A Promise for a New Century

Published On 2012/01/09 | By admin |

During a troop meeting, Jasmine Miller, Kynna McPherson, Kaylie Blood, Kayce Vanderbeck, and Baili Williams practice the finale number of their school play.

Story by Brit McGinnis
Photos by Marcie Giovannoni and Ariane Kunze
Illustration by Carlene Ho

When it comes to the difference between her troop and the Boy Scouts, Junior Girl Scout Kayce Vanderbeck has it all figured out: “They sell different stuff than us.”

At the weekly meeting of Troop 21075 in Shasta Middle School’s cafeteria, a number of the girls walk around barefoot in dresses. The Eugene, Oregon, troop is a mix of different ages and Scout levels, with lots of chatter and laughing. Not all the girls wear a traditional Girl Scout uniform vest or sash, though some hang loosely on narrow girlish shoulders. There’s a Neverland-esque atmosphere, a balance between order and play.

Kassie Mclennan and Nikiah Walker create paper flowers at a Girl Scout event in Eugene, Oregon.

An older Scout, a Cadette named Elizabeth McCallen, sits at a lunch table pulled out for the meeting. She has only been a Girl Scout for “about a year,” but she’s grateful to have it in her life. McCallen recently moved to Eugene from Cottage Grove, and her troop has helped with the transition. “They’re so welcoming, and they make you feel good,” she says.

In the hallway, two Daisy Scouts run to the cafeteria after completing the evening’s badge activity. The kindergarten-aged girls are very excited to share snack time with the rest of the troop. As they sprint, one Daisy says to another, “Whe-oh-whe-oh!” It’s a lyric from “Fred the Moose,” a song the troop recently learned about a moose who likes to drink a lot of juice.

Right on cue, the second Daisy mirrors her, with an excited “Whe-oh-whe-oh!” There’s a moment of glee from the inside joke, then the two run inside the cafeteria, patch-decorated blue vests flowing behind them.

An Old Group of Gals

In 2012, the Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) will mark its hundredth anniversary as an organization. Across the country, Girl Scouts are making plans for activities leading up to the March 12 anniversary: East Coast troops plan to hike the entire Appalachian Trail (one section at a time), in an event lasting from March 12 to the anniversary of the founder’s birthday on October 31. The Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles are hosting a float in the 2012 Pasadena Tournament of Roses parade. Then on June 9, 2012, Girl Scouts from all over the country will come together for a massive sing-along in Washington, D.C.’s National Mall (aptly named “Girl Scouts Rock the Mall”).

The centenary anniversary will be an opportunity for members to reflect upon the influence of GSUSA, an American institution that has worked to maintain its culture while remaining relevant in modern times. The early Girl Scouts in America learned military signaling and International Morse Code, all the better to aid their country during the Great War. Today, Girl Scouts can earn badges for learning about website design or energy conservation.

GSUSA has remained prominent in American culture because of its attempts to appeal to modern girls, while not forgetting original traditions. But some attempts to adapt have garnered criticism, and GSUSA has almost never been without controversy.

The Fiery Founder

A British veteran of the Second Boer War, Sir Robert Baden-Powell first popularized the concept of youth scouting. Impressed by the men he had recruited to serve in Africa, Baden-Powell decided to share the scout-like skills of observation and self-sufficiency in which he had versed his soldiers. But upon realizing that his 1899 training book Aids to Scouting was being used to teach children in schools as well as to educate soldiers, Baden-Powell decided to organize small squads of boys, modeled after military units, to spread these skills on a wider level. The idea proved immensely popular, especially after the publication of Baden-Powell’s in-depth guidebook Scouting for Boys. But even before the birth of the Boy Scouts, young girls were forming unofficial troops and doing activities based off Scouting for Boys. Seeing this, Baden-Powell created the Girl Guides in 1910, inspired by the British Corporal Guides in British-colonized India.

That’s when a 51-year-old wealthy widow from the American South entered the picture. In 1911, Juliette Gordon Low started a Guide troop while abroad in rural Scotland, eventually meeting Baden-Powell. Low was an unusual woman for her time in many ways, not least because she had money of her own (mostly due to winning a lawsuit over the will of her late husband, who had left most of his estate to his mistress). Low was also childless and almost completely deaf. Her enthusiasm was said to be infectious, which would prove to be an asset as she formed an American branch of the Girl Guides (later to become GSUSA). Upon arriving home in Georgia, Girl Scout lore says, Low called up her cousin, saying excitedly, “Come right over! I have something for all the girls of Savannah, and all America, and all the world, and we’re going to start it tonight!”

