Evolving Views: Gender Discourses and Young Children

Annabelle Black Delfin

New Mexico State University, United States of America

Education Thinking, ISSN 2778-777X – Volume 2, Issue 1 – 2022, pp. 41–57. Date of publication: 21 September 2022.

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Cite: Black Delfin, A. (2022). Evolving Views: Gender Discourses and Young Children. Education Thinking, 2(1), 41–57. https://analytrics.org/article/evolving-views-gender-discourses-and-young-children/

Declaration of interests: The author declares to have no conflicts of interest.

Author’s note: Annabelle Black Delfin is an Assistant Professor at New Mexico State University and Western New Mexico State University. Additionally, she is an Education Consultant at University of New Mexico. Dr. Black Delfin’s background is in early childhood education. Her research areas include symbolic representation, gender and identity, cognitive development, and autism. Dr. Black Delfin can be reached at kablack1@nmsu.edu. ORCID#0000-0001-6343-5528. This literature review is derived from a recently defended dissertation: Black Delfin, K. A. (2018). Discursive Constructions of Gender in Early Childhood Education: A Feminist Poststructural Analysis. Doctoral Dissertation. New Mexico State University.

Copyright notice: The author of this article retains all her rights as protected by copyright laws. However, sharing and adapting this article – although not for commercial purposes – is permitted under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial BY-NC 4.0 International license, provided that the article’s reference (including author name(s) and Education Thinking) is cited.

Journal’s area(s) of research addressed by the article: 28-Gender & Education; 16-Early Childhood Education; 12-Culture & Education


As early childhood education is often approached through learning domains, this narrative review of literature traces some of the background theoretical work of the social/emotional learning domain, specifically looking at theoretical contributions in the area of the self, identity, and gender. Early childhood education is grounded in the developmental perspective. As such, two aspects of children’s early development within the social/emotional domain (the biological and the sociological), are examined. The research question prompting this review asked how adults’ understanding of gender discursively influences young children’s development of gender and identity. This narrative review seeks to qualitatively synthesize the chronological progression of theoretical explanations of gender emerging from research since 1966. It is recognized that the literature on gender is wide and that the sources and theories included here may not be exhaustive but do attempt to be comprehensive and provide a thread back over the last six decades spanning to the present that shows the evolving perceptions of gender. In looking at the thread of evolving perceptions about gender, it becomes evident that older generations (i.e., the adults of a given time) theorize and develop explanations and understandings regarding gender, and it is the younger generations (children of the given time) that enact the discursive information in each generation’s evolving perceptions of gender. Thus, how society, and particularly adults in society, view and treat gender has a profound effect on how children take up and enact gender. Future research may emerge out of feminist new materialism, where the materiality of gender signifiers, shared spaces, and embodied presentation stand to be examined as to their place in evolving views of gender.

Keywords: Sex and gender, Early childhood education, Child development, Self and identity

Early childhood education is centered on children’s development. Therefore, the emergence of the self and a child’s identity are often areas of focus in early childhood learning environments, situated centrally in early childhood education’s social/emotional developmental domain. The development of self and identity usually includes the topic of gender. ‘Gender’ and ‘gender roles’ have been defined and redefined over time as seen in the theoretical perspectives on the topic that are presented chronologically in this paper. At times, ‘gender’ has been seen as equivalent to ‘sex’ depending on the prevailing cultural rules/roles regarding these terms. As this paper traces the theoretical changes in how these terms have been perceived, ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ have been teased apart and now often represent biology and cultural constructs, respectively. But these are fluid terms, with new definitions and understandings emerging out of shifting theoretical perspectives affected by a better understanding of biological development and evolution and cultural changes over time (Fausto-Sterling, 2019).

The first section of this literature review touches upon the method followed. The next section addresses research and theory focused on the biological aspects of the corporeal experience of humanity. This bridges a span of theoretical history between gender being understood as completely determined by biology to more current understandings regarding the intricacies of gender. The third section reviews literature that reveals dominant gender discourses generated from the fields of developmental psychology and cognitive/social learning theories. Included in this section is the introduction of postmodern theories as they apply to gender, identity, and early childhood education. The last section concludes.


This narrative review of historical perspectives is meant to provide an encompassing view into the theories, and contextual understandings emerging from them, on gender and the development of self in early childhood. Selections for this review were made with the goal of establishing a chronological review of prevalent theories on gender as presented in the literature. By tracing the theoretical evolution within the scholarship of gender, the purpose is to place the research in a socio-historical context and to relate the evolving views on gender to early childhood practice with little children who, developmentally, are establishing a sense of self during the early years.

