What Does ‘Girl Power’ Really Mean?

We asked our visitors to talk back about what it means to be a girl

Three cards where visitors left handwritten messages invoking girl power. One card reads: “you think we're not good enough but we're just to [sic] good for you, girl power.”
Since “Girlhood: It's complicated” opened in 2020, hundreds of visitors have made “Girl Power” a part of their messages to the museum. NMAH

What does “girl power” mean to you? Since its debut in American pop culture 30 years ago, girl power has remained an iconic political slogan. When you hear it, you may think of the snarling punk songs of the Riot Grrrl movement, characters like Wonder Woman, or Spice Girls merchandise from the 1990s decorated with the phrase. The ripples of its popularity can be seen in the exhibition Girlhood (It’s complicated), which opened in 2020 at the National Museum of American History as an exploration of the history of gender roles and the idea of girlhood in the United States.

The team behind Girlhood prioritized using girls’ voices from the past to create the exhibition and invited visitors to contribute their own voices through a talkback card station. Over the last two years, thousands of visitors from around the world have answered the questions printed on the cards to share their opinions on everything from fashion trends to court cases. While working as an intern at the museum for the past year, I have collected and digitized Girlhood’s talkback cards each week so they can be archived. One phrase in particular has stood out to me: “girl power!” While the many other slogans used in the cards usually stand alone, girl power is often accompanied by visitors’ explanations of what the phrase means to them.

The foundations of girl power can be traced to the 1950s, when girlhood became a more important and defined cultural category in the wake of World War II. Advertisers capitalizing on the baby boom began marketing to girls as a distinct group with its own unique needs and interests. Despite girls’ growing consumer power and influence on pop culture, girlhood was still rarely taken as seriously as boyhood. Commercials, magazines, music, television shows, and movies often depicted boyhood as a period of adventure, rebellion, and independence, and girlhood as a state of frivolity, dependence, and unimportance.

The phrase "girl power" became popular in the 1990s, when girls who had grown up with the negative post-baby-boom messaging became adults with their own ideas about girlhood. Girl power emerged from the Riot Grrrl movement, an underground feminist punk effort that advocated for “revolution girl style now!” Feminists like Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer of Bikini Kill, rejected the notion that girlhood was embarrassing and trivial and worked to reclaim it as a source of social and political power. After being adopted as a catchphrase by the British pop band the Spice Girls in the late 1990s, “girl power” cemented its place in the mainstream and became an accessible (and marketable) cross-generational political slogan.

Girl power’s impact is evident in its hundreds of appearances in the thousands of cards that have been submitted to the exhibition. The messages shared showcase some of the many ways visitors have defined girl power and used the phrase to explore their own complicated experiences with and understandings of girlhood.

Six cards with visitor messages. One visitor responds to the prompt "What did you learn in school about how to be a girl?" with a message that includes "I learned to make myself small. To not make noise . . . I unlearned my power."
Many cards submitted to the museum by visitors of all ages reflect on the challenges of growing up as a girl, expressing frustration and sadness at having been made to feel powerless because of their gender NMAH
Though girlhood is often idealized as a time of simple innocence that precedes the complexity of adulthood, visitors’ talkback cards reveal a much more complicated reality. For many, childhood was the first time they developed a sense that girls were underestimated and disempowered by the adults around them.
Three cards with visitor messages. One visitor responds to the prompt "What do politicians need to know about girls today" with a message that includes "Girls ain't just tools and have opinions . . . #Girlpower 2022."
All three of these cards conclude with proud declarations of “girl power,” presenting the phrase as a way to challenge and overcome the obstacles faced by girls. NMAH
Many visitors use girl power to reflect on the complex experiences they had with girlhood as children. Unlike other popular slogans associated with women’s empowerment that were created for adult activist initiatives, such as “my body, my choice” or “equal pay for equal work,” girl power speaks directly to childhood. Using the phrase is a way for adults to connect their post-childhood experiences with the experiences of their youths and even reclaim the power they feel they or others were denied as girls.
Nine cards with messages from younger visitors. Asa, age 10, responds to the prompt "What do you tell the world through your clothes" with the message "That girls can do anything! We are powerful! . . . Girl Power!"
The accessibility and popularity of “girl power” with children is evident in the number of cards using the phrase that were made by younger visitors. NMAH
Girl power is also unique from other slogans because of how accessible it is to kids. It is most often used by younger visitors in their talkback cards, many of whom view it as a source of positivity. They use girl power to encourage others to be themselves, imagine a more equitable future, and reject efforts to limit their self-expression. On many cards, symbols like hearts, peace signs, smiley faces, and stars accompany the phrase. Girl power provides an optimistic and fun way to think about the relationship between power and girlhood.
Nine cards with visitor messages. One visitor responds to the prompt "What do politicians need to know about girls today" with a message that includes "We will stand strong. We will not give up our rights! We will fight."
As shown in these cards, girl power provides a way for visitors to understand their individual experiences with girlhood as both collective and political. NMAH
Even though girls have historically been represented as lacking a political consciousness, many visitors envision girl power as a form of political power. Instead of associating girlhood with passivity or weakness, they use the concept of girl power as a call to action that reframes girlhood as a source of strength. Many talkback cards finish their discussion of issues such as equal pay or reproductive justice with proud declarations of “GIRL POWER!”
Six cards with visitor messages. One visitor responds to the prompt "What did you learn in school about how to be a girl" with a message that includes "You are amazing, beautiful, hardworking, and smart just the way you are. Girl power!"
For the visitors who made these cards, girl power is a way to challenge and complicate ideas about girls and girlhood—and to encourage others to do so, too. NMAH
Many talkback cards express the sentiment that there is not one type of girl or one way to experience girlhood, despite what they may have been raised to believe. Indeed, many adults—historians included—dismiss girlhood as trivial and underestimate girls as people.
Nine cards with visitor messages. One visitor responds to the prompt "What do politicians need to know about girls today" with a message that includes "They can and will change the world!"
Each “girl power” talkback card represents a different way for girls and others to understand and act upon the relationship between girlhood and power. NMAH
So what do visitors do with girl power? According to the talkback cards, girl power helps visitors realize their value, love others, achieve their dreams, defy stereotypes, and work together to change the world. Through girl power, girls—and the adults they grow into— reimagine girlhood and define their own identity as individuals and a united group.
Six cards with visitor messages. One visitor responds to the prompt, "What do politicians need to know about girls today" with a message that includes "That no matter what we can do anything. We have our own opinions and no can change them."
Just as there isn’t one way to define girlhood, there isn’t one way to define “girl power.” Each talkback card emblazoned with the phrase shares a different way to understand what the phrase means, inspires, and does. While this ability to resist definition is frustrating to some, it’s inspiring and useful to others. NMAH

While girl power has been criticized by some feminists as being too ambiguous, it’s clear from looking at visitors’ talkback cards that the phrase’s enduring popularity is perhaps owed to its deceptive simplicity. The wide interpretive space of girl power acts as an invitation, encouraging girls to define what girlhood and power mean to them and challenging people of all ages to reconsider their own ideas and assumptions. The variety of ways visitors interpret the phrase demonstrates how “girl power” is an accessible introduction to political consciousness, something girls have been denied, and a source of inspiration and self-advocacy that many carry into adulthood. “Girl power,” like girlhood, is complicated!

Girlhood (It’s complicated) received support from the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative. The last day to see the exhibition at NMAH is January 2, 2023, before it begins its national tour. 

This post was originally published on the National Museum of American History's blog on October 7, 2022. Read the original version here.