Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change

Museum of Childhood
March 8, 2019

I think the best role models for women are people who are fruitfully and confidently themselves, who bring light into the world — Meryl Streep

This year the UN theme for International Women’s Day is “Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change.” What better way to celebrate these inspiring statements than by exploring our diverse collection at the V&A, and showing off some of our gems. We’ll also look at a few exciting  projects that are encouraging young girls to strive for a gender-balanced world.

You can be anything!

Last year in honour of International Women’s Day, Barbie launched 17 new dolls that represent real, inspirational women. This line-up included a snowboarder, boxer, chef, journalist, ballerina and designer (to name but a few). This year Barbie is honouring more than 20 “sheroes” across multiple countries. The dolls show a diverse group of women, all with very different stories.  From Frida Kahlo to Gabby Douglas, these toys were made to show girls that they can be anything they want to be, while allowing them to see more opportunities for themselves in the future.

Commando machine gun toy, 1950

Imaginative play is so important and can be used as a means of empowering young girls. In our collection we have a toy machine gun owned by Cheryl St Clair (b. 1945). She was given this toy in about 1950 and it soon became her favourite childhood possession. Cheryl said that she “saw from an early age that boys had it better than girls” and that her “brain was more interested in logic than cooking”. She had guns, a bow and arrow, a box of tools, and enjoyed playing cricket, climbing trees and fighting with boys (or her sister). Cheryl ended up opting out of the ‘traditional’ path for women at that time, choosing to go to university instead. This is an inspiring example of how early childhood experiences can have so much influence on later life.

Women in Science

In 2017 LEGO launched a set of minifigures based on some of NASA’s most celebrated female scientists. The minifigures included Nancy Grace Roman, the creator of the Hubble telescope, Margaret Hamilton, the lead software designer for the Apollo 11 moon landing, Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, and Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space. The set was designed to attract girls to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related jobs and to celebrate the historical achievements of women in that field.

The Research Institute LEGO set, 2015

Before the NASA set was launched LEGO produced a set made up of three female scientists: an astronomer, a chemist and a palaeontologist. The Research Institute, as it was called, was acquired by the V&A’s Design, Architecture and Digital Department in 2014. It was proposed by geoscientist Ellen Kooijman through the crowdsourcing platform LEGO Ideas. Kooijman saw that LEGO sets showed “a skewed male/female minifigure ratio and a rather stereotypcial representation of the available female figures”. Like the Women of NASA set, these minifigures were made to empower girls to explore careers in the science and technology industry.

Rebel Girls!

The hope is that women then become their own heroes – Elena Favilli

Published in 2016, Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls tells the stories of 100 extraordinary women, illustrated by 60 female artists from around the world. From Julia Child to Michelle Obama, each woman is given a short story, told like a fairy-tale, and provides a quick look into her life. Like the Barbie Role Model series, this book was made to help girls believe they can achieve anything. Author, Elena Favilli, went on to say that “we want to show young girls that they can be anything they want to. That they too can have great ambitions”.

Child’s pirate fancy dress costume, 1920 – 1939

The ambition of wanting to be different and rebellious is what made these women extraordinary.  One of the ways girls have been able to explore being rebellious is through imaginative play and dressing up.  Fancy dress allows you to be whatever or whoever you want to be, without boundaries. This fancy dress pirate costume was owned by a family with seven girls, and was most likely worn by some or all of them. Even as early as the 1920s young women were exploring their rebellious side, just like their male counterparts.

These are just three empowering objects from our amazing collection, and there are many more to be told. Happy International Women’s Day!

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