropotkin, was an unfortunate exception.

Writers, Philosophers, Pacifists

The decision not to fight might arise as a private and personal matter, not that it could remain so, especially when conscription made it punishable by trial and imprisonment, or worse. But it was often proclaimed and publicised with evangelical passion. “It was an objection to having one’s life dictated by an outside authority,” stated Edward Marten (a Quaker), while Fenner Brockway explained that he and fellow conscientious objectors (COs) were not merely resisting a Conscription Act but “witnessing for peace... Not only against the war of 1914-18, but... against war altogether.”

Views expressed by writers were, unsurprisingly, varied, complex, often contradictory, and did not remain static. There were those who, like George Bernard Shaw, felt their intelligence outraged by the reasons advanced for going to war. Others fit more closely the romantic-poetic image: starting out with excitement, even enthusiasm, later to be overcome by disillusion and despair. The negative reaction did not inevitably entail refusing to fight any more, but was perceived as subversive enough when articulated openly as in Siegfried Sassoon’s cogent criticism of “the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men were being sacrificed.” (His now celebrated manifesto was first published in the Workers’ Dreadnought).

Outspoken public opposition to the war was also voiced by some of the most intellectually high-powered thinkers of the day, in particular Bertrand Russell, who of course became and continued to be a leading advocate of international peace, still taking on the war-mongering state as a civil-disobedient nonagenarian in the early 1960s.

Some Feminists

From opposing viewpoints, both of gender stereotyping and of a rational assessment of the position of women in society, it might have been concluded that active patriotism was not something for women, and that the idea of their participation in war (anyway supposed to be vicarious or at most supportive) should be rejected. Of course, they did participate in all sorts of ways. The feminist movement had for some time been showing, in struggling for the vote, some of what women were capable of in the way of organisation, forcefulness, courage and endurance. Historians still sometimes allege or imply that “the Suffragettes” supported the war en masse, and were rewarded by the limited franchise bestowed in 1918 by a grateful state. In fact the split, already apparent, between advocates of spectacular, often self-martyring individual “deeds” and those who turned to class struggle, became explicit on the question of the war. It is famously epitomised in the contrast presented by Sylvia Pankhurst, working with women in London’s East End, and her mother and one sister exhorting young men to get out there and be killed.

Industry and the Armed Forces

Actions that subverted the war effort did not necessarily arise from, or lead to, a pacifist outlook. They did at least indicate, however, that a point could be reached – especially, and crucially, within the industrial workforce and among the fighting troops themselves – where marching along, in step with the supposed national consensus, ceased to be of paramount concern. Inadequate pay, unbearable conditions, irrational orders and enforced subjection to harsh discipline repeatedly provoked outbreaks of resistance, even at risk of the heaviest penalty. There were mutinies by British and Commonwealth troops as well as extensively in the French army. Both countries saw significant episodes of industrial militancy: France’s  ”year of unrest”, 1917, and Britain’s “Red Clydeside” with added rent strikes. Reverberations from the Russian Revolution contributed to challenging the complacency of the dominant class.

Changing Attitudes

 Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel Sunset Song (1932, first part of his trilogy A Scots Quair) gives a powerful impression of the impact of the First World War on a rural Scottish community. In it (spoiler alert) the young guy who unthinkingly goes off to join up, after a process of coarsening and de- then re-sensitising, eventually turns his back (literally) on the whole business and is shot as a deserter. Meanwhile the local conscientious objector, having held out against public opinion and official disapproval, finally and fatally decides he is unable to stay uninvolved and is killed in his turn. This kind of fictional scenario parallels the view of some historians that people in society at large, as they became aware of casualty figures and battlefield horrors, came to despise the rhetorical propaganda of patriotism and to see through the rationale for going to war – even if perversely or desperately determined to see it through to the bitter end, in a vicious spiral of yet more sacrifice to make the preceding sacrifice seem “not in vain”.

Retrospect (from 1998)

During the 80th anniversary commemorations of the Armistice, in Britain at least, there were many harrowing depictions of horrors of war, and many statements about its futility, including some from surviving veterans. It has become possible, indeed customary, to acknowledge mistakes and even denounce crimes committed by the authorities, in their conduct of campaigns and in having shell-shock sufferers “shot at dawn”. Conspicuously absent, though, was any allusion to those who consciously, deliberately opposed the war at the time, and were prepared to act individually or collectively to resist it, at whatever risk. Opinion-formers in society are evidently more comfortable with the idea of tragic victims safely entombed in the past than with any realisation that they might have tried to confront and alter their apparently inexorable fate.


Nov. 1998, revised Dec. 2013

The above fairly basic stuff, mostly from 15 years ago, is offered as a contribution to the “remembering-the-real” discussion around the WW1 centenary.