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‘Girl Boss’ shirts, ‘Wild Feminist’ onesies: How kids’ clothing became activist in the era of Trump

"Culturally, we are in an accelerated time of women questioning the assumptions that others have about them," said Americus Reed, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "Retail is often a looking glass sense of culture."

Lennox Abrams (left), 15 months, plays with her friends Arianna Luciano (right), 14 months, and Arianna's twin sister, Giulia, at the twins' home in Philadelphia. Retailers are embracing the theme of female empowerment.
Lennox Abrams (left), 15 months, plays with her friends Arianna Luciano (right), 14 months, and Arianna's twin sister, Giulia, at the twins' home in Philadelphia. Retailers are embracing the theme of female empowerment.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

When she was three months pregnant with twin girls, Eleonora Barbieri marched in Philadelphia, like millions of others across the world, surrounded by people carrying signs proclaiming that women's rights are human rights.

Now her girls are 14 months old and Barbieri, an Italian immigrant, has dressed them in outfits with messages like "Strong Woman" and "Miss Independent."

"I want them to learn their self-worth," said Barbieri, 31, of Brewerytown, whose husband is Dominican. "So if they ever encounter anyone who talks to them like the president talks to the world, they can hold themselves [firm] and know that's not right and they deserve better."

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As the female-empowerment message goes mainstream, retailers are increasingly stocking their shelves with shirts like "Girl boss," "Never underestimate the power of women and girls," and "She believed she could so she did"

"Culturally, we are in an accelerated time of women questioning the assumptions that others have about them," said Americus Reed, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "Retail is often a looking-glass sense of culture."

The amount of positive messaging apparel from the country’s top children’s wear retailers doubled compared with last year and the term girl power increased 67.4 percent, according to an analysis by Edited, a retail technology and data company. In the last three months, there’s been a 100 percent increase in positive messaging apparel, Edited found.

For Barbieri, the merchandise she buys reflects her own form of activism. She worries about a president who, she said, has signaled that it is acceptable to disparage immigrants, the LGBTQ community, women, people of color, and those who are disabled.

To others, these empowering messages are no more than a straightforward way to reaffirm to their children that they should grow up to be confident, regardless of political leanings.

And while there are feminist scholars and activists who think "femvertising" — or brands using feminism to sell products — is disingenuous, this messaging surge comes at a time when some women feel compelled to reaffirm their values and take action.

That may mean attending a women's march. Or sharing a story of sexual assault and harassment with the hashtag #MeToo. Or joining the flood of women running for public office.

Or, it might mean simply buying their children a shirt that says "Smart girls will change the world."

From tiaras to capes

Robin Falco still remembers the day her 3-year-old daughter, Ada, informed her that girls can't be superheroes. Ada hadn't seen women among the superhero coloring-book and comic-book pages that featured men. That was 3½ years ago — before the Wonder Woman movie and before Ada decided she was going to become an engineer for NASA.

"There's been just a push back against the way things have always been done, and I think a lot of women were frustrated the way I was. They either were discouraged of liking things or for liking things that weren't traditionally feminine, or went into these fields and struggled," Falco, 39, of King of Prussia, said, adding that her daughter no longer remembers a time when she thought girls couldn't be superheroes. Now Ada loves wearing capes.

"Female empowerment" related searches and purchases on the website Etsy increased 440 percent in the last year, according to Dayna Isom Johnson, Etsy's trend expert. In June, "kids pride T-shirts" were among the platform's top-selling items and Johnson expects this messaging will continue to grow.

This trend is also a reflection of millennial shoppers who, as parents, care more about a brand's values than other generations and, in larger numbers, shop at stores they feel reflect their social or political views, according to a National Retail Federation report.

Some parents, like Sarah Theis, 45, of Malvern, said they aren't fans of gendered messaging. Instead, Theis, who has a 10-year-old son, would prefer to see fewer shirts proclaiming "girl power" and more positive messages that could work for any child.

Still, these tees are the first step toward activism for many of the high school students that Michelle Legaspi Sanchez has worked with in her role at the Chester County Fund for Women and Girls, where she is executive director. It may be hard for students to articulate their beliefs about female empowerment, she said, but wearing a shirt can bring the girls confidence and make them feel like part of a collective. Sanchez said that regardless of the girls' political stances, messages about young women believing in themselves and using their voices to take action has been "unifying."

"We feel like the apparel is really a part of a larger conversation. I think there is a connection to activism, but I think apparel is really a tool to activism. … It helps give voice and spark dialogue." Sanchez said. "It crosses political lines. The focus is really on them and their growth and our programming. That's what we support. We want them to be able to explore this no matter their stances and their opinion."

Syreeta Scott and Shanti Mayers, co-owners of the Sable Collective in the Swampoodle neighborhood of North Philly, said their experience as black, working single mothers influenced how they raise their children and what they buy them. In their store, which Scott said features vendors who are mostly other black women, they sell shirts that say "love her," "protect us," and "trust black women."

"Particularly for black people or people of color who are often underrepresented," Mayers said it's important to see empowering messages on shirts in the retail space that are able to "reflect our culture and to reflect our mission."

‘The appropriate pendulum swing’

Kesha Leets' daughter is only 3 months old, but Leets, who lives near Rittenhouse Square, proudly posted a photo on Instagram of her wearing a "Wild Feminist" onesie. To her, dressing her daughter like that says to the world that the word feminist should be normalized and has nothing to do with a political party.

"It was absolutely fantastic," she recalled upon seeing the onesie. "I just thought, what a cool way to raise your kid to be that open, I guess, about empowering girls and empowering females, without having to sit down and articulate to a 3-month-old something you can't articulate."

When used incorrectly by companies, said Jess Weiner, CEO of Talk to Jess, a brand strategy firm, and who advised Mattel on Barbie's inclusive redesign, commodifying feminism and the broad messages of empowerment could minimize serious inequities. She works with brands to make sure their practices are anchored in the messaging so they avoid the missteps of inauthenticity. Audi, for example, ran an ad during the 2017 Super Bowl about the gender pay gap, causing some consumers to criticize the company for employing few women on its executive team.

This opinion of "femvertising" is a "proper critique," she said, but one that is "too prescriptive and black-and-white."

"I would rather see some commercialization of feminism than a bunch of billboards of a bunch of body parts on it," Weiner said. "We've been seeing women pulled apart in pieces in advertising for decades." Brands emphasizing "girls' intelligence, their wits, their smarts, their power," she said, "feels like the appropriate pendulum swing to bring us back to an equilibrium."

Litty Paxton, the former director of the Penn Women's Center, said that although these shirts can be positive in that more people will see this messaging, she thinks their popularity is bittersweet. As she sees it, it proves how much more work is needed.

"If there is so much of this girl power, why do we need it on a T-shirt? Patriarchy never needed a T-shirt for it to become successful," said Paxton, the associate dean for undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School for Communication. The 2016 presidential election "suggests smart girls don't rule and there are a lot of problems when women try to rule the world," Paxton said. "The notion that girls can do anything crashed into the largest glass ceiling ever."

Melissa Bocage, 38, of Passyunk Square, isn't sure what she thinks of these shirts. Bocage could imagine her 5-year-old daughter, who is very literate for her age, seeing a shirt calling girls smart and wondering why that would need to be affirmed.

"It just means the conversation I have to open is 'Yes, honey, you're smart and some people think boys are smarter than girls,'" Bocage said, "but that's just not a conversation I'm going to have over a shirt the Children's Place sold me."

For her 5-year-old daughter, Bocage gravitates toward books with broader lessons or items that, when bought, also donate to a charity. One of their favorite books is "What Do You Do With an Idea?," which Bocage says starts a conversation about how her daughter's thoughts matter and can make a difference. They also enjoy the book "I Am Jazz," a story about a transgender child.

And if companies really believe girls can do anything, Bocage said, she would like to see them make girls’ pants with larger pockets. That way, Bocage said, her daughter can stuff them full of the rocks and twigs she collects on the playground — just the way the boys do in their cargo shorts.