TM5 Workshop: Querying Childhood: Feminist Reframings; 9-10 April 2021

9-10 April 2021

Online via Zoom


Workshop Organisers: TM5 (Janaki Nair, Mary E John, Barbara Lotz and Elisabeth Schömbucher)

Despite a massive resetting of familial relations in every part of the globe, feminist scholarship on the subject of childhood in particular  has been somewhat elusive.  The early work of Philippe Aries in ‘Centuries of Childhood’ had sparked off widespread  interest – and not just among historians — in delineating the specific historical circumstances under which ‘childhood’ as a precious, innocent and increasingly prolonged stage of the human life cycle, emerged over the last four centuries in the Western World. Since then, the de-naturalising and de-privatising of childhood has proceeded apace, across a variety of disciplines,  and in a wide range of geographical contexts and historical times, with interesting and important results for the framing of health, educational, social or economic concerns (including social policy).  Yet only more recently have ‘childhood’ and ‘youth studies’ emerged as specialized fields of study, requiring their own methodologies and concepts.

The feminist re-framing of these issues has had an even shorter existence.   This workshop/conference will begin by asking what difference feminist interrogations and investigations may have made to these ways of charting and configuring the lives of children.  How has ‘childhood’ as an emerging field been thematised or bracketed off generally from its inextricable link to ‘motherhood’? With what consequences?

The realms of education, developmental psychology and sociology (particularly of the spaces of the family and the classroom) have most hospitably accommodated enquiries about childhood. More universally, childhood in the modern period (for convenience, the 19th and 20th centuries) has been shaped within the triangulated space of family, state and market, with the latter two forces producing both important continuities and disjunctures in the present day.

Within this broader realm, historical work on South Asia in particular has been nuanced and enriched by feminist insights, tracing the phases through which ideas and definitions of (particularly middle class/upper caste) childhood were produced over the long 19th century, moving from a period of rescue, (of the threatened female child/bride) through ideologies  of reform (within spaces of enhanced educational opportunity, or through punitive factory law) to times of refigured motherhood and moralized childhood (in the sheer volume and visibility of advice manuals, cookbooks, didactic and children’s literature, textbooks, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries).  Parenting responsibilities were radically feminized, as women were burdened not only as the principal caregivers of families, but as repositories of community culture,  and builders of national pride and strength.

It was also in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the scientific investigation of childhood began, through close observation and documentation of children’s ways and activities, mental physical and sexual health,  as coding life-long patterns. The ‘rule of experts’ was not uniform across the globe, and was overshadowed in some locations by ideologies of nationhood.  How did science evaluate – or more usually overlook — the concomitant production of women as precariously mature beings, even as early childhood care was entrusted entirely to paid and unpaid female labour?

This was also the time when there was a shift away from the social and economic values of children to their psychic preciousness.  By the dawn of the 20th century, childcare required unprecedented amounts of money and time resulting in some instances in smaller families: this process has intensified throughout the century. Especially as planned and command economies are increasingly rejected, the market has begun to reshape older institutional spaces: there is also an increasing universalisation of childhood which in part effaces specific histories.

In the late 20th century and in the new millennium, a more gendered, more stratified idea of ‘familialism’ became imperative, both in research and social policy. The imbalanced and uneven relationships within the emerging ‘care economy’ of the 21st century, (combined with unprecedented technological transformations of processes of conception) are reflected in  ‘care deficits’ and ‘care excess’ existing side by side.

Clearly, the market here looms large, offering ‘solutions’ as it were, to the dilemmas of the working parent/woman, but also reassigning parental responsibility. How does feminism take stock of the roles respectively of market, state and transformed spaces of the family?  In which instances might one invite the state in, or strive to keep it out?

This brings us to the broader question of rights within the realm of the family.

