Forget Princess, Call Me President:
Books, Toys, & Clothing for Empowering Young Girls
By Chelsey Hauge, PhD, Researcher & Educator in Gender Studies & Social Justice
It is plainly obvious to anyone who's browsed toy or clothing aisles recently that kids in America are genderized from a very young age — indeed, starting before they are even born! I'm obviously exaggerating for effect here, but the archetype is that boys are clad in blue outfits donning sports, space, and dinosaurs; are given toy trucks and building sets to play with; and are continually encouraged to be brave and learn new things. Meanwhile, girls are dressed in pink, glittery clothes exploding with cupcakes, hearts, and contentedness; are bought dolls and kitchens to play with; and are encouraged to be "good girls" who are "nice."
As the mama of twin toddler girls as well as a feminist academic who researches how children experience gender, I aspire to more for my daughters — and for other young girls out there. (I don't mind if they wear pink hearts, play with dolls, or want to learn to cook; but I also want them to have the freedom to wear blue dinosaurs, build monster LEGO creations, or dream about becoming an astronaut. And more importantly, I don't want our girls ever to self-conscious about their choices, or to feel singled out for them.) And so I've put together this list of books, toys, and clothing that stand up to traditional gender stereotypes to share with other parents out there with similar aspirations for their daughters.
Note: The products featured below were hand-picked by the author; we did not receive any compensation for including any of them. This page may contain affiliate links, meaning we may receive a small commission on any purchases that you make (at no cost to you); see our full disclosure.
A quick survey of the theory and research
Before we dive into the fun stuff 😉 , I hope you'll indulge me in a very brief survey of the theory and research around genderization, so you understand why this is all important.
Genderization as biological vs. a social construct
While some people believe gendered behaviors to be driven by purely biological differences (as reflected in the old adage "boys will be boys"), gender schema theory proposes that children learn about what it means to be male and female from the culture of the society within which they live — and then adjust their behavior to fit in with the norms and expectations of that society.
According to this camp, gender is a social construct: if boys more often seem to like trucks and roughhousing, and girls more often seem to like playing house and wearing pink glittery outfits (again, to cite examples in the extreme), then that's only because that's what society has taught them they should prefer.
Whether or not you fully subscribe to this perspective, most scholars believe that cultural pressures and expectations do at a minimum play an important role in shaping gendered behavior.
Genderization starts from birth (indeed, even before!)
Research shows that genderization begins in utero, with knowledge of gender impacting moms' subtle choices around food intake and tone of voice when reading to the bump as well as prenatal purchases of gendered clothing, furniture, and toys that will surround babies in their first few months. These actions begin to shape and mold our little ones into little boys and girls.
As babies grow, the pattern of society engaging with our children differently based to their gender continues. For example, caregivers respond more punitively to girls’ expressions of anger than to boys’.
Gender schema develops within the first few years of life
So what impact does this behavior on the part of adults have on our little ones? Most researchers now believe that before tots develop their own gender identities (typically around age two and a half or three), they start to organize information into a gender schema, as early as 24 months. Various tidbits about the toys, clothing, books, and more surrounding them are carefully filed away until they can develop a coherent gender schema to make sense of everything they have observed.
Researchers used to believe this didn't start happening until about age three; however, now they believe that while it may not be until age three that a child has the language to express ideas about gender, they are actually referencing information acquired in the first two years of life.
By the time kids reach preschool, notable differences in behavior based on gender are already manifesting themselves. For example, there is typically more aggression among boys than girls.
The implications for raising our daughters
So what does this all mean? If you are committed to pursuing a more gender neutral approach to parenting — for example, in the hopes of raising a spit-fire, independent child who turns up her nose at traditional gender stereotypes — it is vital that you plant the seeds in the first several years of life, while your child is still formulating early conclusions about gender roles in our society.
That's a big task, and involves many components — obviously also including how you and others interact with your child, how you and your spouse model work and home activities, and so on. But those are topics for another time. In this article, I'll focus on the easier (and perhaps more fun) stuff — surrounding your child with books, toys, and clothing that will help to balance the signals about what it means to be a girl (or boy!) in our society.
Top picks: Books
This is the story of a little girl who just can’t quite find herself as an inventor until a great-great aunt comes along — a great, great aunt who herself defied gender expectations way back when. She nurtures the little girl’s talents and passions, and together the two of them even get to realize an old dream of the great, great aunt. Beautifully illustrated, and great for preschoolers. Recommended for ages 3-5.
This lovely book contains one hundred stories that are all built on the great lives and stories of women heroines. From Serena Williams to Elizabeth the I, you’re sure to find something to love in here! Great for slightly older girls ready to lay in bed and listen to a caregiver read them to sleep. Ages 5-8.
This picture book does a beautiful job of introducing complex, challenging content about girl’s educational inequity around the world in simple, digestible ways that are not scary. Malala is a modern-day heroine, advocating for girls around the world after being shot in the head on her way to school in Pakistan. This book highlights her resilience and illustrates how children can become involved with global issues. Be prepared for questions after you read this to your little one! Recommended for ages 5-10.
Incredibly, this tale is now twenty-five years old. Written by Robert Munsch, it tells the story of a princess who decides not to marry the snooty prince who has been picked out for her, but rescues him from the clutches of a dragon anyway. Upon completing her rescue mission while wearing a paper bag, she decides not to marry the prince and lives happily ever after. Recommended for ages 4-7.
