Gender and Dolls
Beatrice Alexander, 1895 - 1990
Alexander's stance on the suitability of dolls as toys for boys was quite progressive for her time. Although she "would never advocate a mother or father rushing out and buying dolls for boys," she also did not believe that boys would become "effeminate" if they did play with dolls. In fact, she thought dolls could play an important role in fostering boys' natural nurturing instincts. "I don't think a parent should ridicule boys when they show affection for little sister's dolls," she asserted. "After all, the paternal instinct in men is an important as the maternal instinct in women, and it couldn't be good to crush that instinct in a child."
Despite her progressive views, Alexander's relationship to feminism was complex. As a strong, outspoken, self-sufficient woman, she clearly did not conform to traditional ideas about women's roles and characteristics. She encouraged her female employees to be self-reliant and in the early years even brought them to Margaret Sanger's clinic for checkups and birth control. According to her secretary, "Madame Alexander was the original feminist. She was doing a man's job when the world was not always accepting or approving of an independent woman."
Yet with many of her creations apparently encouraging girls to be more concerned with appearance and etiquette than with self-fulfillment, Alexander was forced to respond in the 1970s and 1980s to charges from the growing feminist movement that the doll industry was retrograde and harmful to women. Denying vigorously that her dolls contributed to the oppression of women, she argued instead that they helped to build up a girl's "capacity to love others and herself." The role of dolls—and of toys more generally—in building children's sense of appropriate gender roles remains hotly debated today.
- Quotes beginning "would never advocate..." and "I don't think..." cited in Mary Widener, "Madam Alexander Turned a Little Cherub into Doll Industry," newspaper clipping from Archives of Alexander Doll Company, Inc.
- Quotes beginning "Madame Alexander was..." and "capacity to love..." cited in Stephanie Finnegan, et. al., Madame Alexander Dolls: An American Legend (Portfolio Press, 1999), 54.