Girl Scouts

views updated Jun 11 2018

Girl Scouts

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.

See also: Girlhood; Organized Recreation and Youth Groups.


Brown, Fern G. 1996. Daisy and the Girl Scouts: The Story of Juliette Low. Morton Grove, IL: Whitman.

Choate, Ann Hyde and Helen Ferris, eds. 1928. Juliette Low and the Girl Scouts: The Story of an American Woman. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. 1986. Seventy-Five Years of Girl Scouting. New York: Girl Scouts of the U.S.A.

Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. 1997. Highlights in Girl Scouting, 19121996. New York: Girl Scouts of the U.S.A.

Inness, Sherrie A. 1993. "Girl Scouts, Campfire Girls and Wood-craft Girls: The Ideology of Girls." In Continuities in Popular Culture: The Present in the Past and the Past in the Present and Future, ed. Ray B. Browne and Ronald Ambrosetti. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

Jeal, Tim. 1990. The Boy-Man: The Life of Lord Baden-Powell. New York: Pantheon.

Rosenthal, Michael. 1984. The Character Factory: Baden-Powell and the Origins of the Boy Scout Movement. New York: Pantheon.

Shultz, Gladys Denny, and Daisy Gordon Lawrence. 1958. Lady from Savannah: The Life of Juliette Gordon Low. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott.

Tedesco, Lauren. 1998. "Making a Girl Into a Scout: Americanizing Scouting for Girls." In Delinquents and Debutantes: Twentieth Century American Girls' Cultures, ed. Sherrie Inness. New York: New York University Press.

internet resources

Boy Scouts of America. Available from <>.

Camp Fire USA. Available from <>.

Girls Scouts of the USA. Available from <>.

Mary Logan Rothschild

Girl Scouts

views updated May 18 2018

Girl Scouts

The Girl Scouts would probably never have come into being if the Boy Scouts had not been exclusively for boys. During the first decade of the twentieth century several thousand girls had wanted to join the new youth group created by General Sir Robert Baden-Powell in England shortly after the Boer War in South Africa, and a parallel organization called the Girl Guides had been quickly organized, with Baden-Powell's sister Agnes at its head.

Juliette Gordon Low, a native of Savannah, Georgia, had married an Englishman; at the time that she met the Baden-Powells in 1910, she was a wealthy widow who had survived her increasingly abusive marriage, and now had both energy and funds to spare. After a turn at leading a Guides group in Scotland, Low threw herself with gusto into creating an American analogue to the organization, and on returning to Savannah in 1912 formed the first troops in the United States with the eager support of a distant cousin, Nina Anderson Pape, and a naturalist, W. J. Hoxie. Hoxie also collaborated with Low on revising Agnes Baden-Powell's Girl Guides handbook for American consumption, including writing some new chapters on camping and nature lore. The first edition of How Girls Can Help Their Country was published in 1913. In 1915 the name of the American organization was changed from Girl Guides to Girl Scouts and its headquarters moved from Savannah to Washington; in 1916 the national office moved to New York, where it remained for the rest of the century.

Robert Baden-Powell saw Scouting for boys as a means to a specific end: "to help them become handy, capable men and to hold their own with anyone," he wrote, adding that a woman with similar training as Girl Guides "can be a good and helpful comrade to her brother or husband or son along the path of life" and that the Girl Guides during the First World War had "quickly showed the value of their training by undertaking a variety of duties which made them valuable to their country in her time of need." So Girl Scouts, like Boy Scouts, were taught how to survive in the wilderness and the basics of water safety and first aid, and encouraged to learn how to handle firearms. With the motto "Be prepared," members of both organizations still promise "to do my duty to God and my country, to help other people at all times, and to obey the Scout Laws." Both groups award merit badges for the acquisition of particular skills. And both sexes wear uniforms—the Girl Scouts' originally were blue like the Girl Guides' but were soon switched to khaki, green uniforms being substituted in the late 1920s.

