Reading The Signs 

Linda Belans 8-17-2022

I was taught to read, along with 80% of first graders, from the ubiquitous text book Dick and Jane. In addition to storing whole words into my visual memory, images of the little blonde girl and her suburban white family were stored there, too. To this urban, olive-skinned little Jewish girl, whose mother and father both worked, there was cognitive dissonance.














It feels almost criminal to imagine what this teaching tool did to little Black children’s identity – all children of color's identity. It took 35 years –  the year following the passage of the Civil Rights Act – to include African American families. The gender stereotypes, however, remained untouched.













Literature, particularly children’s literature, is filled with images that portray girls as less than, of cleaning house, as onlookers to boys engaged in interesting, physical or bullying activities. Of rendering girls helpless or invisible.




We grow up on stories and images that validate and invalidate us. It's where I learned about power dynamics. About gender and race. The word ‘pregnant’ was banned on I Love Lucy when Lucille Ball and her character were pregnant. I was formed by these images. So were policies: In 1966, it meant that during a secretarial job interview at the University of Pittsburgh, the male personnel manager asked me what kind of birth control I used because he didn't want to hire a woman who would get pregnant.


It was legal for him to ask that question, legal to fire me if I did get pregnant, and illegal to have an abortion. This wouldn’t change until 1978.


Where do stork babies come from?
















There are many images and stories in our cultural legacy that seem innocuous but that we have come to understand are harmful. On the literal face of it, if you google “stork carrying baby” images, the babies are almost all white. 


We can trace this myth back to its origins, and to the fabled Hans Christian Andersen story, “The Storks.” It contains the most gruesome (and political imagery) including the declaration that all ‘good’ families want babies, death to babies, and delivering dead babies as a revenge tactic to bullying boys.

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Here’s an excerpt:

“A crowd of children were playing down in the street, and, as soon as they saw the storks, one of the boldest boys, followed by the others, began to sing the old song about storks. They sang it just as their leader remembered it:


"The first he will be hanged,

The second will be stabbed,

The third he will be burned,

And the fourth will be slapped!"


"Just listen to what they are saying!" cried the little stork children. "They say we're going to be hanged and burned!"

"Don't pay any attention to that," replied the mother stork crossly. "Don't listen to them, and then it won't make any difference."


 “I know the pond where all the little human babies lie until the storks come to take them to their parents. The pretty little babies lie in that pond, dreaming more sweetly than they ever dream afterwards. All parents want a little baby, and every child wants a little sister or brother. Now, we'll go to that pond and bring a little baby sister or brother for each of the children who didn't sing that wicked song or make fun of us. But those that did won't get any."


"But that naughty, ugly boy who began the song?" demanded the young storks. "What shall we do with him?"

"In that pond," said his mother slowly, "there is a little baby that has dreamed itself to death; we'll bring that to him. And then he'll cry because we've brought him a little dead brother.” 




















Why do we still use the stork as the representation of where babies come from? What do we say to the young child in our car who asks about this parking sign at Duke University Ob-Gyn Clinics?


Fairytales, including TV and images are a reflection of, a reinforcement of, and a foundation for our beliefs and policies.


Politicians still haven’t passed the Equal Rights Amendment, almost 100 years since its introduction. We are once again fighting for the right to make decisions for our own bodies: The SCOTUS decision has put the lives of one-in-four American women or girls nationwide at risk of harm, death, and/or economic disaster – with people of color at most risk.


The majority of legislators making decisions for women are white men. We're seeing books about pregnancy being banned in public schools and images of prominent African Americans being removed from classroom walls.

Pregnant women need a sign equivalent to the straightforward seriousness of this one. 





We need visibility of the fullness of women’s lives. Girls and boys need more children’s stories that give women, including pregnant women, a seat at the table and a place to park that carries that image. It’s time to grow up.


Linda Belans 8-17-2022