On this day in 1912, Juliette Gordon Low gathered 18 girls for the first meeting of her Girl Guides, known a year later and forevermore as the Girl Scouts. GSUSA is mostly known for its fundraising tool, Girl Scout cookies (although I suppose in some ultra-religious or conservative areas they’re know for their alleged hedonistic lesbianic brainwashing of little girls- more on that later). This year when I bought my compulsory, scrumptious few boxes of cookies, I was pleased to see their new design for the back of the box:
I know you feel hungry now, but look at the non-cookie parts of the design!
A cookie sports a sash with three badges from various levels of scouting. The pattern for the badges seems to be: the Gold Award, Girl Scouting’s highest award and answer to the Eagle Scout, a financial literacy badge (presumably to highlight what the girls will learn via cookie sales), and a more creative badge. I think this is genius! If people’s only interaction with scouting is a cookie box, use the box to advertise the real things scouting means to the girls involved. As a Gold Award recipient myself, I’m especially eager to have that award achieve the wider recognition it deserves.
Although the cookies are delicious, they’re far from the point here. At least the ultra-religious conservative reactions acknowledge the substance of scouting (though they get it hilariously twisted): Girl Scouts are a progressive, empowering, feminist organization.
Your mileage may vary
Maybe you’re thinking, “Whatever, Kate. My troop sucked.” I’ve heard stories of some hella crappy troops- I mean not just boring, but actively harmful. One friend described her experience with scouting as “years of alienation and taunting,” including being made to participate in sing-alongs of overtly religious songs like Jesus Loves Me. Not appropriate. Unfortunately, Girl Scouts (like Boy Scouts) varies wildly between local organizations, and even between troops. If you have a bad troop leader…. you’re pretty much SOL. The difference between Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts is that the Girl Scout troop leaders are terrible when they fall short of the national organization’s ideals, and the Boy Scout troop leaders are terrible when they live up to them (or at least a select portion of them).
Totally rad history
I intend this post to be a Girl Scout lovefest, not a Boy Scout hatefest (though there’s certainly no love lost between me and the ol’ BSA: suffice it to say that their anti-atheist, anti-LGBTQIA policies are exclusionary and bigoted). I keep bringing them up, however, because the two organizations so perfectly mirror each other in some aspects and starkly oppose each other in others. That’s no coincidence, either; it’s coded right into their foundings. When I first read this analysis of girl scout progressive ideals by Amanda Marcotte, my mind was blown by the so-obvious-in-retrospect simple reason for the divergent paths the two organizations have taken throughout the past century:
Increasing urbanization caused Americans to worry that young men were becoming soft and emasculated; organizations like the Boy Scouts promised to restore virile masculinity. “American men were supposed to get their manhood by struggling against nature,” says Miller, pointing to how Boy Scouts learned skills useful to westbound adventurers and colonialist explorers.
Two years later, Juliette Gordon Low founded the Girl Scouts, which faithfully replicated Boy Scout protocols, but for girls instead of boys. Changing the gender of the scouts, however, shifted the cultural meaning of scouting. While scouting for boys was about preserving the tradition of rugged, outdoorsy masculinity, scouting girls looked to the future, shucking off Victorian models of women as delicate flowers and replacing them with physically capable and adventurous women. (The Boy Scouts had previously backed another girls’ organization, the Campfire Girls, which incorporated some elements of scouting, but with more of an eye towards domestication. Not so surprisingly, the national leadership of the Boy Scouts reacted poorly to the Girl Scouts, which had girls acting more as the Boy Scouts imagined boys should act.)
In short, the Boy Scouts reinforced existing gender roles, and the Girl Scouts not only challenged them, but did so in a way that was quite radical for the time period. It’s only a hop, skip and a jump from challenging gender norms to challenging sundry other power structures at play in our society, which the Girl Scouts have done–if not always radically or as consistently as I’d like.
Oh, and did I mention that Juliette Gordon Low was kind of amazing? She loved the arts and athletics: poetry, sketching, playwriting, acting, tennis, rowing, swimming, canoeing… but come on, this is clearly the best part of her bio:
One of her special skills was standing on her head. She stood on her head every year on her birthday to prove she still could do it, and also celebrated nieces’ and nephews’ birthdays by standing on her head. Once, she even stood on her head in the board room at National Headquarters to show off the new Girl Scout shoes.
As my friend put it after visiting her Juliette Gordon Low’s home, “she was a fucking badass lady. She smelted her own iron and stuff.” Headstands and blacksmithing! If that doesn’t make you love her, how about the fact that she was hearing impaired, and welcomed girls with disabilities to her organization in a time period that was not particularly inclusive of girls with different abilities?
Here she is being fancy in a dress.
And here she is being a fucking badass.
Race and Girl Scouts
Girls Scouts of America didn’t always deliver on the anti-racist front. The GSA website says their first African American troop formed in 1917, but in this extremely excellent piece about the black women of girl scouting, prof susurro reports that she could only find information about a troop starting in 1924. Josephine Groves Holloway founded that first troop and after the organization disbanded it, continued to fight for a recognized troop again until 1943, when her proto-girl scout troop was recognized by the GSA. That was the watershed moment for African American Girl Scouts. The organization finally accepted them and promoted them, to some extent, though in segregated troops.