The Biological

Sex and Gender

Attempts to understand the dynamics of gender or sex in human beings have hitherto started with the body. The term “sex” has generally referred to the physiology of the body and, most basically, the term “gender” has been referred to as a complex interrelationship between the sex of the body, the prevailing social organizational system which creates the norms regarding outward presentation of the self, and the individual’s internal sense of self (Fausto-Sterling, 2000). Money and Ehrhardt (1972) defined these terms further. They used the term “gender role” as

everything that a person says and does to indicate to others or to the self the degree that one is either male, female, or ambivalent. Gender identity is the private experience of the gender role, and gender role is the public experience of gender identity (Money & Ehrhardt, 1972, p. 4).

The terms “sex” and “gender” are often used interchangeably. However, gender is not inherently connected to, or determined by anatomy.

Fausto-Sterling (2000) offered a detailed examination of the origins of gender, beginning with biology. Biological sex has been determined by physical factors present at birth, beginning at the genetic level with the presence or absence of a Y chromosome. Additionally, it has depended on the type of gonads, sex hormones, internal reproductive system, and external genitalia that an individual embodies. Usually, when a baby is born, this physiological list is ascertained, and sex is assigned even if this could lead one to experience gender dissonance.

Initially, the investigation into sex and gender started with the material body, as it has been posited that from the body, identity initially emerges. “There are hormones, genes, prostates, uteri, other body parts and physiology that we use to differentiate male from female, that become part of the ground from which the varieties of sexual experience and desire emerge” (Fausto-Sterling, 2000, p. 22). While this is true enough, differences in the physiology of individuals profoundly affect each of their lived experiences of gender and sexuality.

Sex Determination and the Gender Reveal

For much of the time, and in most but not all human social groupings, gender has been determined at birth based on the external appearance of the baby’s body. Depending on the external genitalia, babies have been determined to be either male or female, which sets in motion socialization processes that are both overt and covert; conscious and unconscious on the part of the involved individuals and society as a whole. In the past, expectant parents had to wait until the moment of birth to see the baby’s sex.

Now, with the regular use of ultrasound technology, parents can see the baby in utero and can make sex determination before birth, based on the presence or absence of a penis. At the point of development where external genitals are visible in an ultrasound image, the baby’s cognitive and auditory systems are functioning and processing in- coming sensory stimuli. As soon as the parents or ultrasound technician proclaim “It’s a boy/girl!” the fetus is then subject to the construction of its gendered identity as the mother and others begin to conceptualize the infant in one category of gender or the other. Even in utero, the baby can hear the external voices and on some implicit level begins to absorb and internalize the views of the external world, including that world’s perceptions of the infant (Tronick, 2007).

The ultrasound image, however, does not always reveal the whole story. Throughout history, there has been a record of babies born with ambiguous genitalia. In the past, these individuals were called hermaphrodites, based on their external body parts. Hermaphrodites were a fairly consistent, if not common occurrence in human social groupings, but only accounted for those individuals who had obvious external differences. In the present day, the term “hermaphrodite” has been replaced with “intersex” (Fausto-Sterling, 2000). Sources vary, but it is estimated that 1 in 2000 babies are ambiguous or ‘difficult to classify’ (Hockenberry Dragseth, 2015), 1.7% according to Fausto-Sterling (2000), and that even up to 1 in 100 births are intersex (Dreger, 1998). Today babies who are born with ambiguous genitalia often disappear from society because the common practice has been to surgically “correct” their bodies and to reintroduce them to society as a boy or a girl, thus maintaining the binary-gender system (Fausto-Sterling, 2000).

Genetics, Endocrinology, and Reproductive Organs

However, advances in medical technology have helped improve the understanding of the internal biology of the individual. In recent decades, due to the decoding of the human genome and magnetic resonance imaging technology, a more complete picture can be seen of the internal biological makeup of the individual. In some cases, it is revealed that a baby at the genetic level may have the code for one sex but the external appearance of the other sex (Konner, 2011). Additionally, there may be differences in the genome beyond 46XY (which is called biological male) and 46XX (biological female), such as 45X (called Turner’s syndrome) and 47XXY (Klinefelter syndrome). People with Turner’s syndrome have only one X chromosome instead of two sex chromosomes, whereas with Klinefelter’s syndrome the genome has an extra sex chromosome.

Other factors complicating the biological sex and gender picture are found in the endocrine system. The most common is called Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH), where a genetically inherited malfunction of enzymes involved in making hormones occurs. In XX children this often results in dramatic masculinization. Another, Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS) is caused by a disruption in the cell surface that receives testosterone, resulting in XY babies with feminized genitalia at birth and developing into a feminized body shape at puberty. With modern medical techniques, there have been adults who find through medical examinations that they may have internal organs, hormone balances, and/or genetic code that is not consistent with the sex that they believed themselves to be (Fausto-Sterling, 2000). Additionally, there are many people who believe that their psyche and inner emotional “landscape” do not match their sex as biologically defined in the binary gender system (Hockenberry Dragseth, 2015).