Nevertheless, the separation of the two branches meant that there was less emphasis on a military agenda for the Girl Scouts, and more on developing proficiency in skills rooted in a gendered division of labor. In addition to scoutcraft (woods lore, trailblazing, and mapping, Morse and semaphore flag signaling, and other outdoor skills) the first Girl Scout handbooks contained highly practical instructions in hygiene, cooking, housekeeping, gardening, and child care.

As in England, girls flocked to join the movement in America. Like female suffrage, Scouting implicitly challenged the Victorian ethos of women's assignment to a male-protected domestic sphere. By getting girls outdoors and into each other's company, the Girl Scouts offered mastery of real-world skills and gender solidarity. The separate governance of the two organizations also allowed the Girl Scouts to continue to follow a policy of inclusiveness when, in the early 1990s, the Boy Scouts took a stand against membership for religious nonbelievers and homosexuals (losing, as a result, some financial support from corporations and foundations with nondiscrimination policies).

Funding for the Girl Scouts was seeded by Juliette Low's personal fortune, but the organization remained throughout the century the only entity of its size supported primarily by a bake sale: the annual Girl Scout Cookie drive. The shortbread trefoils and chocolate mints became as much a part of American popular culinary culture as apple pie. Individual member dues are not a major source of revenue: at the end of the century, membership was just six dollars a year.

Original Girl Scout Laws mandating kindness to animals and thrift were later broadened into the ecological and social directives to "use resources wisely" and to "make the world a better place." A significant difference is the extension of the old "clean in thought, word, and deed" rule from personal and public health to include instruction on how to deal with sexual harassment and psychological challenges of adolescence such as stress, moodiness, and self-esteem. One clause which has not changed is the commitment to "be a sister to every Girl Scout," a fellowship which transcends national barriers. Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. is a member of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS), which has eight million members in 100 countries, and international meeting centers in England, Switzerland, India, and Mexico.

Girl Scouts range in age from Kindergarten-aged Daisies (named after Juliette Low, whose childhood nickname was Daisy), Brownies (ages 6 through 8), Junior Girl Scouts (aged 8-11), Cadettes (aged 11-14), and Senior Girl Scouts (aged 14-17). A girl may become an Adult Scout at age 18. Not all Scouts follow the progression from Daisy all the way up through Senior, as the many other activities of adolescence, including boys, make competing claims on their time. ("We are feminist rather than feminine," explained a former Scout leader in the 1990s.) And some girls abandon Scouting because of what they saw as excessively religious undercurrents, despite the organization's efforts to be nonsectarian and inclusive. Nevertheless, many American women regard Scouting as a happy aspect of their childhood, and one they would readily see their own daughters experience as well.

—Nick Humez

Further Reading:

Bacon, Josephine Daskam, editor. Scouting for Girls. New York, Girl Scouts, Inc., 1920.

Baden-Powell, Agnes. The Handbook for Girl Guides, or, How Girls Can Help Build the Empire. London, Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1912.

Bergerson, Chris, et al. Junior Girl Scout Handbook. New York, Girl Scouts of the U. S. A., 1994.

Ciraco, Candace White, et al. Brownie Girl Scout Handbook. New York, Girl Scouts of the U. S. A., 1986.

——. Outdoor Education in Girl Scouting. New York, Girl Scouts of the U. S. A., 1984.

Degenhardt, Mary, and Judith Kirsch, compilers. Girl Scout Collector's Guide. Lombard, Illinois, Wallace-Homestead Book Company, 1987.

Eubanks, Toni, et al. Cadette Girl Scout Handbook. New York, Girl Scouts of the U.S.A., 1995.

Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. The Wide World of Girls Guiding and Girl Scouting. New York, Girl Scouts of the U.S.A., 1980.

Low, Juliette Gordon. How Girls Can Help Their Country. Savannah, Press of M. S. & D. A. Byck Company, 1916.

Philmus, H. C. Brave Girls: The Story of the Girls Scouts and Girl Guides in the Underground. New York, Girl Scouts National Organization, 1947.

Shultz, Gladys Denny, and Daisy Gordon Lawrence. Lady from Savannah: The Life of Juliette Low. New York, Lippincott, 1958.