Girl Scouts of the USA, the largest voluntary organization for girls in America, is the only major group largely run by women ever since its inception. In 2003, there were 3.8 million Girl Scouts; more than fifty million women and girls have belonged to the organization since its founding on March 12, 1912. Furthermore, the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGS), formed in 1921, comprises an international sisterhood of more than 8.5 million members in 144 countries.
Juliette Gordon Low brought Girl Scouting to her home-town of Savannah, Georgia, with a troop of just eighteen girls. She envisioned, however, that Girl Scouting would eventually be "for all the girls of America." Although Low was completely untrained in girls' work and in organizing a national movement, her wide social network helped the group grow steadily. Initially called Girl Guides as their counterparts were in England (a similar group started by Lord ROBERT BADEN-POWELL and his sister, Agnes Baden-Powell), by 1913 they changed their name to Girl Scouts. The new name was to be analogous to BOY SCOUTS, which had began in America in 1908.
From the outset, Girl Scouts offered a program that combined traditional domestic roles with practical feminism that enlarged girls' worlds and heralded a new day for women. For instance, while the Girl Scouts awarded badges for domestic activities such as cooking, laundering, and child care, they also taught girls a wide array of nontraditional skills, such as flying, semaphoring, and camping.
Although the Girl Scouts saw themselves and the Boy Scouts as allies, there were sometimes disagreements. For example, one of the Boy Scouts' executive directors, James West, abhorred the name Girl Scouts. Believing it detracted from his boys' masculinity, West fought for years to have the Girl Scouts merge with the Camp Fire Girls (a name he believed to be far more feminine) to become a unified organization called Camp Fire Girl Guides. His rationale was that a "girl is to guide and a boy is to scout." While the Girl Scouts opened new gender roles for girls, the Boy Scouts reinforced traditional male roles. Furthermore, the Boy Scouts remain more socially conservative, as evidenced by their leadership's continuing reluctance to extend membership to homosexuals, in contrast to the Girl Scouts' philosophy of "welcoming diversity."
As the founder of the Girl Scouts, Low correctly intuited what activities girls would enjoy. She envisioned an organization that would combine play, work, and healthy values to shape girls into active, modern women. The group participated in outdoor activities, camping, and sports, attracting girls and women with leadership qualities. Training offered by the Girl Scouts involved adult women from the beginning and was held in communities as well as on college campuses. Many women were drawn to the organization because it opened up opportunities for both volunteer and paid work. By the 1970s, the Girl Scouts was the largest employer of women in management positions in America.
As the organization grew, it employed paid professional staff. By 1920, the Girl Scouts began a publication department, printing program materials such as The Leader, a magazine for adult leaders, and The Rally, which quickly became The American Girl, for many years the largest magazine for teenage girls in America. Over time, the Girl Scout Handbooks and program changed, responding to world events and contemporary ideas about girl development.
The Girl Scout Promise and Law stayed constant, however; these statements formed the basis for the organization's moral training, urging girls to try their best to be helpful to all, to revere God, and to become active citizens and leaders. The philosophy "A Girl Scout is a Sister to every other Scout" often helped girls stretch their normal boundaries. The sisterhood promoted participation by girls with disabilities, which began as early as 1913. Some Girl Scout troops challenged racial divisions in their communities, although troops throughout the South were segregated until the 1960s.
During World War I, Girl Scouts witnessed its first growth surge, with girls responding patriotically to the war effort. Raising money by selling war bonds and rolling bandages led these girls into public work they had never done before. Some Girl Scout troops began selling home-baked cookies to raise money for the war. By the 1920s Girl Scout cookie sales had become a successful trademark fundraiser, with girls selling boxes of commercially baked cookies to defer their costs.
In response to the Depression during the 1930s and the subsequent need for opportunities for youth, Girl Scouts expanded its programs to include girls beyond the middle class. Outreach to Dust Bowl migrants, Native Americans on reservations, and inner-city girls marked the decade and accounted for some membership growth. During World War II, thousands of girls joined Scouting, again responding to the war effort. By 1945, membership stood at over one million girls.
Throughout the 1950s the organization continued to grow, but it focused more on traditional domestic skills than it had previously. Even so, Girl Scouting provided one of the few outlets for girls who wanted to participate in outdoor experiences and nontraditional activities. The organization also greatly expanded its outreach to its sister Girl Guides in countries overseas. This internationalism, inherent in Girl Scouting since its inception, inspired the Veterans of Foreign Wars to accuse the U.S. Girl Scouts of promoting communist sympathies. This patently absurd accusation led many Americans to question the virulent anticommunism of the period.
Like other youth organizations during the 1960s, the Girl Scouts began to lose members and see its relevance questioned. Racial issues, the countercultural youth movement, the Vietnam War, and the new feminist movement all challenged the organization to change and become more "modern." Although the organization moved to adapt its program and be more inclusive, African-American Girl Scouts called for fundamental changes and reform, which the organization struggled to accomplish with mixed success.
In the early 1970s, seeking to reverse the universal membership decline in youth organizations, the Camp Fire Girls, by now much smaller than the Girl Scouts, decided to add boys and rename itself Camp Fire. Boy Scouts voted to include girls in their high-school-aged Explorer Scouts. The Girl Scouts, however, declared themselves a "feminist organization," endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment in its first political stand ever, and voted to remain single-sex. By the 1980s, the Girl Scouts' membership resumed its growth.
In the twenty-first century, the Girl Scouts persists as a strong organization. Still run primarily by women, it continues to be innovative and responsive to national issues. For example, the "troops in prisons" program was initiated so that incarcerated mothers can participate with their daughters weekly in Scouting activities. Although it has evolved from the organization Low founded, the Girl Scouts remains imbedded in the fundamentals she espoused: teaching girls to play, work, and live by moral values.
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Camp Fire USA. Available from www.campfire.org/start.asp.
Girls Scouts of the USA. Available from www.girlscouts.org.
MARY LOGAN ROTHSCHILD