Our Evolutionary Past

In looking at the body for the understanding of sex and gender, it becomes important to look to our evolutionary past. Konner (2011) has provided a wide review of the sexing and gendering of the body with a focus on evolutionary explanations for anatomical and behavioral differences. Coming from a biological sex perspective, he has cited several developmental and structural differences in the brains of men and women occurring in the hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus, and several neurotransmitter systems. These differences can be seen as adaptations in our species’ evolutionary past that served reproductive ends and, most likely, survival. Fisher (1983) posited that males and females of the distant past co-evolved structural brain differences, just as distinctions in their reproductive systems evolved in parallel, but dissimilarly. Further, Konner reported behaviors and behavior patterns that have evolutionarily emerged that vary between the two sexes, calling these behavior patterns “sex differences in dimensions that resemble physical aggression and nurturance” (2011, p. 265). While individual children’s behavioral tendencies can fall anywhere in the spectrum between aggression and nurturance, studies across cultures have consistently found a greater physical aggressiveness and preference for rough-and-tumble play in boys. Underlying the manifestation of aggressive and nurturing behavior seems to be a neuroendocrine foundation for these behavioral inclinations emerging in each sex (Konner, 2011).

In the past, biology was considered the “proof” of two, and only two, sexes. This “proof” was based on sexual reproduction and even if variations on the two sexes were acknowledged (i.e. intersex/‘hermaphrodites’ and others), the variations were seen as exceptions to the gender-binary rule, but not as additional sexes or genders. More recently, however, the role of society and culture has gained acknowledgment as central to any discussion of sex, gender, or even the biological body, with the recognition that as the physical body evolved over time, so too has culture.

The Sociological

Social and Cognitive Learning Theories

As the fields of social and cognitive development became subjects of empirical study, attention and inquiry have been directed at understanding how humans develop identity and, especially, a gendered self. What follows is progression, of sorts, in understandings of gender, with the recognition that earlier theorists grounded much of their work in positive/postpositive psychological research. As the knowledge bases of the social sciences, including early childhood education, have been influenced and informed by theories emanating from the field of psychology, so, too, have the theoretical perspectives on identity and gender originated from a psychological view.

This reliance on psychological perspectives has been criticized in its application to education (Silin, 1987). However, several theories are presented here to illuminate interpretations of the time, parts of which have been taken up and expanded in more current and complex attitudes regarding the self and subjectivity.

In 1966 several researchers presented theories of gender development, which were outlined by Maccoby (1966). The theories presented in this book began to bridge two divergent schools of thought represented by cognitive-developmental theories and social learning theories. As these theories developed over time, overlapping concepts become clear, with eventual convergence of the influence of the social, or external factors, and the cognitive, or internal processes coming together to form the sociological view of gender development (Leaper & Farkas, 2015).

Lawrence Kohlberg (1966), a cognitive theorist, suggested that children develop cognitions about gender categories and their own place within them, with the understanding that these cognitions precede behavior. An example of this would be a child who identifies as a girl and because of this makes selections of things based on her cognitive knowledge of a category called “girl things”. Kohlberg’s cognitive-developmental theory focuses on emergent, internal processes where the child has agency in the manifestation of sex role socialization. In this theory, sex-typing is seen to follow naturally from cognitive development (Bem, 1984).

In contrast, Walter Mischel (1966), asserted the importance of environmental factors in determining the gender of a child, and suggested that factors such as positive reinforcement and modeling bring about behaviors that serve to construct the cognition or knowledge structure. An example of this would be a child who has received reinforcement for selecting “girl things”, and therefore makes an inference that this must mean she belongs in the girl group. The inferential leap from the external reinforcement as proof of the internal definition of sex-type was required under these early social learning theories of gender development.

Kohlberg’s cognitive developmental model focused on the nature of gender knowledge structures, how children form these structures internally, and how they affect children’s behavior and expression of gender. Mischel’s social learning theories emphasized the external influences, especially social information about gender, as a greater determinant of a child’s own gender. Over time, cognitive theorists have begun to acknowledge the influence of the environment on how children form knowledge structures about gender, and the social learning theorists have begun to consider the importance of cognitive development and other internal factors such as motivation in gender development (Leaper & Farkas, 2015; Martin et al., 2002).

