Girl Scouts and Feminism
February 3rd, 2012
Girl Scouts and Feminism
When I was seven, I joined the Girl Scouts. I wanted to be a part of the seemingly exclusive group that my friends bragged about, and do fun things like play games and go camping. When my parents signed me up and I went to my first Brownie meeting, I was excited. Unfortunately, the troop leader—one of my friends’ moms—only had a few arts and crafts and a boring activity. After the activity, she usually sent us out to the playground, which is where I learned the “exclusive” Girl Scout traditions of jump rope songs and hand games like “Miss Susie Had A Steamboat,” just like my mom had learned when she was a girl scout.
The Girl Scouts of America is a youth organization for girls in the United States and abroad that was formed in 1912 by Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low in Savannah, Georgia. She assembled the first 18 scouts because “she believed that all girls should be given the opportunity to develop physically, mentally, and spiritually.” Their activities included hiking, basketball, camping trips, first aid and learning to tell time by the stars. Daisy Gordon Low wanted to enable girls to leave their restrictive home environments to perform community service and play games.
Over the years, the Girl Scouts grew more comprehensive and more effective. During World War I, scouts sold war bonds and collected peach pits for use in gas mask filters. In the 1920s, badges such as the Economist and Interpreter badges were introduced. The 30s saw the first cookie sales and community relief efforts, which became a monumental drive to collect metal and clothing during World War II. The Girl Scouts were ahead of the times in racial prejudice in the 50s and 60s, and elected Gloria D. Scott as the first African American National Girl Scout President in 1975. Nancy Reagan introduced the Say No to Drugs campaign in the 80s, which was followed by other public issues such as child abuse, youth suicide, literacy, and pluralism. In the 90s, girl scouts helped tackle issues such as illiteracy, fitness, and began the first mother-daughter prison visitation program, Girl Scouts Beyond Bars.
Today, the Girl Scouts is an inclusive organization with 3.2 million Girl Scouts, including adult volunteers. There are six age groups of Girl Scouts, starting with the Daisies (ages 5-7), followed by Brownies, Juniors, Cadettes, Seniors, to Ambassadors (ages 16-18.) All scouts earn badges for accomplishing tasks, such as volunteering, environmental work, cooking, and first aid. Its purpose to help girls develop has grown from community service and exercise to add the education of girls for current issues in the world. The Girl Scout advocacy office demonstrates that the Girl Scouts is a resource for girls because it:
- “Encourages girls' healthy living through combating Relational Aggression and promoting girl-positive media images;
- Ensures girls feel emotionally and physically safe;
- Promotes girls' involvement in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM);
- Develops financial literacy skills; and
- Gives a voice to girls in underserved communities.”
But is it a feminist organization? Many insist yes, and radically so. The Girl Scouts has supported equality for women and girls from the beginning. The initial point of the organization was to help girls get out of the house and experiencing fun activities, as opposed to training them for domestic life like the Campfire Girls, which contained similar scouting activities but was more directed to the girls’ domestic future. The more conservative Boy Scouts of America supported the Campfire Girls over the Girl Scouts, who often took part in activities and badges thought to be more “masculine.”
A feminist youth organization should provide many resources for girls, such as information about the many dangers of today like domestic violence, drugs and alcohol, sex education, and sexual abuse. It should also provide support for underprivileged girls, a safe space, skill-building activities, projects to improve self-esteem and confidence, and a place to have fun.
The Girl Scouts do all this and more. The current badge system is comprised of three Journeys, each with multiple badges. The first Journey, called It’s Your World, Change It! teaches girls about leadership and making a difference in the world. The second Journey, It’s Your Planet, Love it! exposes scouts to discussions on the environment and how they can be more “green.” It’s Your Story, Tell It! teaches about self-esteem and creative expression. This Journey in particular helps girls better understand themselves and their potential, as well as helping them develop healthy living and practical life skills. Through role-playing, they take on social situations so that they are prepared in real life.
The Girl Scouts does such a good job of instilling the ideas of the equality of women and the capability of women that it has garnered some fierce opposition. This article by Amanda Marcotte describes the accusations of some far-right Christians to the Girl Scouts promoting radical feminism, lesbianism, and paganism. The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute went so far as to insinuate that the Girl Scouts were encouraging HIV-positive individuals to conceal their status from sex partners. While the Girl Scouts have not been promoting abortion and the spread of HIV, they have age-appropriate meetings about the importance of safe sex, but with emphasis on waiting until maturity and preferably marriage before trying it.
One of the most difficult parts of teaching young women is trying to instill the ideas of equality and capability of women in young girls. I once attended my younger sister’s Cadette meeting and was amazed at how little confidence the girls had in themselves. Of course, Cadettes are in the throes middle school, so one could not expect much. Most of the girls attended public school, and public school in Florida is far from a safe environment or a good education. In Florida, people tend to think that feminism is not worth thinking about. It is more or less accepted that men make more money for a reason, and there’s nothing to do about it.
The girls are kind to my sister, who has special needs, but many do not respect the authority of the troop leader and refuse to pay attention. They behave poorly sometimes, but each girl has a story. One girl’s mother pushes her so hard academically that she is already beginning to rebel. Another girl is being raised by her grandmother because her parents are at rehab. In situations like these, and with the ideas of women’s equality as they understand it, it is not surprising that they may not receive all of the lessons of women’s equality. However, I am glad that they participate because the meetings are safe environments where they can relax and have fun, and even take initiative selling cookies and leading discussions.
The Girl Scouts is a fantastic organization that helps girls all over the world have a safe space and gain confidence and respect for themselves and others. The organization is still blazing trails in the fight against prejudice by admitting a transgender child in Colorado. While my personal experience as a Brownie was not as fun or productive as I would have liked, many girls have benefited from the many opportunities that the Girl Scouts offer, especially my younger sister and her friends.