Sweden is known for being one of the most progressive countries in the world, and even their preschools are pushing the envelope. At “Egalia,” a taxpayer-funded preschool in a liberal district of Stockholm, teachers refrain from using gendered pronouns like “him” or “her,” and refer to the children as “friends,” rather than “boys” or “girls.” The school also carefully plans the color distribution of toys and choice of books so that children don’t fall into gendered stereotypes.
“Society expects girls to be girlie, nice and pretty and boys to be manly, rough and outgoing,” explained Jenny Johnsson. “Egalia gives them a fantastic opportunity to be whoever they want to be.”
The Swedes are dedicated to breaking down gender roles by making sure that early education has as few gendered expectations as possible. This means, at Egalia, no books that feature traditional gender roles or relationships – meaning few heterosexual couples, and lots of gay or single parents and adopted children. Conventional fairy tales, like “Cinderella,” or “Snow White,” are not permitted.
The school seems to be successful; there’s a long waiting list for admission and only one child has been removed. But their methods are still controversial and attract a great deal of attention, just like the Canadian couple who recently decided to raise their child gender-neutral.
Sweden is clearly a leader in gender equity as well as in gay rights, and I understand the desire to raise children, from a young age, to be blind to gender. But the question is whether the children will be able to function outside their preschool, or even within the context of their families. One of the most important issues is linguistic; at Egalia, teachers use a Swedish gender-neutral pronoun to avoid the fact that gender is built into the language. It’s unclear to me whether this is sustainable. Even if small children hear gender-neutral language in school, will their parents abide by it? If they do, more power to them – I tried to go through an entire session of a women’s studies class only using gender-neutral language, and failed after 20 minutes.
If nothing else, Egalia seems like a fascinating social experiment. And it could begin to prove that gender is, as feminists argue, a social construct. The question is whether it will be successful in the long run – and if a place like Egalia could exist anywhere except Sweden.
Photo from caseywest’s Flickr photostream.