Following the presentation of social learning theories in 1966, subsequent research modified this approach to include a more cognitive orientation. Bandura (1977), and later, Bussey and Bandura (1999), presented a social-cognitive theory that included cognitive mechanisms and internal regulation of the behavior of gender-typing, thus expanding learning theories to include the influence of the internal, as well as the external environmental factors. Internal variables, such as the following came into consideration as researchers posited that these variables play a significant role in gender development (Martin et al., 2002):

· a child’s biological development;
· a child’s perceptions of gender-typing based on exposure to modeling;
· a child’s emotional state depending on past experiences in producing gender-type behaviors;
· a child’s motivation to belong to a group and the reinforcement of the “in- group” favoritism that develops.

This convergence of the social and the cognitive learning theories was brought about by an acknowledgment and inquiry into the underlying mental processes by which social elements contribute to gender. Debates among theorists continued with particular attention given to same-sex modeling as the basis for children’s emergent gender differences (Bussey & Perry, 1982; Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974), selection of gender-typed toys (Cherney, 2006), and the motivational significance of gender identity (Kohlberg, 1966; Ruble, 1994). These theorists were actively inquiring about multiple aspects of the gender mystery, but still approaching the work from a psychological viewpoint. At this point in the development of the sociological view of gender, Maccoby and Jacklin (1974) identified three specific theories of “sex differentiation” which acknowledged the mutually reinforcing roles of the cognitive and the social. The three theories centered on: (1) imitation of same-sex role models; (2) praise or discouragement for compliance to socially defined gendered behaviors; and (3) “self- socialization” where a child develops a knowledge structure of sex-appropriate behavior and conforms to this concept (Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974, p. 2). The theory of self-socialization depends upon imitation and social reinforcement as information from which a child chooses and creates the knowledge structure, however, imitation and social reinforcement, alone, are not seen as actuating in sex-typed behavior.

The concept of self-socialization overlaps with the cognitive-based theories in that it describes agency within the child. Kohlberg (1966) asserted that children actively co-construct their gender through conceptual knowledge structures, which causes a child to selectively attend to a gender and to be motivated to conform to societal norms of gender roles. From this perspective, as part of the process of constructing these knowledge structures, a child acquires an understanding of the constancy or irreversibility of their sex. This concept of gender constancy was applied to the theory through its correlation to Piaget’s age-related stages of cognitive development with gender constancy occurring much as the concept of conservation of physical properties within the concrete-operational period. Gender constancy within the cognitive-developmental theory is characterized by three stages:

· Gender identity – the child’s growing realization of being either a boy or a girl;
· Gender stability – the recognition that this identity remains constant over time;
· Gender consistency – the recognition that this identity is not affected by changes in gender expression.

Yet, by the age of 3–4, children may present a state of “pseudo-constancy” that involves a sharp increase in rigid adherence to stereotypic behaviors based on the extremes of the gender binary (Martin et al., 2002). During this time of increased gender rigidity, some children display adornment, behavior, and presentation of self in highly explicit, gendered ways. In a study looking at four gender-typed behaviors, it was found that the four identified behaviors increased in rigidity between ages three and five, with peaks in rigidity from ages three to four (Halim et al., 2013). It is speculated that the stage of gender rigidity during the fourth year of life may be the way the child “secures” gender and identity by conforming to gender norms. The theory is that as a child grows older and deeper levels of gender constancy are internalized, the child begins to understand that sex is not affected by behavior or presentation, then the child begins to behave with more flexibility (Martin et al., 2002).

Schema: Societal Information about Maleness and Femaleness

In the early 1980s, Bem (1981) introduced a social-cognitive theory to explain engenderment and how information about gender is spread throughout society and maintained over generations. Gender schema theory is based on the idea that children develop schema or cognitive structures that guide in organizing societal information about maleness and femaleness. According to Bem, a schema functions as an “‘anticipatory structure’ receiving, sorting, and organizing incoming information in terms of relevance depending on the structure of the schema” (p. 603). In the case of this theory, the schema is based on two particular aspects: maleness and femaleness. Gender schematic processing then involves sorting information into these two categories. Lakoff and Johnson (2003) asserted that this gender schema is so prevalent in society that many concepts and items are processed according to this gender binary, even those that are not directly associated with the concepts of sex or gender but have evolved to have metaphorical significance within a gender-based schema.

Children are introduced to the prevailing gender schema as soon as they begin to interact with others and their surroundings. The child is exposed through these interactions and begins to learn society’s cultural definitions of maleness and femaleness (Bem, 1984). As these definitions are learned and associations are made, the child has begun the process of internalizing the gender schema. This budding network of knowledge then becomes invoked with each new exposure to sex-linked associations through in-coming stimuli. How the meaning is perceived by the child depends on a constructive process where the incoming information and the child’s pre-existing schema determine perception (Bem, 1984).