This story turns gender norms on their head. It is about a little duckling called Elmer who is just not like the other boys. He likes to bake cakes and would prefer to dance rather than play sports. He is called a sissy, but his chance to play the hero comes along when his father is shot by a hunter. The celebration of Elmer’s difference will be a welcome lesson for children experiencing or learning about difference. Recommended for ages 3-7.
Top picks: Toys
GoldieBlox offers a variety of sets for creative girls to build, explore, and invent. The company set out to challenge the utter lack of female engineers (only 14% of engineers!) with toys for little girls. The idea is that when these STEM toys are geared towards girls, girls will feel more confident to explore STEM subjects and eventually careers. They offer a variety of building toys, action figures, craft kids, books, apps, and even clothing for preschoolers and elementary aged kids. We especially love the action figures, which suggest that a girl can have, for example, both flowing locks and a couple of hammers in her pocket. Recommended for ages 4-10.
Created by two female Stanford/MIT/Caltech electrical engineering goddesses, the Roominate construction toy line blends building, circuits, design, crafts, storytelling, and creativity to teach kids while they play. The core sets spin off of traditional dollhouses to allow girls the opportunity to build their own spaces and houses. And they’re not just dollhouses: they’ve also got axles, motors, etc. There are townhouse sets, veterinarian offices, school buses, carnivals, and more to build. Recommended for ages 6-10 (with a few more complex products recommended for ages 8+).
Whether she loves soccer, basketball, dance, or swimming, there’s a Go! Go! Sports Doll for your girl! And she won’t be wearing sparkles on the edge of her soccer shorts, either — these girls are realistic representations of actual sporty girls. You can either buy the doll alone, or buy a bundle that also includes an empowering book that tells the story of how each girl learns her sport and what role it plays in her growth. They’re also quite reasonably priced, at about $25 for a doll/book bundle. Recommended for ages 2-8.
Perhaps your little girl is a budding architect. Let her construct the building of her dreams with these periodic table building blocks. She’ll learn chemistry and architecture at the same time! Recommended for ages 2-8.
Sometimes girls love Barbies, and sometimes Barbies drive their feminist parents crazy due to their unrealistic body proportions! Worry not — there’s something better! Lammily dolls (retail price $25 each) are modeled off of the typical nineteen-year-old’s body. There are currently three dolls available: a white female “traveler,” a black female “photographer,” and a generic “boy Lammily” (how refreshing, lol!). They have an impressive 13 points of articulation — allowing them to do pretty much anything. Setting the appropriate foundation for a positive body image among little girls is so important, and choosing dolls for your daughter who can actually stand on two feet is a great start!
The younger version of the Lammily doll is the Lottie doll. Lottie dolls are modeled after the body shape of a typical nine-year-old girl, and are age-appropriate: they wear no makeup, high heels, or jewelry. They stand on their own two feet, and come with fun names like “Lottie Pirate Queen Doll” and “Lottie Butterfly Protector Doll.” They come in a range of skin, hair, and eye colors, so your little one can have a doll that looks just like her! With a wide variety of outfits and accessories available, you’re sure to find something to capture the interest of any little girl — with no frills, sparkles, or ridiculously tiny waists. A Finn boy doll counterpart is also available. Dolls start at $20.
Top picks: Clothing
Primary offers simple, high-quality basics for boys and girls in bright, cheerful solids. There are no sayings, no scribbles, and no sparkles on their clothing, and pieces can easily be mixed and matched. Their prices are also quite reasonable: onesies run $8-10, baby pants $10, dresses $20, sweatshirts $16, and PJs $20. Available in infant, toddler, preschool, and girl/boy sizes.
Observing a gap between how we talk to girls about their futures (“you can be anything!”) and most clothing choices available in stores, the mom founders of buddingSTEM set out to create a line of clothing that would support budding scientists as well. Their collections span Apatosaurus, Beetle, Firefly, Frog, Space, and Train themes. They offer infant bodysuits ($20), tees ($20), leggings ($26.50), and dresses ($38.50). Available in infant, toddler, preschool, and girl sizes.
Built on the principle that “girls are awesome and girls get to decide what it means to be girly,” Princess Awesome offers beautifully made girls’ dresses in a range of colors (some pinks & purples, but also blacks, blues, etc.) featuring dinosaurs, ninjas, astronauts, Pi symbols, and more. They come in short and long sleeve, and adult-sized infinity scarves are available in matching prints if you want to be a dynamic duo! Dresses start at $32 and are available in infant, toddler, preschool, and girl sizes.
Launched by the mother of an eight-year-old girl who was unhappy with the selection of pink hearts, sparkly sayings, and glittery leggings, Girls Will Be produces clothing in bright, primary colors (no pinks!) and features activities and interests like football, camping, astronauts, art, math, and animals. The centerpiece of their line is their t-shirts ($24), but they also offer play/cargo shorts ($24-34) and hoodies ($30). Most of their products are produced only in preschool and girl sizes (starting from size 4/5 up to size 14), but there are also a handful of infant and toddler items.
Handsome in Pink believes that “pink can be masculine, blue can be feminine, and everyone should be empowered by what they wear.” One of their girl tees reads “Forget princess, call me President” (we loved it so much that we named this guide after it!); there are also tops printed with bikes, guitars, rockets, and other empowering images. They offer primarily onesies and tees, most in the $23-25 range. Available in infant, toddler, preschool, and girl sizes.
About the author:
Chelsey Hauge is a feminist-researcher-mama-writer-artist who loves all things digital. She is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Brock University's Social Justice Research Institute and Visiting Assistant Professor at Mills College. Her research focuses on how children experience gender in learning environments, and she's really interested in how older kids and youth learn from social media. You can learn more about her work at www.chelseyhauge.com.