- Well-Dressed Role Models: The Portrayal of Women in Biographies for Children
As the title to her book indicates, Gale Eaton examines how women as biographical subjects are depicted in juvenile biographies (juvenile is defined in Eaton's study from elementary until junior high school). More generally, Eaton attempts to present a qualitative study of the growing evolution of the genre of biographies for children. Eaton divides her investigation into four areas. She begins with a detailed survey of the juvenile biographies of Elizabeth Tudor, published in England and the United States, from 1852 until 2002; she then broadens her analysis and examines the biographies published in the United States, on women subjects, from the representative years 1941, 1971, and 1996. Eaton then takes up the issue of multicultural sensitivity in the field of juvenile biography and focuses her discussion around the biographies written on Pocahontas from 1941, 1971, and 1996. She closes her study with a chapter examining the preoccupying theme of clothes and personal appearance in all the biographies discussed.
As Eaton notes, the genre of biography has existed for centuries, predating Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. A central preoccupation of the genre has been the illumination of the lives of great historical figures (primarily men) whose stories have been used as a vehicle for edification and as a model for emulation. Slowly, however, as societal norms and interests have changed, the field of biography (for both adults and children) has broadened—a change that also reflects larger shifts in the study of history in general. Society has become more receptive to changing gender roles and more generally inclusive of different cultural perspectives, and Eaton set out in her study to see if these sociological shifts would be reflected within the world of juvenile biography.
Eaton organizes her analysis of the biographies around three broad evaluative categories: semantic, syntagmatic, and pragmatic. Semantic criteria examine the truthfulness and representational adequacy of the text; syntagmatic qualities involve a comparative analysis of a work's literary and graphic excellence; and the pragmatic evaluation centers around a critique of a book's usefulness and appeal (15–16).
Eaton begins her larger analysis with her examination of the Elizabeth Tudor biographies published in England and the United States from 1852 to 2002 (a group of thirty-four books). One of Eaton's interests in her study is to understand how the conventions and norms of juvenile biography [End Page 189] have changed over the years. She notes the usefulness of being able to compare the changing treatment of one particular biographical subject in this attempt to examine the evolution of the genre—although she cautions that it is dangerous to extrapolate too much. This said, in general, juvenile biographies on Elizabeth have moved away from fictionalization of the subject toward authenticity and the inclusion of sensitive details about her life; the texts have also become shorter, incorporate more social or historical viewpoints, and often use sidebars, captions, and marginalia, in addition to many more graphics (67). It is also interesting to note that the "story" of Elizabeth's life gets played out on one level against the changing background of contemporary world politics. Thus biographies from the 1950s placed the imperialism of Spain within the sphere of the on-going Cold War conflicts (11).
Eaton next examines all the juvenile biographies published in the United States on women subjects from the years 1941, 1971, and 1996—which entails twelve books published in 1941, twenty-six in 1971, and fifty-one in 1996, for a total of eighty-nine books. She states that these years were chosen because they "mark distinct moments in women's history" (13): the end of the World War II when women left war-work to return to the domestic sphere; the 1970s which saw the second wave of feminism; and the 1990s when the cultural wars reignited debates over gender roles (13–14).
In general terms, the portrayal of women over these decades gradually came to mirror the larger societal...