In ‘Girls State,’ Care and the Growing Gendered Political Divide

Again and again, viewers see that girls don’t need a camp to teach them about sisterhood—they need the opportunity to marry their passions with lessons in political leadership.


For girls in Missouri, a week at the government leadership camp, Girls State, is a prestigious honor. Yet, the girls in attendance quickly learn lessons about how gender inequality works, as they confront it in the very program they’ve signed up for with the hope of influencing politics. A new documentary, Girls State, now available for streaming on Apple TV, shows us just how some of America’s most ambitious and politically minded young women respond to the gender inequalities they face at Girls State and in the country.

The documentary shows us that institutions can no longer stymy these young women’s ambitions for more influence by telling them to first look inward. The girls see through superficial slogans for unity and defensive headlines. They’re ready for real changes. 

In their 2020 Sundance award-winning documentary, Boys State, directors and producers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine introduced many audiences to the American Legion’s nearly hundred-year-old program educating rising high school seniors about the political process. The film covered the week-long 2018 Texas Boys State program, in which 1,100 male attendees debated politics—mostly abortion and gun rights—and battled for a host of state offices under two competing party banners. 

In the 2024, Girls State, however, audiences see a vastly different experience being crafted for young women in Missouri than the young men who on the same campus at the same time experiencing Boys State. While creating activities like bracelet making and cupcake decorating, Girls State organizers attempt to keep politics, and most importantly, hard questions about institutional inequality, on the backburner. Nonetheless, the girls are determined to engage in tough conversations.

Girls State Enforcing Gendered Values

In an early scene, with all the Girls State attendees gathered in a college auditorium-turned-convention center for the week’s activities, a woman speaker tells the high school girls in attendance to focus on unity.

“We all come from different places. We all have our own ideas about the world. But what we really need to focus on is us as women. Because although we are all different, we all have that in common. We all have in our own different ways, grown up in a world where we’ve never seen a female president. How do we change that?” she asks the audience. 

“We want you to be the women who straighten other women’s crowns, not the women who point out that they’re crooked.”

It’s a message these girls have no trouble accepting—throughout the film covering their week-long program, we see countless instances of girls from very different backgrounds supporting, comforting and affirming one another, even as they compete for coveted positions through elections for state political offices meant to mirror the real-life electoral process. 

The girls learn that the Boys State attendees got to hear two state legislators present different views on abortion rights the night before. Why aren’t the girls hearing from speakers like this, they wondered?

In a later scene, the auditorium full of girls has just learned who has qualified for prestigious Girls State Supreme Court positions, one of the only times the program seems to encourage the girls to debate topical issues.

Brooke and Nisha, two girls who have become unexpected friends despite being pitted against each other for the same Supreme Court seat, have gone to each other to hug, and to say how proud they are of one another, despite the fact that Brooke has just won the seat Nisha so badly wanted for herself.

From the podium at the front of the room, we hear a speaker somewhat oblivious to the solidarity-fest already taking place around her, urging the girls: “This is my challenge for you today. Give two people a compliment. Not right now! Pepper it out. Be good to each other.” 

The program’s organizers and the actual girls of Girls State will talk past each other on bigger issues too. In another scene, we see staff of the Girls State program explaining the intricacies of the program’s dress code, including when their shoulder-covers can and cannot be removed during the evening’s activities. The actual girls of Girls State have much bigger questions on their minds. Do the boys at the Missouri Boys State program taking place on the same campus have a dress code? One girl points out that the boys don’t have a buddy system requiring them to find a companion to move around the campus, even to go outside and write under a tree. 

Girls State Following the Political Climate

The Girls State session chronicled in the film took place in summer 2022, when a draft of the majority decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which would overturn Roe v. Wade and the constitutional right to privacy, had leaked. The girls learn that the Boys State attendees got to hear two state legislators present different views on abortion rights the night before. Why aren’t the girls hearing from speakers like this, they wondered? After all, wouldn’t they be most impacted by a change in abortion rights? 

