The Magazine

Girl Power! and Other Idiocy

Government propaganda for boys and girls.

Jan 14, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 17 • By CHRISTINA HOFF SOMMERS
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THE NUMEROUS Girl Power! brochures and booklets contain some innocuous messages, including health tips from which all children could benefit, boys no less than girls. Otherwise their content is pure feminist propaganda. One Girl Power! "activity guide" opens with a story about Princess Petaluma who "began to despise her Princesshood on her 11th birthday." She prefers hunting unicorns and entering archery contests with the knights to sewing and dancing. Her archery skills are not merely equal to the knights'--they are far better. "Is it her fault that she had won the contest nine out of ten times?" Her father the king (a clueless, irascible, and benighted patriarch) punishes her by offering her hand in marriage to a "selfish and bad-tempered" prince. The princess rebels. "I can be a better King than any son," she shouts at her father. She demands a chance to prove it. Readers are then invited to create their own "Girl-Powered ending" for the story. The moral is always the same: Traditional femininity is dreary and oppressive, and spirited, empowered girls should resist it.

"Girl quotes" expressing anger and resentment of males are featured in many Girl Power! booklets. A girl named Nina says, "We need to show those boys we are the BOMB!" Another girl, Lily, says, "At dinner, I am the one who gets yelled at for interrupting, not my brothers." Twelve-year-old Gabriela boasts, "I do things that boys are afraid to do. I ride a horse everyday. I get up at 6:30 A.M. just to swim in a freezing pool." Gabriela adds, "I don't know who came up with the idea 'boys are better than girls' but I do know that we are all the same"--except she's just said she was braver. Most girls do not normally think of boys as a hostile rival tribe with whom they are competing; but this is the outlook Girl Power! inculcates.

A Girl Power! assignment book is full of "Fun Facts" for girls to enjoy. Thus, "In 1970, 42 percent of all college undergraduates were women; in 1996, 56 percent were women." If the fact that girls increasingly outnumber boys in college is "fun," Girl Power! advocates should get a real kick out of two recent pieces of data (from "Trends in Educational Equity," by the National Center for Educational Statistics, and "The State of Blacks in America," by the National Urban League, respectively): (1) The writing scores of male eleventh graders are comparable to those of female eighth graders; and (2) of African Americans now in college, approximately 63 percent are female, 37 percent male.

Most Girl Power! materials were developed in a little-known division of Health and Human Services called the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP). According to its website, CSAP "provides national leadership in the development of policies, programs, and services to prevent the onset of illegal drug use, to prevent underage alcohol and tobacco use, and to reduce the negative consequences of using substances." Why the Girl Power! self-esteem initiative belongs in a drug-use prevention research division is not explained. No one has shown that single-sex drug prevention programs are any more effective than gender-neutral programs. Nor has CSAP ever seen the need to spend any part of its large budget on outcome studies to determine whether the benefits promised by Girl Power! guides and activity books are actually achieved. (Annual funding for all of CSAP approaches half a billion dollars; expenditures for Girl Power!, while just a small part of that, are difficult to ascertain.) The goal is exemplary: to "help girls make the most of their lives." But pieties are no substitute for proof of effectiveness.

It's perhaps not surprising that CSAP has become something of a joke among researchers seriously interested in the issue of drug abuse. Sally Satel, a psychiatrist who combines policy research at the American Enterprise Institute with clinical work among substance abusers, expresses the dismay of some scientific observers when she says, "With so much of its money spent developing techniques to prevent drug use, one would think CSAP would place a strong emphasis on research design, data collection, and interpretation. Think again."