Girl Power! (…and Responsibility)

By Dr. Jane Pilcher, Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociology.

Children carry a burden of responsibility for the future, at both an individual level and a societal level – but girl children especially so. In recognition, the United Nations has declared 11th October 2012 as the first ever ‘International Day of the Girl’.

There is a commonly held notion that, at an individual level, if childhood isn’t ‘right’, the adult self will not be ‘right’ either. Freudian psychoanalysis, for example, looks back to childhood in the explanation of difficulties affecting adult life. Social policy initiatives like Sure Start in the UK target children in socially deprived communities, in part to break the cycle of disadvantage repeating itself over generations in individual families. At a general level, too, children and childhood are commonly attributed with responsibility for the successful (re)production of society over time. If the children of now are unhealthy/individualistic/anti-authority/overly consumerist, whatever will society be like in the future, when they are the ones (the adults) making the social and cultural world go around?

In my own research and writing, I have explored the burden of responsibility placed on the ‘Children of the Nation’ by health education policy in England since the late nineteenth century. It was from this time that children’s bodies began to be the sites of intensive body work by health educators in schools. This is because children were identified as the key to the future health of ‘the Nation’. For example, in 1928, the government’s Board of Education proclaimed that in childhood lays “the foundations of a health conscience in the minds of the English people of the next generation”. My argument is that, actually, its girls in childhood who were especially constructed as embodying responsibility for the avoidance of dirt, disease, malnutrition, ill-health and sexual immorality in health and sex education policy and practice. So, rather than ‘Children of the Nation’, we should really talk about ‘Girls of the Nation’.

The burden of responsibility borne by girls is not just historical, however. Girls in the contemporary world can also be the focus of social policy and public controversies. I want to give two examples: the charity Plan‘s ‘Because I am a Girl’ campaign and recent controversies in the UK about the ‘sexualisation of childhood’. I think these examples illustrate both the power of girls and also the responsibility they can be seen to carry for the current and future state of their societies.

Plan is a charity which promotes and manages the financial sponsorship of individual children, typically those living in poverty in developing countries. One of its campaigns is ‘Because I am a Girl’. This campaign highlights the particular difficulties girls can face in many developing countries (including the denial of education and forced marriage) and also the huge potential girls have to ‘break the cycle of poverty’. You can watch a rather beautiful and inspirational short film about this campaign on You Tube. According to Plan, with ‘education, skills and the right support’, it is especially girls who can be a ‘huge part’ of creating lasting change. ‘An educated girl is: less likely to marry and to have children whilst she is still a child: more likely to be literate, healthy and survive into adulthood, as are her children; more likely to reinvest her income back into her family, community and country’. Plan were also instrumental in bringing about the first ever United Nations International Day of the Girl, on 11th October 2012.

The ‘Because I am a Girl’ campaign quite rightly focuses attention on the disadvantage and discrimination faced by poor girls in many developing countries. But such campaigns also place a huge burden of responsibility on girls for the future growth and prosperity of their families, their communities and their nations – just as health and sex education policy did for girls in England from the late nineteenth century onwards.

Another example: in the UK, and elsewhere, there have been a series of public controversies over apparent links between consumerism and the ‘sexualisation of childhood’. In fact, rather than childhood/children as a whole, the controversy has really been about the sexualisation of girls, especially in relation to clothing fashions. Retailers (including Primark, New Look and Marks and Spencer’s) have been criticized by politicians and interest groups for marketing to girls ‘sexualized’ and ‘inappropriate’ clothing (such as padded bras, thongs, bikinis and high heel shoes – see, for example, Williams 2010). In 2010, the UK interest group Mumsnet launched its campaign against ‘the premature sexualisation of children [sic]’ – but, tellingly, the title of this campaign is ‘Let Girls Be Girls‘.The UK government ordered an enquiry into the ‘pressures on children to grow up too quickly’ and its findings were published as ‘Letting Children be Children’ (Bailey Review 2011) ; but much of the content is actually concerned with how certain trends in consumer society affect girls.  The controversies, campaigns, enquiries and policy initiatives around the ‘sexualisation of childhood’ have quite rightly involved questions being asked about childhood, parenting, sexual morality, consumerist values and the practices of retailers. However, once again it is girls who have been at the centre of these debates.

As in other areas of social and cultural life, both historically and contemporaneously, it is girls-as-proto-women and their ‘troublesome bodies’ (Smart 1995) who are seen as problematic, responsible or transformative – or some combination of the three. In other words, it is girls/women who are often regarded as key to many a societal issue; the U.N.’s International Day of the Girl on 11 October 2012 is a well deserved recognition of this.


Bailey Review (2011) Report of an Independent Review of the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood, London: Department for Education.

Smart, C. (1995) Law, Crime and Sexuality, London: Sage.

Williams, R. (2010) ‘Padded bikinis unleash a storm over sexualised clothing for kids’, The Guardian 17th April.

Further reading

Pilcher, J. (2007) ‘Body Work: Childhood, Gender and School Health

Education in England, 1870 to 1977’, Childhood, 14 (2): 215-233.