Josephine Groves Holloway, another badass Girl Scout
In 1954, the Girl Scouts began an active campaign to desegregate troops nationwide, and by 1956 (this according to the GSUSA website) Dr. Martin Luther King had dubbed them “a force for desegregation.”
Dr. Gloria Randall Dean Scott became the first African American president of the Girl Scouts in 1975. In 1969, as one of two women of color of the organization’s board, she participated in the first integrated Triennial Meeting, at which the Girl Scouts opened up a slew of new positions for women of color. She later had this to say about the event’s stumbles toward inclusivity:
When I joined the national board in 1969, there were two African-American women out of 65 members of the board, and so the board made a deliberate decision that it would create 15 positions so that a critical mass of African-American, Native-American and Hispanic-American women would join the board out of 65 and could therefore be influential…
I was excited about it because it was going to be the first interracial Triennial Meeting for the Girl Scouts. There were several black leadership organizations invited – NAACP, Urban League Black Coalition and Seattle’s Today Show host who was a black female. Sixty cities were invited to see our One Hundred Voice Choir and extraordinary flag ceremony. However, a hush went through the crowd when the curtains opened to reveal an all white choir and all white flag girls.
(Again, I point you toward prof susurro’s fantastic article.) Of course, the rockin’ ladies of color did not stand for that- they wrote a point-by-point memo to the organization for how to be more inclusive of and better serve black girls. My takeaway here is that while I’m not proud of the organization’s historic stance on race, especially in that first quarter century, I am proud of the heroic women who fought the leadership on it and achieved huge results.
Well, this brings us up to inclusion in present-day scouting. Despite that awful story of the girl being forced to sing Jesus songs, I’ve always found the Girl Scouts to be a very religiously tolerant organization–which includes tolerance for those who don’t identify with a religion.
Again, I’ll use the Boy Scouts as a foil. The Boy Scouts do have religious pins for a wide range of religions, but their official policy is to exclude atheist boys from the scouts, and strip them of honors if they come out as atheist.
“Girl Scout Promise: On my honor, I will try: To serve God* and my country, To help people at all times, And to live by the Girl Scout Law.” with footnote as outlined below.
The Girl Scouts, on the other hand, not only accept nonbelievers but specifically state that mention of God in the pledge can be omitted.
“The word ‘God’ can be interpreted in a number of ways, depending on one’s spiritual beliefs. When reciting the Girl Scout Promise, it is okay to replace the word ‘God’ with whatever word your spiritual beliefs dictate.”
That’s the version that appears on the website for the Girl Scouts of Western Washington, but I remember being pointedly impressed by the version in the handbook when I was growing up, which included an explicit explanation that you could choose to say nothing for that part. In a country where no members of Congress feel it’s safe to come out as atheists, that’s a bigger deal than it should be.
Here’s where we get back to that conservative view of the Girl Scouts as radical extremist lesbian abortion zombies: remember that cookie boycott a year ago? The fliers looked something like this:
“You deserve to know what Girl Scout cookies fund: Promote abortion and LGBT agendas; Pay New Age consultants to train Girl Scout executives; Support United Nations anti-population goals; Introduce teen Girl Scouts to the concept of “Sexual Rights” without parental consent; Rewrite all badge books to include radical and gay role models” …or, as many of my facebook friends put it “Awesome, a great reason to buy more cookies!”
These cookie boycotts were sparked by a laundry list of conservative/religious complaints, but the big one was in response to a Colorado troop’s acceptance of a seven year old trans girl. The local chapter explained their decision by saying, “Girl Scouts is an inclusive organization and we accept all girls in Kindergarten through 12th grade as members. If a child identifies as a girl and the child’s family presents her as a girl, Girl Scouts of Colorado welcomes her as a Girl Scout.” A spokeswoman for the national organization backed them up in the face of nationwide conservative outrage with an explanation that the Girl Scouts “prided itself on being an inclusive organization serving girls from all walks of life.”
BOOM. I wish they would require troops to accept trans girls instead of merely having the backs of those who choose to do so on their own, but it’s still miles ahead of the Boy Scouts, for whatever that’s worth (low bar, I know).
Its also worth noting that the conservative/religious bigots I’m criticizing here aren’t just talk radio personalities and politicians; they’re girls and leaders from within scouting. This goes back to the the idea that individual troops can be made up of terrible people who might engage is peer pressure and bullying in their own localities. However, the national organization shouldn’t allow them to openly practice their transphobia by excluding trans girls from their own troops while continuing to call themselves Girl Scouts, as they have been free to do thus far.
Although gender identity has not yet made it onto GSUSA’s “we do not discriminiate on the basis of” list, sexual orientation has. I truly hope that this will only be a matter of time- and we can help make it so! See below to take action on this.
Scouting in my life
“So Kate,” you ask me. “I now know that all sorts of girls have access to Girl Scouting, but can you tell me why that’s a good thing?” I can, in fact. It’s simple:
Girl Scouting teaches you to do things.
