What About the Girl Scouts?

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An article in my local paper this morning was about central Ohio Boy Scouts. The headline read, “Region’s Boy Scouts not seeing ranks thin.” That made me curious. What about the Girl Scouts? How are they faring these days?

Not well, it seems. Time magazine reported in an article on November 29, 2008 that the Girl Scouts’ membership is down by 250,000 over the past five years. That has caused the merging of hundreds of councils and the sale of dozens of properties, including camps. Cookie sales are down and apparently the Girl Scouts don’t want to be known for cookies and camping anymore anyway.

I can see downgrading the cookie sales–they’ve become more of a nuisance these days than a cherished tradition. Instead of going door-to-door, the scouts’ parents drag the order forms to work and pester their co-workers for orders (and of course have to drag the cookies back a few weeks later to distribute them). You can buy the cookies directly from the council, but who’s going to go to the trouble of doing that? (And yet I admit I do love their Thin Mints and usually find a way to get my fix!)

But I’m not writing this post to dissect the Girl Scout movement. What I want to know is why have the Girl Scouts never been as popular as the Boy Scouts? Everyone has heard of the Boy Scouts’ Eagle Scout award; few people know that the Girls Scouts have the equivalent (since 1980 it’s been called the Gold Award–part of the problem may be because its name has been changed several times over the years). And the Girl Scouts have always been a smaller organization (presently by about 200,000 members.) (See information about both organizations here.) Of course, the Girl Scouts have always had competition from the Campfire Girls, while the Boy Scouts has been the all-male scouting organization in the U.S. since 1910.

Basically, less print is devoted to stories about the Girl Scouts, as if they don’t merit the attention that Boy Scouts do. Being a Scout doesn’t carry the same prestige for a girl as it does for a boy. Other than the cookie sales, Girl Scouts haven’t been as visible. They are not considered to be the American institution that Boy Scouts always have been.

I was a Girl Scout from the second grade to the seventh. Except for the fact that my mother was one of my troop leaders, I loved it. Girl Scouting probably did more for my self-esteem than any other thing in my childhood. Not that every experience was positive (group showers at camp were excruciating for a chubby pre-teen), but but there was enough positive to outweigh the negative. I was introduced to photography and architecture through the badges I earned, interests that have stayed with me all my life. Camping skills like building a fire and cooking in the outdoors have made me feel competent in ways that I never could on the basketball court or baseball field.

Given all the above, I’ve always been surprised that feminists haven’t been more involved in the Girl Scouting movement. That may be because the Girls Scouts wanted to stay away from controversy. Unfortunately, given the way that many people view feminism, that might be a smart move. But it seems to me that the two are naturally complementary.

I checked out the official GSUSA (Girl Scouts of the USA) website and discovered that the program has become very progressive about how to build self-esteem, leadership qualities and a service mentality. But when I did a search of the word “feminism,” I found zero results. Not surprising, I guess, but disappointing.

At the same time, I don’t think any program that betters the lives of women should be overlooked just because it doesn’t associate itself with feminism. I understand the prejudice against feminism that makes people back off from the term for fear that they’ll be associated with the movement. That prejudice needs to be confronted and revealed to be unfounded. That’s one purpose of this blog.

But I feel that feminism has been remiss in not promoting organizations like the Girl Scouts, even if the Scouts don’t want to be associated with feminism. Anything that fosters self-reliance and broadens horizons for girls and women the way the Girl Scouts do should be given the feminist seal of approval.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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