The first two Girl Scout troops were created in 1912, both based in Savannah, with only 18 girls between them. But by 1920, almost 70,000 Scouts were registered. Today there are over 3 million, with troops in more than 80 countries. For Low, a woman who fulfilled almost none of the social expectations for women of her generation (she never remarried and continued to work for GSUSA until her death), it was a dream come true. She died of breast cancer at age 66, and was buried in her Girl Scout uniform with a folded telegram tucked into the pocket. Sent from the National Board of GSUSA, it read simply, “You are not only the first Girl Scout, you are the best Girl Scout of them all.”

A Scout’s Place

Kayce Vanderbeck makes the Girl Scout Sign during a recitation of the Girl Scout Law.

Many American women who have held positions of power have some connection to GSUSA. In fact, two-thirds of all women who have ever served in the US Congress have been registered Girl Scouts at some point in their life. GSUSA’s aim is to encourage girls to reach their full potential as individual citizens. The organization often conveys working for social change as a noble goal for members, particularly as a way to earn accolades such as the Girl Scout Gold Award.

Not surprisingly, American public opinion of the Girl Scouts has often been tied to that of a women’s role in society at large. In times of war, the group was praised for work on the homefront; GSUSA troops canned food, knitted socks, and sold over $1 million of American Liberty Loans during World War II. But the question of femininity has always haunted the organization. Were Girl Scouts still “womanly” (often taken to mean fulfilling the traditional gender role for women at the time) if they were doing the same activities as Boy Scouts? Early Girl Guide manuals reveal this inner conflict, as some book chapters offer the command “Be Womanly” while others compel Guides to be “just as good as” the male Guides for whom they were named.

Even the right to use the word “scout” was a long struggle. Some Boy Scouts saw it as girls infringing upon a masculine identity they had originally claimed. International Boy Scout Chief Hubert Martin wrote in a 1926 letter to Baden-Powell, “It seems to me that the use of the term ‘Girl Scout’ is a big question of principle and that the persistence of use is symptomatic of the tom-boy, aping the man, instead of concentrating on woman’s most important sphere—the home.” Such was the atmosphere that dominated the early years of the Girl Scouts, as the group sought a balance between adventures in the outdoors and lessons in accepted “feminine” skills.

Challenges From the Outside

In recent years, members of the conservative Republican and Christian movements have accused GSUSA of becoming, in the words of Republican politician Hans Zeiger, “a pro-abortion, feminist training corp” (he later removed these statements from IntellectualConservative.com, the website of their original publication). In 2000, Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review wrote in her article “The Cookie Crumbles” that the leaders of GSUSA “hope to make their youthful charges the shock troops of an ongoing feminist revolution.” The accusations intensified in 2005, when GSUSA announced that Johnnetta Cole, then president of Bennett College for Women, and Kavita N. Ramdas, then CEO and president of the Global Fund for Women, were to be keynote speakers at the Fiftieth National Convention. The Life Issues Institute cited the selection of these two speakers as proof of GSUSA’s “continental drift into radical pro-abortion feminism.”

The tension reached a breaking point in 2010 after GSUSA took part in the United Nations’ Fifty-Fourth Commission on the Status of Women. The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM) reported that during this meeting, a brochure titled “Happy, Healthy and Hot: A Young Person’s Guide to Their Rights, Sexuality and Living With HIV” were distributed to young Girl Scout attendees. These brochures discuss sex and abortion, and were originally printed by Planned Parenthood. GSUSA later issued a statement saying that the document handed out during the meeting was titled “The Girls’ Statement,” that no other brochures were distributed, and that no C-FAM representative was present during the “Girls Only” meeting. C-FAM defends its reporting.

Perhaps to plan ahead for such controversy, GSUSA issued a statement in 2003 entitled “What We Stand For.” It reads: “The Girl Scouts organization does not take a position on abortion or birth control.” The document says that while individual troops are free to discuss sexuality amongst themselves, these discussions must be to inform girls and not to advocate any particular point of view. Kathy Cloninger, then CEO of GSUSA, stated in a 2004 interview on the Today Show, “We have relationships with our church communities, with YWCAs, and with Planned Parenthood organizations across the country to bring information-based sex education programs to girls.” She was responding to a scandal in Waco, Texas, where a Girl Scouts sex education program was revealed to have ties with Planned Parenthood (the collaboration has since ended). This interview clip was widely circulated by conservative news outlets such as Newsmax.com, but was largely ignored by the mainstream media. The mentioning of Planned Parenthood was often quoted as evidence for the argument that GSUSA teaches a pro-abortion mindset.

Apart from claiming feminist icons Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan (who served on GSUSA’s national board, a scandal in itself) as alumna, GSUSA has never issued an official stance regarding feminism. The group’s mission says: “Girl Scouting builds girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place.” This isn’t explicitly feminist, says Mary Anne LaBrasseur, Director of Membership South for the Girl Scouts of Oregon and Southwest Washington. In her view, “It’s just doing our thing.”

