Girl Scouts of the United States of America

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GIRL SCOUTS OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. Juliette Gordon Low founded the Girl Scouts of the United States of America with eighteen members on 12 March 1912 in Savannah, Georgia. The British general Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, and his sister Agnes Baden-Powell, founder of the Girl Guides, inspired Low. In 1915, when the organization was incorporated in the United States, there were fifteen thousand members. At first, it was closely modeled on the Girl Guides, but it soon became more distinctive under Low's leadership.

The purpose of the organization as Low conceived it was to encourage self-development, citizenship, and love of the out-of-doors in girls and young women. Low's marital experience led her to emphasize the ability to be self-supporting, in part because when her husband died, he left his estate to his mistress, forcing Low to sue in court to get her fair share of the inheritance. The organization also reflected the period in which she was living. During the Progressive Era, women were expanding their roles outside the domestic sphere by joining women's clubs and organizations. Though the Girl Scouts encouraged enlightened housekeeping and child care, they also emphasized independence, physical fitness, and careers for women.

Girl Scout activities reflected historical changes. During World War I scouts aided the war effort by volunteering in hospitals, growing gardens, and selling war bonds. In 1917 the first troop of physically disabled girls came together in New York City; in the 1920s the first African American troops were organized. By 1929 there were 200,000 Girl Scouts, and in 1930 a troop of Native American girls was organized. During the Depression, Girl Scouts collected food and clothing for distribution to the needy. The fund-raising effort for which the Girl Scouts has been most well known was launched in 1936 when the first Girl Scout cookies were sold.

Girl Scouts collected lard and scrap metal during World War II as their membership soared to one million by 1944. In 1958 the Girl Scouts purchased a headquarters in New York City that was still its home at the end of the century. In the 1960s Girl Scouts backed the civil rights movement and established desegregated troops. When the women's movement echoed many of the Girl Scout themes of career preparation and independence in the 1970s, it was only natural that they would reinforce one another. Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique (1963), became a member of the national board. In the 1980s scouts began to address contemporary problems such as teen suicide and child abuse. Seeking to reach their goal of nontraditional careers for women, the Girl Scouts in 1996 entered an agreement with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers to encourage young women's achievement in math and science. With regard to policy on gay membership, Connie Matsui, national president of the Girl Scouts, confirmed in 200l that the organization did not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. In 2001 membership was 2.7 million Girl Scouts and 915,000 adults.

Throughout its existence, the Girl Scouts has been a progressive force in American society. The organization has led in movements toward racial, social, and sexual equality. It has trained many of the nation's women leaders. Two-thirds of women serving in Congress in 1999 were former scouts. The Girl Scout message of independence, citizenship, self-sufficiency, physical fitness, and love of the outdoors has been influential in many American women's lives.


Girl Scouts of America. 75 Years of Girl Scouting. New York: Girl Scouts of America, 1986.

Perry, Elizabeth Israels. "The Very Best Influence: Josephine Holloway and Girl Scouting in Nashville's African American Community." Tennessee Historical Quarterly 52 (1993): 7385.

Revzin, Rebekah E. "American Girlhood in the Early Twentieth Century: The Ideology of Girl Scout Literature, 19131930." Library Quarterly 68 (1998): 261275.

Strickland, Charles. "Juliette Low, the Girl Scouts, and the Role of American Women." In Woman's Being, Woman's Place: Female Identity and Vocation in American History. Edited by Mary Kelly. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979.

Bonnie L. Ford

See also Boy Scouts of America ; Junior Leagues International, Association of .