Pilcher, J. (2010) ‘What Not to Wear? Girls, Clothing and Showing the Body’, Children and Society 24 (6): 461-470.


  1. Wassila Howes
    Posted 16/10/2012 at 14:03 | Permalink

    “As in other areas of social and cultural life, both historically and contemporaneously, it is girls-as-proto-women and their ‘troublesome bodies’ (Smart 1995) who are ‘seen’ as problematic, responsible or transformative – or some combination of the three. In other words, it is girls/women who are often regarded as key to many a societal issue; the U.N.’s International Day of the Girl on 11 October 2012 is a well deserved recognition of this.”

    The UN’s ‘Inter’l Day of Girls’ has been established to correct misconceptions, show support to the importance of advancing girls & women through Education, and to celebrate the gift of being a girl and a proud constructive woman of the future.

    We as an advanced society have progressed in leaps and bounds to conquer the ‘dark ages’ and show the ‘light’ of modern civilisations, enlightening societies and people on their way to a brighter future and a more advanced, knowledgeable societies. Among so many various and vital issues people tend to argue about, differ and so easily get entangled on, ‘Gender Differences’ is a major one. Boys are no different from girls and girls breath the same air as boys: We are all human being with our various qualities, our differentiating attributes and our similar failings. No one is better placed than the other, though some societies do place a major stigma on women as a huge red badge, differentiating, men from their counterparts, and that is in most societies(though some are of course more forceful in the means and ways of segregations and biases then others).

    Therefore, it is really society which dictates and imposes the kind of perception, vision, outlook, concept and belief one should have (or shouldn’t) on women and men’s social limitations, behaviour and social tagging. If we take a look at major cities of the world, we will see women and men dressed up in similar ways and behaving according to the society and traditions of the country they live in.

    Once society as whole, men and women, come to terms with their own humanity and accept the make up of their own human body, will they be more acceptant of who they really are, grow to respect the person they have grown into, and focus more constructively on how best one can be towards oneself, as much as towards others. This means, in this case, having a better understanding of why society is generating such a distorted images of girls and boys, and how people as a society can come together to dispel ignorance and correct misconceptions (i.e. Understanding why girls feel they need to behave like ‘sluts’?…Why their mothers are not conducting themselves in good manners?… What does it mean exactly to be a ‘slut’ in boys’ terms?…Are there underlying social problems one should look at?…What about the effect of overindulgence in anything regarded misbehaving?… and why people misbehave?)

    Like medicine and finding much needed cure to heal widespread illnesses, Education is indeed the cornerstone not only for girls, but more so for boys, as they are the ones who normally, if remaining ignorant, become in most cases the perpetrators. The physical strength of boys and men gives them an entitlement which only nature gave to animals and therefore, should never be construed to be the reason to dominate and enslave others.

    The gift of nature to humankind has been in general women are beautiful and men are robust, though the best gift of all is the power of their mind. Indeed, both women and men share certainly plenty of those cells: The Emotional Cells. It’s a matter of having enough of the right ’emotional cells’ to differentiate the animal from the human within, and here lies no differences at all, thus nature gave total senses to all human being, men and women alike.

    It’s the way we opt and choose to use them which makes us equal: One is in the way we behave, the other is in the way we perceive. These are very subjective attitudes. Those persisting on seeing only the negative, will only behave negatively.

    So, when are we going to see the light, get in touch with our humanity and behave positively?


  2. Chris Williams
    Posted 13/10/2012 at 08:59 | Permalink

    An educated girl is less likely to marry whilst still a child because her father is enlightened enough to value her education, or she has no father and her mother knows her daughter’s education is essential for for her old age. It is true that mothers can strongly influence theirs sons which can change the next generation but we see in Britain, that this only extends to puberty for many boys. The fathers or father substitutes become the main influence. It they are lucky their mother resumes influence when they are in their 20s.

    In Britain, it is mothers, not fathers, who over sexualise their daughters. Women demonstrate a lower ability to resist peer pressure even than men. You only have to visit a theatre to see which gender has the true mobile phone obsessives who must be in communication with their peer group every second of the day.

    Then there is politicisation of over sexualised girls by campaigns like slut walk. It is your right to dress like a prostitute even at 15. Now the prostitutes have to wear smart cloths to stand out from the crowd. Not a bad thing you may say. What is interesting about this over sexualisation is that it has nothing to do with boys, although the boys don’t always realise that. The girls dress up like tarts to go out with the girls not to pull boys. No wonder boys are confused. This is not a new phenomenon, it has been many years since you went to a dance to pull the girls. In parts of Scotland this was ritualised so that the girls who wanted a boy/man would wait outside for “a lift home”.

    If Because I’m a Girl has some effect, however small, it can only be good. If Mumsnet can stop women over sexualising their girls then that will be less confusing for boys and men in general and so must be good. Not that I have ever had a problem with look but don’t touch. That is the main thing that makes women attractive to the vast majority of men. Unfortunately, the few give the majority a bad name.


One Trackback

  1. […] By Dr. Jane Pilcher, Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociology. Children carry a burden of responsibility for the future, at both an individual level and a societal level – but girl children especially so.  […]

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *