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Girls Speak Out with Zines

Hand with pink painted fingernails holding a cell phone. The screen shows an illustration of women and the text: Girlhood / A Zine

National Museum of American History

By Effie Kapsalis of the Smithsonian Office of Digital Transformation, Abby Pfisterer of the National Museum of American History, and Tess Porter of the Smithsonian Office of Educational Technology


Have something to say? Girls, people of color, and others from marginalized communities have long used zines to share stories and create connections. Often made from folded paper, zines are easy to make, copy, and distribute.  Zines offered a way to share fresh perspectives. Girls told their own stories in zines.

Zines, a short form of magazine, took off in popularity during the 1980s and 1990s punk scene. Third-wave feminists used zines to share anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist anger. In zines, young people shared their ideas about beauty, equality, and sexuality. They also voiced discontent and created community for those excluded by commercial popular culture. 

Today, the format has grown to include digital zines as well. Zines remain a democratic tool for girls to address cultural exclusions. They're inexpensive to create, relatively easy to share, and a canvas for a wide range of expression. Today, teens and adults still use zines to communicate and resist the cultural status quo. 

This fall, the Smithsonian's 2021 National Youth Summit on Gender Equity shared zines as one way students can take political action. Artist and professor Mimi Thi Nguyen spoke about zine history and demonstrated how to make a one-page zine.

At the nationwide summit, middle and high school students nationwide investigated case studies from history. These stories from the exhibition Girlhood (It's Complicated) featured young people pushing against gendered boundaries. They fought these inequities for a better future for themselves and others. 

Students discussed how these stories applied to their lives today. Led by classroom and museum educators, they grappled with the question "What will the future of gender equity look like?" Students said: 

  • "I hope to see a world where we can freely be ourselves."
  • "We need to discuss the behavior of how people are getting treated just from the way they act, look, and dress and it is not okay."
  • "We are not alone in this fight."

These student comments mirrored equity and justice-oriented ideas seen in many historic zines.

Black and while doodle of lounging girl with halo, fishnet stockings, and a miniskirt plus text on the theme Being Beautiful
Zine. Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Now there's a new tool that lets anyone use today's technology to create zines. Canvas, the newest tool from Smithsonian Learning Lab, allows users to create a digital zine. The Learning Lab is a free platform that allows anyone to discover millions of digital resources. Users can create interactive content with online tools and share with others.

The new Canvas tool allows zine creators to mash together Smithsonian photographs, objects, and their own images. Creators can also use templates and add text, lines, and shapes to share their thoughts. Once created, zines created in Canvas can be sent digitally or printed out to share with others. 

Need some inspiration? Create a zine about girlhood using a Girlhood (It's Complicated) template in Canvas. The template provides prompts for exploring girlhood in a zine format. Educators can find more inspiration and classroom uses for Canvas on the Learning Lab.

Photos of clothes. Illustration of girl in bell bottoms writing: What Do You Tell The World Through Your Clothes? Other text on page: What will you say to the reader? / Page Six / Design this page to share ideas or stories using images and text
Page from the Canvas tool template "Zine Making with the Smithsonian." Smithsonian Learning Lab.

We created the Canvas tool to provide an interaction between girls and their caregivers or mentors. Using the tool, they each can create zines about their own girl history. We hope these zines will facilitate intergenerational conversations.

When Girlhood (It's Complicated) at the National Museum of American History closed temporarily due to the global pandemic, we focused on the virtual audience. Staff from the American Women's History Initiative and the National Museum of American History envisioned a new, digital experience. We developed the tool in time for the National Youth Summit in September 2021.

Starting in 2023, the Girlhood (It's Complicated) touring exhibition will engage audiences around the U.S. At the same time, the Canvas tool will support expression, learning, and intergenerational conversations. We hope the exhibition and this tool inspire more discussions about girl history. We are so proud to make this available to everyone no matter where they live.

How to Make a Zine in Canvas


Ready to create your own Zine? Begin by visiting the Lab's homepage and clicking "Create a Free Account"! Next, follow these steps:

  1. Copy the Girlhood (It's Complicated) zine collection or create a new collection from scratch.
  2. Click "Edit Collection" in the upper-right of your new Learning Lab collection to begin making changes.
  3. Click the "Add a Resource" button, then select the "Add a Standalone Feature" tab.
  4. Select "Canvas," then click the "Add" button. 
  5. Choose your Canvas template from either the Standard or Girlhood options. Of the Standard options, the "Booklet" layout works best for Zines. Click the "Next" button.
  6. You are now ready to customize a Canvas! Using the icons on the side of your Canvas, you can add images, drawings, shapes, and text to create your design. Each element can be resized, cropped, and rotated. Click "Done" in the upper right once you're done customizing. 
  7. A folded zine often has eight pages.  Consider creating eight Canvases – one for each page of your zine.  Create another Canvas by following steps 2-5 until you make all 8 pages.   
  8. When you are done, you can share your zine digitally or via print!
    • Digital: Copy and share the URL of your collection.
    • Print: Click the "Print/Export" button in the upper right. Then, select the "Booklet" option. Prompts will allow you to select the front cover, up to six inner pages, and a back cover from Canvases and other resources in your collection. This printable export includes a guide to print and fold the booklet. 

Related Posts:

Effie Kapsalis is the senior program officer for digital strategy in the Office of Digital Transformation. She works to make the Smithsonian's collections, research, and resources available to people around the world even if they can't visit Washington D.C. 

Abby Pfisterer is the manager of civic learning at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. She works at the intersection of history and civics to create vibrant learning experiences for K12 audiences nationwide. 

Tess Porter is the digital content producer at the Smithsonian Office of Educational Technology. Her work with the Smithsonian Learning Lab focuses on the use of digital museum resources to support teaching and deepen learning.

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