Old News: Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Children’s Rights and Modern Anti-trans Legislation

Alison Kronstadt, Events and Programming Coordinator

This blog post is a continuation of an exhibition label for the Library Company of Philadelphia’s current exhibition, Old News: Finding Current Events in Historical Collections. Please come visit us at 1314 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107 to view the entire exhibition!

Please note that this blog post contains discussion of anti-LGBT discrimination (particularly anti-trans discrimination), physical and sexual violence, and suicide.

In the very first paragraph of Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Children’s Rights (1900), the author describes several conversations that she has with people in her orbit about the book’s titular idea. She writes:

The subject of Children’s Rights does not provoke much sentimentality in this country…I interviewed the man who washes my windows, with the purpose of getting at the level of his mind in the matter. “Dennis…I am writing an article on the ‘Rights of Children.’ What do you think about it?” …[A]fter a moment’s puzzled thought, he said, “What do I think about it, mum? Why, I think we’d ought to give ’em to ’em. But Lor’, mum, if we don’t, they take ’em, so what’s the odds?” The French dressmaker was my next victim. As she fitted…[my] collar, I put the same question I had given to Dennis. “The rights of the child, madame?” she asked, her scissors poised in the air… “Mon Dieu! [H]e has them!”

These exchanges demonstrate the two truths at the center of Wiggin’s work: that she has powerful insight into how our society denies freedom to children, and that she is participating in a long tradition of wealthy white teachers expressing love for their students while ultimately continuing the same denial of their freedom through their racism and classism. It’s the most obvious later in the book, where Wiggin describes the children of “the lower classes” and their families who she has met through her work as a Kindergarten teacher, but you can see it here too. I don’t know why Wiggin decided to only interview two people she was paying to provide her a service. Maybe she wanted the opinion of people she considered to represent “the common man”; maybe she thought it would be fun to write in two different accents. If she thought that only working class people were indifferent or ignorant to the idea of children’s rights, though, she couldn’t have been more wrong. This problem is as alive today as it was in the 19th century, and it’s far from limited to one social class.

Parents, teachers, and anyone else who regularly thinks about children will talk for ages about their desire for children’s lives to be safe and happy, but they pay much less attention to whether or not those lives are as just and as self-determined as possible. In fact, adults often argue that the restriction of children’s rights is for their safety, for their own good. Wiggin perceptively describes this pattern as a question of “rights as opposed to privileges.” She writes, “a multitude of privileges, or rather indulgences, can exist with a total disregard of the child’s rights…The child might say, ‘I will forego all my privileges, if you will only give me my rights: a little less sentiment, please,more justice!’” [emphasis added].

It’s necessary to start here, with the idea that children as a societal group deserve justice and that they do not have it, before making any specific arguments about any specific injustice that children face, since most adults don’t think of children as needing rights at all. In my exhibition label, I discuss the ways Wiggin’s thoughtful and effective arguments around children’s rights fail to consider the realities of children who are discriminated against for reasons beyond their age. The reverse is also true: any struggle for justice for an oppressed group will be more successful and more complete if it includes an understanding of the experiences, strengths, and needs of the children within that group, as well as what it will take for their adult counterparts to be in true solidarity with those children.

There is an obvious example that’s dominating the news cycle right now: more than 500 anti-trans bills have been proposed in the legislatures of 45 states and signed into law in 14, and most of these bills focus on trans children. People speaking out against these bills have pointed out the connections between anti-trans laws and other social justice issues, such as reproductive rights, sexual violence, and LGBT rights more broadly. The connections between these laws and children’s rights as a whole aren’t being discussed as widely, but there’s so much to learn if we dig into those connections.

Let’s start here: the idea that anti-LGBT laws come from a genuine desire to protect children is not true. It’s important to trace this argument, not because it’s being made in good faith, but because it has a lot to teach us about the link between this specific attack on children’s rights, children’s rights as a whole, and LGBT rights as a whole.

When we consider the evidence, it’s clear that these laws completely fail to keep children safe. Recent studies show that being allowed to transition reduces the risk of suicide for trans children by as much as 73 percent. There is also absolutely no evidence that queer and trans adults pose a threat to children and should therefore have our rights restricted to protect them. There are, however, a variety of proven initiatives that do reduce the rate of sexual violence that children experience. These initiatives—comprehensive and consent-focused sex education, age-appropriate and honest discussion of bodies and sexuality without shame, fostering networks of close relationships with adults outside the nuclear family, building community knowledge around sexual violence instead of automatically assuming the police know best—are incredibly unpopular among the white, wealthy, conservative, Christian base that is responsible for the generation and support of these laws. At the heart of the “protect the children” argument is not a desire for children’s justice or even for their safety. It is a desire for control.