According to Bem’s (1984) theory, from the child’s foundational readiness to process information on the basis of sex-linked associations that make up the gender schema, gender-schematic processing yields the phenomenon of sex-typing. Sex typing occurs when the child assimilates the concept of self into the gender schema, and thus the self-concept and behaviors are organized on the basis of gender over other possible dimensions. As a child learns the contents of the society’s gender schema, the child comes to understand the categories and attributes of each sex and how they are linked to the child’s own sex and with the child as a self. The child learns to apply schematic selectivity to the emerging self; differentiating between, not only the definitions of the sexes, but the relationship between the sexes and what Bem called “dimensions” which are applied differently and separately to the two sexes. Dimensions change over time and in different contexts. Bem, writing in 1984, described an example of the dimension of “strong/weak” that has been applied to maleness. In contrast, the dimension of “nurturance” has not traditionally been included in the schema to be applied to boys. The omission of nurturance in the maleness schema means that, at the time that Bem was writing, it had not been part of the schematic definition of maleness. The child uses schematic selectivity in understanding and in creating the self through identifying with and incorporating the dimensions applicable to his or her own sex. This serves as an organizing element for the self, resulting in sex-typing. In seeking to belong, the child is motivated to use the gender schema as a guide for regulating behavior to conform to these culturally defined dimensions of maleness and femaleness (Bem, 1984). It is through this process, that gender schema theory posits that the phenomenon of sex typing occurs.

In exploring what gives some schema priority over others, Bem acknowledged that due to sexual reproduction and human natural history, “evolution has given sex a biologically-based priority over many other categories” (Bem, 1984, p. 602). Situating this theory firmly in the social, as well as the biological, made this explanation of gender transcend earlier social learning theories and cognitive developmental theories. Bem speculated that sex differences may be more perceptually salient for children than other schematic bases, which could account for gender as the basis for the prevailing schema. She suggested that “sex has evolved to be a basic category of perception for our species, thereby giving the gender schema a biologically based priority” (p. 609). Without denying the importance of the social network and the categories that emerge from that network, Bem gave a nod toward the embodiedness of all humans and the perceptual and cognitive qualities that we share as we interact with each other through our bodies in the social network.

Doing gender and social construction

The understanding of gender has evolved from a strictly biological binary conceptualization to the inclusion of psychology’s cognitive-developmental perspective. Building on this previous work, an understanding of cognitive schematic structures emerged which relies on exposure to social interaction as the basis of the resulting cognitive schema.

West and Zimmerman (1987) looked at social behaviors to explain gender. Building off the idea of the existing gender schema that humans internalize through social exposure, West and Zimmerman presented the idea that individuals “do” gender. Doing gender, then, has been seen as performative where one makes situated behavioral and self-presentation choices in light of prevailing social conceptions of appropriate behavior and activities for one’s sex category. Gender is then constituted through interactions where a person’s gender is not an essential aspect of what one is, but it is something that one does, and does continually in interaction with others. Managing these choices of behavior occurs all of the time and is always in light of how the behavior will be perceived and accepted by others who are simultaneously managing their own behavior and doing their own gender. In this way, gender becomes regulated and maintained across society. The concept of doing gender is seen as an emergent social feature, rather than situated only in individuals. As a social feature, it provides a rationale for various social structures, and it also legitimizes a central division of society (West & Zimmerman, 1987).

Furthermore, doing gender as a routine links an individual to society, and the ability to fit into society results in a sense of competence. West and Zimmerman argued that it is this sense of competence that initially drives people to do gender. Through interaction with others who are also doing gender, children are encouraged to behave in socially competent ways. Social competence can be readily displayed through “appropriate” management of gendered behaviors. When a child has assumed the culture’s gender norms into a set of internal standards, the child can then regulate his own gender behavior according to that culture’s gender norms.

Most cultures’ gender norms are based on sex category. Sex category, then, attends to virtually all circumstances and actions within which a person can engage and/or interact with others. “Sex category is omnirelevant” (p. 136) and an individual’s performance in any given activity or interaction is then evaluated through the respective social lenses of ‘male’ or ‘female’ (West & Zimmerman, 1987). Even while rejecting the essentialism of gender in each sex category, West and Zimmerman have asserted that the process of doing gender creates differences between females and males. Here lies the constructive aspect of doing gender. In creating or constructing the differences between females and males, these constructions of gender norms are used to reinforce the (appearance of) “essentialness” of gender. The more people who adhere to and generate behaviors of gender, the more those behaviors of gender are considered essential to being a male or female. Although there is no acknowledged “essential femaleness or maleness, femininity or masculinity… once gender is ascribed, the social order constructs and holds individuals to strongly gendered norms and expectations” (Lorber, 1994, p. 278). So it is that human language, thought, and behavior serve to construct gender at a societal level, whereby gender does not exist separately from these things (Hockenberry Dragseth, 2015).

