Gendered toys ensure that children learn gender roles very early

Gendered toys ensure that children learn social expectations very early.

For children, play is an essential part of learning.[1] When children play with friends, they learn how to socialize and share. When they play sports, they learn hand-eye coordination and teamwork. When they play with blocks, they hone their fine motor skills and exercise their creativity. The same principle can be applied to toys that teach gender roles. Toys geared toward girls tend to be associated with physical attractiveness, nurturing, and domestic skill, while toys for boys are more often violent and competitive.[2] Gendered toys often reflect society’s most basic gender expectations and, through imitation and playacting, teach children how to be men and women.


Toy Dustpan, 1890s, tin. New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York, N170.56.

An example of an instructional gendered toy is this small 1890s dustpan from the collections of the New York State Historical Association. This brightly colored toy, an imitation of a household object used to clean the floor, shows girls their role in society by teaching them to prioritize domesticity and household work. The object is covered in aesthetically appealing flowers and butterflies, and in the center is a colorful representation of two young girls happily feeding birds outside by a fountain. One of them is knitting while standing next to a baby carriage, and a picnic basket sits on a bench behind them. This series of domestic markers (clothing production, childcare, food preparation) on a toy used to play at cleaning house reinforces the prioritization of household tasks for young girls. The 1890s marked the beginning of the Progressive Era, in which many white, middle-class women began to seek employment outside the home.[3] However, images of female liberation, such as a woman going to work or fighting for suffrage, would have been at least somewhat subversive. A large company would not have been likely to produce an object with such imagery for fear of alienating the public and losing profits.

Beyond the domestic education of young girls, this toy represents the commodification of femininity. This object was purchased in order to train young girls to strive for feminine domesticity, the kind represented in magazines and on the dustpan itself. Since the advent of advertising, unrealistic images have made this feminine ideal unreachable and have ensured that women will keep spending money in their quest to achieve it. The purchase of this object, replete with a vision of feminine perfection for young girls, ensured that children would learn society’s expectations early.

In this toy dustpan, the forces of capitalism and expectations for women are swept together. This object, with its representation of young girls engaging in domestic activities, signals the beginning of gendered socialization for a young girl in the 1890s.

Miranda Pettengill, CGP ‘16

[1] Roberta Michnik Golinkoff, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, and Dorothy G. Singer, “Why Play=Learning: A Challenge for Parents and Educators,” in Play=Learning: How Play Motivates and Enhances Children’s Cognitive and Social-Emotional Growth, ed. Dorothy G. Singer et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 7.

[2] “What the Research Says: Gender-Typed Toys,” National Association for the Education of Young Children, accessed Oct 5, 2015,

[3] “Reforming Their World: Women in the Progressive Era,” The National Women’s History Museum, accessed November 5, 2015,