The activities our troop engaged in taught me outdoor survival and camping skills. We also learned daily life skills like cooking and sewing (just because they’re historically female jobs doesn’t mean they’re unimportant!). We interviewed local female business owners about their career paths. Our trips also taught me to do things. At Seneca Falls, in the National Women’s Hall of Fame, I read plaque after plaque outlining the great accomplishments of women past–accomplishments I hope to emulate. At a space center I learned how navigators use triangulation. Girl Scouts gave me a context of healthy, constructive female friendship in which I could tackle the world of skills and knowledge one bit at a time.
But the biggest thing I took away from Girl Scouts came when I was an older girl: leadership. Once we hit a certain glorious age, scouting stopped being about meeting up after school and doing whatever the troop leaders put in front of you, and started being about planning things, setting goals, budgeting, and organizing activities for ourselves and for the younger girls.
Remember sit-upons? Yeah, making those wasn’t the best part of Girl Scouts.
Each Girl Scout council runs their own version of an annual event called Global Thinking Day. When I was younger, I attended this event and wandered with my troop from table to table getting stamps on my passports and learning tidbits about various countries (or whatever the theme was that year). Then, suddenly, we hit that magical age I mentioned, and our troop leaders told us that we would be helping put on the event; which booth would we like to run? I remember spending evenings putting together plans for booths on Switzerland (our activity was pipe cleaner skiers) and the 60’s (we had info about the space race, complete with mini-trampoline “space walk”). The following year, our leaders told us the council needed a troop to organize the whole event; were we willing to volunteer? Again, my mind was blown. Each new layer of responsibility that had seemed to come from stone or out of the clear blue sky, from girls far too old and capable to be me had really just been girls exactly like me, putting it together with their friends. Creating things wasn’t an impossible undertaking; it seemed remarkably within my grasp. It still does, which I suppose is why this blog exists.
Some troop from the Googles at their local Thinking Day
After our year organizing the entire day, we stepped back and did two more years of organizing a single booth (New Orleans: jambalaya and paper plate Mardi Gras masks, and a booth about fruits where I taught the girls a stupid banana cheer and was overly pleased with myself when they taught it back to me months later at a different event). We earned our Silver Award furnishing a house for a family moving into their first apartment after a long stint in a homeless shelter. We attended a training on a “Zink the Zebra” diversity program for younger girls and proceeded to administer the program for each and every Daisy and Brownie troop in our town. One friend and I embarked on the Gold Award together, keeping a large posterboard-and-sharpie spreadsheet of each requisite we’d accomplished or needed to tackle. Our project was a theater program for low income kids; before and after it, we gathered all our plans, documentation, and stories to present in front of the council leadership. Through it all, I was making a positive impact on my community, but I was also learning that I was capable. I was learning to JUST. DO. IT.
That was the truly empowering part of Girl Scouts. Since then, I’ve sincerely, enthusiastically, and repeatedly believed that I can realize whatever harebrained scheme I come up with. It’s like a superpower. I even started a non-profit skillsharing and networking event for activists in my city based directly on Thinking Day. With an inspirational source that clear, it’s easy to remember the impact Girl Scouts had on me, and see the importance of such an impact on all girls.
A leader’s perspective
As a final note before our action points, I asked a former troop leader for her thoughts on the Girl Scouts to share with you in this post, and here’s what she had to say.
The COO of Facebook was on 60 Minutes last night; she said that every little girl who is told she is bossy should be told instead that she has leadership skills – I liked that…
When I became the leader of my daughter’s Girl Scout troop when they were in third grade, I was determined that our troop would not sit at school cafeteria tables and cut construction paper projects; I resolved to provide a variety of adventures which I myself would enjoy. Our troop hiked and camped and rode horseback; we learned to handle a knife and tie knots and light a match and build a fire. Some of the girls were afraid to do some of these things before we did them; after we did them, they were not afraid. We participated in a rocket building activity and a space mission simulation, where the girls worked together to complete challenging technical tasks, and learned teamwork and gained a sense of competence and success. As the girls grew up, they led activities for younger girls, and learned to plan and prepare and train and lead. When the girls were young teenagers, I often recognized with satisfaction that they were busy with constructive, strength-building activities at times when other girls were loitering in the park or the mall.
Being a Girl Scout leader was one of the most satisfying experiences of my life; I do believe that the active troop schedule I planned and executed for 10 years had a positive influence on those girls’ development. I love and am proud of my Girl Scouts, who are now strong, capable, service-oriented young adult women.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Join the Girl Scout Advocacy Network to get updates on when and about what issues to call your representatives about bills affecting girls.
Choose one of six flexible ways to volunteer for the Girl Scouts– from leading a troop to working a single event.
Contact the Girl Scouts about officially adding gender identity to their nondiscrimination policy. If you can do it this week, make sure to wish them a happy 101st birthday while you’re at it! Don’t you think 101 years is more than long enough to have lacked protection for trans girls? You can call them at (800) GSUSA-4-U [(800) 478-7248] or (212) 852-8000. You can email them via this page.