Bank et al. (2007) explored the intersections between gender and education starting with theories about the nature of gender. Liberal feminism, relational-cultural theory, and sex-role socialization theory have been given as examples of theories that accept the gender binary, and see aspects of gender as essentialized and gender identity as relatively fixed. Radical feminism (Daly, 1979), feminist reproduction theory (MacDonald, 1980), and academic capitalism theory (Slaughter & Leslie, 1997) also accept the gender binary and see identity as fixed. However, the main concern of these theories, unlike the previous three, has to do with an emancipatory stance in relation to patriarchal culture and gender stratification, especially in institutions.

In contrast, social constructionism has shifted gender from a social outcome to one of agency (Bank, 2007). This view shifted gender from a social outcome to one of human agency. Individuals construct themselves and one another in simultaneous and mutually-influencing cycles as gendered subjects within hierarchical gender social systems. However, while agency is implied, people do not get to choose the circumstances within which they construct their genders and identities. It is the patriarchal culture and the gender-stratified institutions that are of most concern to feminists, but it is the construction processes themselves that are of concern to social constructionists. Specifically, poststructural and queer theories examine how human subjects are constructed in language and ideology. Because of the acknowledgment of human agency, poststructuralists reject the notion of fixed identities. These theories are most concerned with the ways in which power relations create systems of discourse, whereby poststructuralists acknowledge that dualistic categories create and maintain power arrangements (Bank, 2007).


Poststructuralism, one branch of social constructionism thought, has diverged widely from the enlightenment concepts of truth, reason, and objectivity. Poststructuralism rejects positivistic truth discourses, seeing the self or subject to be produced through language and texts and dependent on the interaction between selves to produce the language and texts. The self is therefore not fixed, but fluid, not unitary but fragmented and contradictory (Davies, 1989). Closely related to poststructuralism, the queer theory does not see either the self or genders as fixed. Instead, it has sought the “denaturalization” (Francis, 2007, p. 68) of static, or even stable, categories of gender. Poststructuralism has offered a view of selfhood that is based on discourse. Foucault (1980) articulated the self as positioned and positioning others in discourses. This recognized a fluid self, but also a flow of power dependent upon shifts in the construction of discourses over time.

Subjection is a different way of looking at how we become (what we are) and what we are, as in, what constitutes us. This concept is asserted in opposition to the commonly-held beliefs about humanist identity; where each human develops a self, through which the agent experiences reality. We have been centered in our existence to think of ourselves as individual, separate, and embodied beings. Indeed, we experience reality as embodied beings (Jones, 1997). Thus, this humanist stance has prevailed in identity theories (Moje et al., 2009). The humanist view calls into presence a unified, essentialized, and prediscursive self (Weedon, 1997). Poststructuralism has proposed, instead, subjectivity, which is a fluid and simultaneous, multi-faceted process of the discursive constitution of the subjective experience (Davies et al., 2006).

Davies et al. (2006), in citing the work of Butler (1997), discussed the conditions for subjective construction. Butler asserted that the individual subject arises, and becomes, from the interaction among and with other subjects in an exchange and interpretation of discursive meaning systems. In this view, the subject is decentered. Jones (1997) called this the “anti-humanist” frame because the subject is not the focus of the approach; rather, discourses produce the subject (even while the subjects produce the discourses.) In decentering the subject, poststructuralists have examined the discourses, and see the discourses as flows of meaning and power-relations in society. The discourses themselves serve to form the subjects, but as Butler (1997) pointed out, the conditions, spatial and temporal, are not of the subjects’ choosing. Davies et al. (2006) called this “conditioned agency”. While subjectivity is not seen as essentialized, but, rather, constituted through discourse, this implies that to understand a subject one has to examine the meaning systems or discourses that produce the subject. Within the discourses, conditions are created that position subjects within categories, and while the subject (in-process) may conform to the category or resist the category, the subject does not choose the conditions into which it is constructed (Davies et al., 2006).

The other aspect asserted by Butler (1997), and others (Moje et al., 2009), is the reiterative, “double directionality” of subjection (Davies et al., 2006, p.428). This is described by Butler: “Subjection consists precisely in this fundamental dependency on a discourse we never chose, but that, paradoxically, initiates and sustains our agency” (p. 2). Davies et al. (2006) elaborated as follows: “(subjection) does not construct its own conditions of possibility separate from its performance of itself within those conditions” (p. 426). The double directionality of subjectivity lies in the language that is produced (by subjects), which relies simultaneously on the production of subjects and subjectivity that is produced by language. This reiterative aspect of post-structuralism further decenters the humanist account, replacing it with a subject-in-process that is continually constituted by the language discourses that inscribe it. There is no (humanist) actor behind the act, instead, the actor is constructed through and by the action, so subjects are never fixed or finished, but in constant reproduction (Davies, 1997).

The frame through which language, thought, and behavior are presented is situated in particular discourses or cultural narratives. These cultural discourses, from a poststructural perspective, come into existence through language interaction between people. Within the language practices, meaning is produced and becomes a shared cultural narrative. This emergence of meaning/s shapes our understandings and “we speak ourselves into existence within the terms of available discourses” (Davies, 2000, p. 55). This production through the discursive and interactive processes of everyday life is ongoing and mutually reinforcing. The feminist poststructuralist point of view has challenged assumptions of gender as reflective of a core essential self; instead, notions of identity and roles are socially constructed through interaction with other agents. Each self is a product of these cultural narratives or a ‘subject of’ a storyline that is co-created and maintained within the social network. As each person is subject to the prevailing discourse, it is the discourse that constructs one’s subjectivity (Weedon, 1997). Thus, discourse saturates cultural notions of what it means to be in a category (i.e., boy, girl, professional, etc.), the meanings that are attached to language, behavior, thought, and the boundaries of discursive norms.

With each language exchange, behavior, or thought, the poststructural subject engages in the available discourses and, in doing so, is constantly reinstated as a subject within a category of the discourse. To be a gendered subject, then, is acquired through repeated performance of gender according to the pervasive discursive norms (Weedon, 2007). Subjects then do “category maintenance work” to define and conform to the norms of the category. This occurs through the subject’s self-regulation, as well as through peer and institutional forces (Davies, 2000). When the category is one of gender, then the “category maintenance work” is the work of doing gender within that culture’s discourse on gender.

As individuals in society do gender, social arrangements emerge to be based on these gender distinctions. Just as doing gender laid the foundation for the appearance of gender essentialism, it also legitimized organizing social structures based on beliefs about gender essentialism. If society is organized on the basis of essential beliefs about differences between males and females, then these perceived and constructed differences become institutionalized by sex category. As individuals do gender, the legitimacy of institutional structures based on sex category is sustained and reproduced (West & Zimmerman, 1987).

Gendering, itself, becomes a social institution, as it is one of the most significant ways that societies are organized. Lorber (1994) described the processing and institutionalization of gender as constitutive of the social construction of gender. The social institution of gender is dependent on what Lorber calls a limited number of gender “statuses” and on the fact that individual members of these “statuses” are similar in their doing of gender. On a societal level, however, gender statuses are differentiated, which maintains several aspects of the social institutional structures. Lorber explained as follows:

As a social institution, gender is a process of creating distinguishable social statuses for the assignment of rights and responsibilities. As part of a stratification system that ranks these statuses unequally, gender is a major building block in the social structures built on these unequal statuses. (p. 280)

Further intersectional distinctions, such as race and class, can and do widen the unequal statuses within the social structures. The social construction of gender then divides work and activities based on gender norms that emerged from individuals doing gender. These divisions, based on gender, infuse a structured inequality, which is not the result of physiology, sex category, or an “essential” nature of males or females (Lorber, 1994).

The Heterosexual Matrix

Following the assertions of Judith Butler (1990) that gender is a social construction and performance that does not affirm an innate or natural quality of a person as male/masculine or female/feminine, Blaise (2005) further explored gender discourses through her study of how gender is constructed and performed in early childhood settings. Blaise cited what Butler (1990) calls “the heterosexual matrix”, which consists of an agreed-upon set of social norms that children perform to assert their identities as boy or girl, as well as, regulating and maintaining the newest iteration of those norms.

The heterosexual matrix is composed of primarily two interrelated, and mutually reinforcing, ideals of engenderment: hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity. Hegemonic masculinity is the dominant form of masculinity that presides over and subordinates femininity and other forms of masculinity in a given society. Hegemonic masculinity is so pervasive as to be considered institutionalized, resulting in dominance over and marginalization of women and any other form of engenderment. The counterpart to this is emphasized femininity, which is based on compliance, cooperation, and accommodation; specifically, subordination to the interests of men (Connell, 1987). As stereotypes of engenderment, these gender constructions are idealized and highly stylized, especially as media images of pop or mass culture simultaneously strive to co-create and perpetuate the stylization to the point of myth (Blaise, 2005).

Both types of engenderment exist within a spectrum of display and embellishment. Connell (1987) explained that the most conspicuous form of emphasized femininity is oriented to accommodating the hegemonic male, notably through aspects of physical desire indicated by adornment and compliance. The role of emphasized femininity is, thus, always situated in relation to the role of the hegemonic male.

