Girl Power! (….and Responsibility)

Children carry a burden of responsibility for the future, at both an individual level and a societal level – but girl children especially so.

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, in fact, 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 over girls’ clothing fashions in the UK. I think these examples illustrate both the power of girls and also the very heavy burden of responsibility that is placed upon them for the reproduction of society, including in terms of (sexual) morality.

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 both the particular difficulties girls can face in some 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 by clicking here. 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 some 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 English health and sex education policy did for girls from the late nineteenth century onwards.

In the UK, and elsewhere, there have been a series of public controversies over girls’ clothing fashions. Retailers, including Primark, New Look and Marks and Spencers, have been criticized in the media, by politicians and by interest groups for marketing to girls styles of ‘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 ‘Let Girls Be Girls’ campaign, with its stated aims of curbing ‘the premature sexualization of children [sic]’. The UK government recently ordered an enquiry into the ‘pressures on children to grow up too quickly’ and its findings were published as the Bailey Review (2011). One of the outcomes is that the British Retailers Consortium has launched a new set of stricter ‘best practice’ guidelines for retailers. The controversies, campaigns, enquiries and policy initiatives around girls’ fashion have quite rightly involved questions being asked about childhood, sexual morality and consumerist values. However, once again it is girls who have been at the centre.

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) that are invariably 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 problem.


Pilcher, J. 2012 ‘Girls of the Nation: Body work in school health education in the 20th century’, Poster presentation at the British Sociological Association Annual Conference, University of Leeds, April.

Pilcher, J. 2007     ‘Body Work: Childhood, Gender and School Health
Education in England, 1870 to 1977’, Childhood14 (2): 215-233.

Pilcher, J. 2005    ‘School Sex Education: Policy and Practice in England 1870-2000’, Sex
 5 (2) : 157-174.

Pilcher, J. 2004    ‘Sex in Health Education: Official Guidance for Schools in England,
1928-1977’, Journal of Historical Sociology 17 (2/3): 185—208.

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.