“Okay, you guys can talk about Boys State now if you want to. Talk about government!” a Girls State staffer deflected, as she faces these questions from the girls. But the girls aren’t just talking about Boys State. They’re talking about the gendered expectations and limitations they face from those in power, a highly relevant topic at a camp asking them to help solve the gendered imbalance of power in U.S. political offices.

The girls aren’t just talking about Boys State. They’re talking about the gendered expectations and limitations they face from those in power.

Outside of the formal activities, the girls begin to face politics head on, finding that they can in fact support one another and argue about ideas they care about deeply. Two girls competing for the most prestigious office of Girls State Governor, for instance, discuss gun control. Though their polite discussion quickly becomes a civilized debate about arming teachers, one on which they firmly disagree, they thank each other for the rare chance they’ve had during the week to talk about their political positions. 

“I think boys can talk louder about politics because I think women, often, when we start talking politics, we get shut down. So by the time we’re 17, we’re already socialized to stop talking about it,” said one attendee. 

“Everyone hypes Girls State as this monumental moment that’s gonna change the way you view yourself and the way you view others. And I was like, is it going to happen? But once we started debating and talking about politics, I thought, this is where it all begins,” said Tochi, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants who runs for and wins the position of Girls State attorney general.

Recognizing Inequity at Girls State

As the girls talk openly about their political positions, they feel increasingly empowered, and begin wielding the stages the program has given them to take on the institution most immediately limiting their rights, Girls State itself.

“I move that girls should be able to choose the name and pronoun that goes on their ID badges,” argued one Girls State legislator. 

Another girl, Cecilia, forcefully asserted, “I believe we should not have a dress code. This is the time to empower women, and last time I checked, women know how to dress themselves.”

Her campaign speech for governor, which another competitor calls “a feminist manifesto,” is met with wild applause, and she wins. 

One candidate, Emily, is so disappointed in her performance she at first has trouble accepting a hug and encouragement from another girl candidate.

“‘I know it’s a lot of pressure, so don’t feel like you have to be so perfect, okay? Really. Breathe,” the girl tells her. 

They came to Girls State as deeply caring people. What they need is the opportunity to marry their dedication to their views and one another with lessons in political leadership.

Again and again, viewers see that these girls don’t need a camp to teach them about sisterhood. That’s something they’ve got in spades. They came to Girls State as deeply caring people. What they need is the opportunity to marry their dedication to their views and one another with lessons in political leadership, even movement building—something the boys are provided but the girls are not.

Bolstered by her new friends, Emily pivots from campaigning for governor to publishing an investigative piece on the inequalities between Girls State and Boys State. She learns that in addition to the inequalities the girls have already seen, Missouri Girls State works with about one-third of the budget of Missouri Boys State ($200,000 compared $600,000)—which surely helps to explain why the boys have coordinated uniforms, esteemed speakers, nicer facilities and more programming. She learns on the last morning of the program that staff have changed the headline of her article from “Inequalities Between Programs” to “Incompatible for Comparison.” 

She doesn’t want to assume the change was purposeful on the part of the program staff, but if it was, she says, “That’s disappointing.”

There is a gender divide in American politics that is widest among young people, recent polling shows. For months, headlines have pointed to new studies showing young women are increasingly more likely than their young male counterparts to identify as liberal. But the divide is one that goes much deeper than party alignment. It’s not just that men and women seem to care about different political issues—and they do—but that women in general seem to care about more issues, and more greatly, than men do. The American Survey Center found young women were more concerned than young men about 11 of 15 different issues they were polled on. 

Today’s girls care deeply about their future and the future of those around them. Girls State shows it is fundamentally power that they lack. But they’re ready to fight for that too. 

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Haley Swenson is a fellow at New America’s gender, work and policy program Better Life Lab, and founder of a mental load startup, Work Life Everything. She lives in Southern Utah with her wife and son.