As these two roles of gender are simultaneously created and reinforced, the intertwined influences result in heterosexual discourses, which preserve the prevalent societal expectation of heterosexuality in love and sex. The heterosexual matrix functions to connect the hegemonic male to the emphasized female with the goal of obtaining each other, even though in the process the emphasized female consents to sublimating her power in the relationship and in her identity.

The heterosexual matrix came to be the predominant way in which social structures for human beings have been organized. This may have developed in our evolutionary past as an adaptation that benefited the survival of our ancestors (Fisher, 1983). However, the behaviors displayed by those performing the hegemonic male and emphatic female have themselves continued to evolve, resulting in differences in social equity.

Some would argue that human behaviors that comprise the bi-gendered heterosexual matrix are products of evolution (Fisher, 1983), while others would argue that the doing of gender indicates an innate, essential aspect of gender (Gilligan, 1982). Still others see the constructive aspect of doing gender (Butler, 1990). In creating or constructing the differences between females and males, these constructions of gender become norms and reinforce the “essentialness” of gender. And while there is a spectrum of gender and engenderment, the distribution is not equal across the spectrum. The concentrations of people across the spectrum center on female and male genders. For all of these reasons, the heterosexual matrix came to be the primary basis of organization for social structures. Poststructuralists have advanced that when there is no gender binary to shake out hierarchically, then it becomes possible for a society to have an inherently different structure (Paechter, 2021). If in the doing of gender and in the rejection of a simplistic gender binary, a different conception of gender is present in a society, then inequity can be dissipated from the hierarchy found in societies based only on the heterosexual matrix (Callahan & Nicholas, 2019).

Application to Early Childhood Education

Children are born immersed in culture. However, just as a child has been embodied in a biological form from the beginning of development, the child has been immersed in culture in the same way. It would be hard to point to a time when a human baby is ever separate from the culture of its home, or even geographic location on the planet (Black Delfin & Wang, 2022). As we can see through the various theories presented in this review, there are myriad ways in which the discourses of culture and biology have a mutually-reinforcing and influencing effect on a child’s development of self, gender, and identity.

A prevalent discourse of particular emphasis in the field of early childhood education is the development of self, identity and relationships (Cozolino, 2014). As children’s identities emerge and are constructed, they learn about themselves but also about themselves in relation to others. For instance, definitive features of positive growth and development in the social/emotional learning domain involve pro-social skills and altruism. These skills are based, ideally, on respect for each individual and each individual’s emerging social identity. With this in mind, the goal in “high-quality” early childhood environments is to intentionally establish social norms and boundaries based on equity and fairness for everyone.

The traditional presentation of the field of early childhood education exists within the humanist worldview. The understanding of the social/emotional learning domain is grounded in beliefs that each human develops a prediscursive self, through which reality is experienced (St. Pierre, 2000). In looking at the discourses that make up the field of early childhood education, one that is prevalent is that “education for the very young = socialization”. Socialization implies, again, the humanist worldview that emphasizes pro-social acts, altruism, and conformity to social norms. These discourses serve to order society, but can also be said to reinscribe social roles, even conformity to a gender binary system (Callahan & Nicholas, 2019).

From a poststructuralist perspective of identifying flows of power, Paechter (2018) offered an alternative definition to the ‘heterosexual matrix’, i.e., ‘hegemonic gender performances’ (p. 124), that acknowledges vast changes in social perception of the performances of gender. In recognizing that there is a higher prevalence of non-binary identifications, Paechter reveals that the power relations involved in upholding a gender binary are no longer associated with the masculinity of men only (2021). This, it would seem, distinguishes the discursive gender landscape of contemporary times from even recent decades, especially when viewed as the discursive threads available for children to take up as they grow and develop. Children’s experiences with gender and gender bias can affect their worldview and constructed selves, especially that of their own gender identities (Aina & Cameron, 2011; King et al., 2021). Because of this, Davies (1987) asserts the need for “expanding what is positively available” (p. 42) in educational settings for young children.

This doesn’t change the goals of high-quality early childhood environments; it may even fortify them as ‘respect for all’ takes a higher prevalence of non-binary identifications into account. These rapid changes in society and the early childhood field reveal (a most likely temporary) blind spot in research as to how educators adapt to and adopt social change into their practice with children.  As is often the case, early childhood practitioners are asked to assimilate shifts in societal perceptions and to incorporate reflective practice in their relationships with the children and families with whom they work. Thus, more than ever before, being aware of stereotypes and other negative biases has become crucial in working with children. If indeed an early childhood teacher’s educational role is to teach social skills to young children, then shifts in theoretical and societal understandings of an individual’s avenues for the construction of self will be mirrored in early childhood learning environments.


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