Has the 20th century investment in rights, and increasingly in child rights, been an indisputable improvement or has it generated its own contradictions?  The language of rights, particularly in the 20th century, pulled in the opposite direction from the 19th century preoccupations by focusing on individuated, unique and precious childhoods, sometimes even against parental authority and control.  Here too,  researchers have pointed to  exaggerated notions of ‘child rights’ as  being potentially harmful, in terms of devaluing the economic worth of childhood, and  even having the perverse effect of undermining childhood, fatally pushing children towards making adult choices on questions of sexuality or consumption.  Finally,  ‘child rights’ discourses need not be an unmixed blessing since they may be displacing ideas of the common good that are rooted in families, communities, regions.

These dramatic—perhaps even tectonic —  shifts call for new methodologies and concepts. The idea of the ‘invention of childhood’ has  today become something of  an orthodoxy.  The conference in March 2020 will attempt precisely to open up some of these orthodoxies about childhood to stricter feminist scrutiny. The following are among the themes that could be fruitfully explored:

  1. To arrive at understandings of childhoods, and perhaps even particular historical epochs, through the analysis of memories, would be an important realm of feminist research. Autobiographies of the 19th/20th century have revealed how keenly fought was the battle for the mind of the middle class child, as nascent nationhoods took shape. Are there structures and patterns to memories that are clearly gendered – or should we be looking for frames of caste and class more carefully? ?  What explains the gap between the autobiographical account, which may talk of trauma and of tortured childhoods, and the literary and fictional accounts of childhood,  which evoke far more idyllic, romantic, willfully innocent times? Are there stronger class affinities between those who see themselves as autonomous, creative and active individuals, and those whose lives are inextricably linked to shared social experiences?  What light does this throw on ties of affect within families and how they have been radically reshaped?
  2. The phenomenon of ‘child marriage’ has been a pre-occupation among scholars, policy makers and international agencies expressing concern about ‘lost’ or ‘stolen’ childhoods. A large and very sophisticated body of work has traced its historical roots, while urging legal and other statist interventions in curbing the incidence of child marriage. Has the framework for understanding child marriage remained impervious to empirical work that destabilizes more ‘orientalist’ constructions of the phenomenon as particularly South Asian? Though child marriage for both men and women appears to have declined since the new millennium, the discourse on child marriage has been tied quite closely to legal definitions of age – either aligned to or disjunct from the age of consent ; to ideas of precocious sexuality and teenage pregnancy; and to the idea of ‘compulsory’ marriage in some settings.
  3. One of the most decisively transformed domestic practices is that of parenting. Among the challenges to older regimes of nurturance and care, but also to discipline and order, has been the growing disjunct between genetic and social parenting, with the affective care of  the biological parent being displaced,broadened, but also reimagined in unprecedented ways.  How has the concept of care emerged in both western and non western societies? What is the value of children in the 21st century that makes care something more urgent? How have technological transformations affected the realms of parenting? Has the psychological preciousness of the single child trumped the normativities of gender?  Most important, has the feminist insistence on distinguishing between child rearing and child bearing paid off in social, legal or psychological terms? What are the challenges of adoptive parenting, transparenting, or single parenting in reordering conventional gender hierarchies?  Have notions of ‘duty’ been replaced by ideas of ‘love’ in intergenerational relations?  
  4. Despite rich scholarship on work and education, few have explored the links between the fields of education and the worlds of work: what were the historical links between these spheres and what are the fundamental ways in which these links are being recast? Is there a distinction to be made between child labour and child work?  Have education and work been viewed as necessarily antagonistic activities?  What are the specifically  gendered outcomes of a long entanglement of law with labour?  On the other hand, how have the twentieth centuries transformations in education produced new ideas of childhood, and created prolonged years of dependency?
  5. Adolescence graduated from being a ‘problem’ category to being normalized as a stage, though most decisively by market forces. There has been an acceleration of the idea of adolescence in disciplines like psychology and particularly in the world of consumption. Some critiques of the deployment of ‘popular feminism’ have focused on how forms of femininity may even reinscribe subordination. Is this a sign of the sedimentation of  feminist discourse (and vocabularies) or might it also point to a default valorization of the adult as the quintessential feminist subject? What traction does the term ‘adolescent girl’ have in current international discourses of empowerment and how should we view this?

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