It’s critical that we understand this. Many trans people have pointed out that while most of these bills focus on children, their supporters’ ultimate goal is to eventually ban gender transition for people of all ages; the law that Missouri passed that bans transition for adults is a good example of how this escalation can happen. There are two important points to make around this. First, even if there wasn’t clear evidence that these attacks won’t stop at children, they would already be harmful and unjust enough to deserve the full weight of our resistance. Second, these bills are more palatable to many because of the widespread belief that children aren’t entitled to autonomy, self-determination, and freedom. These conservative lawmakers aren’t aiming their fascism at children first because they care about children. They’re aiming at children because children are an easier target.

Creating a just society for children doesn’t mean treating children exactly like adults. As Wiggin says, “Once the child is born, one of his inalienable rights, which we too oft deny him, is the right to his childhood.” There are ways to create a just society for children that make room for them to be young people, to play, to be wherever they are in their developmental journey. Visions for children’s rights have to consider their unique position in society, the same as you would for any other oppressed group of people. Adultism is the set of systems and beliefs that privileges adults over children. I encourage you to learn more about adultism and support the youth organizers in your community, because I promise you they’re there.

I want to believe that adults have known that we can learn from children since the dawn of time, but I can prove at least some adults have known this since the 19th century. In Children’s Rights, Wiggin exclaims, “Oh, these tiny teachers! If we only learned from them all we might, instead of feeling ourselves overwise! … I never look down into the still clear pool of a child’s questioning eyes without thinking ‘Dear little one, it must be “give and take” between thee and me.’” Her language might sound a little over-the-top today, but that doesn’t make the idea any less relevant. Today, young people are speaking out and organizing against these anti-trans bills by the thousands. As adults, both cis and trans, we have the power to learn from them instead of assuming that knowledge only flows one way. Young people don’t just deserve a civic voice as a learning tool, as an indulgence from the adults around them; it’s impossible to create a world with equal rights for everyone without their perspectives and their wisdom.

Trans children are using this painful political moment to give us so many opportunities to benefit from their knowledge. I hope we listen to Silver, a 14-year-old trans boy who weaponizes the language of adultism during testimony against a gender affirming care ban in Indiana, saying, “I never thought the government, grown adults, would turn into my middle school bullies.” I hope we listen to Trinity Neal, a young trans girl from Delaware who describes the joy and power of being trans in a moment where she educated an adult in her life: “[My doctor] asked me how it felt being trans. I think it’s fun because I can help others.” I hope we learn from the trans young people who’ve organized walkouts in their schools, who’ve shared their stories in rooms full of adults who aim to legislate them out of existence, who have exercised the full breadth of their power in a world that says denying them that power is an act of love.

We don’t all have the power to pass or change laws. As adults, however, we all have the power to be better allies to the children around us. Do you give the children in your life a choice about when they receive hugs or any physical touch from you or other adults? Do you apologize to them when you do something unfair or unkind instead of minimizing it or hiding it from them? If you’re involved in your local school system in any way, do you advocate for more leadership and decision-making opportunities for students? When you read about injustices that you don’t experience, or even injustices that you do, do you try to learn about how those injustices affect children? Do you read or listen to sources that quote children directly instead of just talking about them? Do you ask the children around you what they think about how their lives and the world could be better? Do you take their ideas seriously? Do you create opportunities for those young people to advance those ideas themselves as you work to advance those ideas in places where children aren’t allowed to be?

As a trans adult, it’s heartbreaking and infuriating to know that there is a large and powerful part of society who actively desires my silent misery at best and my death at worst. As a trans educator and someone who was once a trans child, that heartbreak compounds by knowing that children are on the front lines of this fight because adultism makes them more vulnerable. As a student of history, however, I know that the past has many resources to inform our present struggles for a better world. From the Little Rock Nine to the March for Our Lives, young people have been organizing around major political issues in this country as long as this country has existed.

Children’s Rights as a book exists to advocate for a victory that came to pass, one that many people in the U.S. take for granted: universal free public Kindergarten. Children’s rights as a demand lies at the center of our biggest questions, whether we admit it or not. Young people will continue to fight for their rights, as they have for centuries. We can join them, not as saviors or dictators, but as accomplices. We can use past examples of this struggle as tools in the present, both to inform our strategy and to remind us that we have won before. Despite the fear and sadness overwhelming this political moment, we have a reserve of both knowledge and hope to keep us going.

Much of my learning on the current state of anti-trans legislation in the United States comes from the reporting of Erin Reed. I encourage you to explore her extensive body of work here: https://www.erininthemorning.com/archive.