Nor is this mission the same as that of the Boy Scouts (though any man 18 years or older may become a registered Girl Scout). The Council Volunteer Policies and Procedures of Oregon and Southwest Washington states that “there shall be no discrimination against an otherwise qualified adult volunteer,” though there is no official discrimination policy for younger Girl Scouts. GSUSA has worked to maintain an image of inclusivity over time, admitting transgender Girl Scouts and even allowing Girl Scouts to omit the phrase “to serve God” while reciting the Girl Scout Promise if they desire. This 1993 decision to make the phrase optional resulted in backlash from Christian groups such as Focus on the Family, but GSUSA held firm.

Into The Future

Despite these challenges, interest hasn’t lessened among prospective Girl Scouts. Membership in 2010 was reported at over 3 million. Even recent troubles in the American economy haven’t hindered members—it costs $12 per year to join, with various scholarships for additional costs. Girls can earn credits from selling cookies to use when purchasing badges or uniforms from GSUSA. Policy adaptations in recent years, such as less stringent regulations on what type of uniform Girl Scouts can wear, have also been adopted to foster a more cost-effective environment. “If a girl says that she can’t afford to be a Girl Scout, we’re gonna pay for her to be a Girl Scout,” LaBrasseur says.

The organization has also shifted to having girls work toward the causes they personally believe in, rather than a leader deciding all troop activities. The newest edition of the GSUSA handbook for girls, The Girl’s Guide to Girl Scouting, includes badges Scouts earn by exploring their interests in depth. Projects to earn prestigious awards have become more and more far-reaching, addressing issues like water purification and aiding victims of domestic violence.

Shayla Fennick, Mikaila Reyes, Amanda Clark, and Sam Vaughan enjoy a troop outing.

A prime example of this new independence came in 2006, when two Michigan Girl Scouts began a campaign to reinvent GSUSA’s famous cookies. The girls wanted to remove palm oil as an ingredient in the cookies because of the potential damage oil harvesting causes rainforests. GSUSA heads initially refused, saying that palm oil helps preserve the cookies’ taste and shelf life. Over time, the two girls gathered media attention and drew support from organizations like the Rainforest Action Network. Finally, in late 2011, GSUSA announced that while it couldn’t alter the recipe for the upcoming selling season, it would work to ensure that by 2015 only sustainable oil would be used.

Kellogg’s (which owns Little Brownie Bakers, a major supplier of Girl Scout cookies) has stated that it will begin buying GreenPalm certificates to support sustainable rainforest practices. GSUSA also became a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. The two Girl Scouts told the Huffington Post that while the purchasing of GreenPalm certificates is “not quite what they would have liked,” it is a step in the direction they want for GSUSA. The two girls were originally working to earn their Girl Scout Bronze Awards when they began their campaign, for which they received the 2011 Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes.

On a local level, the Girl Scouts of Oregon and Southwest Washington (GSOSW) are refocusing their efforts. They are particularly reaching out to Latina girls, one of Oregon’s fastest-growing demographics. There’s talk of Girl Scouts interacting in new ways, such as through online forums or by having older girls mentor the progress of younger Scouts. GSOSW has also participated in the larger Girl Scout trend of selling nuts, candy, and magazine subscriptions in addition to their famous cookies.

Above all, the Girl Scouts are an organization aiming to help girls live up to whatever they wish to be in the world. The Scouts’ willingness to change according to cultural trends has proven to be their greatest asset for survival. Whether the Girl Scouts are embraced or derided, their influence upon American culture is undeniable.

As for Elizabeth in Troop 21075, she enjoys being a leader—even within the weekly Girl Scout meetings. When the troop leaders remind the girls that they need to clean up from snack time soon, Elizabeth drags the plastic garbage cans closer to the lunch tables. It’s an example of what she says she’s learned from being in Girl Scouts: Everyone has to help if there’s work to be done.

Earlier on, Elizabeth had mused about why she’s decided to remain a Girl Scout: “I’m actually surprised that I like this, but [Girl Scouts] is just a different way of learning life traits.” Girl Scouts helps her learn how to work better with people, a skill Elizabeth says she uses when participating in other activities.

Down the table from Elizabeth, other Scouts talk excitedly while munching on Oreos. With no provocation, one of them calls out, “Whe-oh-whe-oh!” Barely looking up from their cookies and juice, the girls at the table answer back, “Whe-oh-whe-oh!”

This is the cultural power of GSUSA—even at 100 years old, it can still capture and hold the attention of the iPod Generation, even if it’s with a song about a moose who drinks a lot of juice.

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