Sorry boys, 2012 is “The Year of the Girl.”
To commemorate its 100th anniversary, Girl Scouts USA has launched a national campaign to promote leadership among girls, highlighting gender inequities and charting a plan to trample the barriers girls face.
While the campaign is new, the emphasis on female leadership is quite old. Girl Scout history shows the organization has long been progressive when it comes to women’s rights and societal issues.
“Girl Scouting started at a time when girls were pretty much confined to their homes,” said Sue Stewart, CEO for Girl Scouts of Gulfcoast Florida. “It was considered radical for girls to go explore outside.”
Although the earliest badges focused largely on homemaking skills, Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low also exposed girls to traditionally male interests, introducing badges in aviation and circuitry in 1913.
Today, 2.3 million girls participate in Girl Scouts nationwide, with more than 10,000 Girl Scouts active in Southwest Florida. Although they may not do much primitive camping, today’s Girl Scouts explore hundreds of interests, ranging from computer science to adventure sports and environmental health.
“The basic premise is the same: We help girls to become better women. We teach leadership, self confidence, teamwork and other skills,” said Marti Shuster, a lifetime Girl Scout who has spent nearly half a century in scouting as a girl and as an adult volunteer. “The only thing that has really changed are the badges that the girls can earn. We don’t have a laundress badge anymore, but we have badges on computers and business.”
When Gordon Low held her first meeting of the U.S. Girl Guides in Savannah, Ga., on March 12, 1912, she knew she was starting a movement which would reach much farther than the 18 girls in her living room. She reportedly called her cousin, saying, “Come right over. I’ve got something for the girls of Savannah, and all America and all the world, and we’re going to start it tonight!”
By 1920, the movement had grown to 70,000, and by the end of the 1930s, there were more than 200,000 registered Girl Scouts.
In Southwest Florida, the first Collier County troop formed in 1927. Lee County’s first Girl Scout troop dates back to 1921.
Local Girl Scouts will celebrate their history this Saturday with a 100th anniversary event at Fleischmann Park in Naples, showcasing “Girl Scouts: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.” The event will feature nods to the past with Girl Scout skills and traditions, as well as current initiatives like the Forever Green recycling project.
Shuster will be there, modeling an authentic 1920s khaki uniform with a skirt and long sleeves made of heavy cotton material.
“Uniforms are a lot more comfortable now,” she noted.
Like the uniforms, Girl Scout programming also has evolved through the generations. During the Great Depression, Girl Scouts led community relief efforts, with clothing and food drives and canning programs. In the 1940s, Girl Scouts aided the war effort by collecting fat and scrap metal.
In the era of racial segregation, Girl Scouts went on record supporting civil rights, launching a nationwide initiative to overcome prejudice in the 1960s. On Nov. 14, 1969, more than 100 Girl Scouts were invited to be special guests of NASA at the launch of Apollo 12.
The 1970s and ’80s brought initiatives focusing on global issues such as nutrition, health, literacy and use of natural resources.
Today, girls face new challenges with the information age and the proliferation of social media, Stewart said. Newer badges focus on cyber safety and bullying. A recent Girl Scout conference featured the topic of human trafficking.
“It’s taking the same caring and consideration and kindness but focusing on new world issues,” Stewart said.
Girl Scouts USA now has its own Research Institute, which recently found preteen girls are maturing faster than previous generations mentally and physically, but not emotionally, which makes safe havens like scouting all the more significant, Stewart said.
“Being involved in a group just for girls is so important,” agreed Amanda Jacob, the council’s director of volunteer management. “Girls will speak up more when they’re with girls. They like to lead in a group of girls.”
While some take those leadership skills to the business or political arena — like former Girl Scouts Katie Couric and Sandra Day O’Connor — many pour their leadership right back into the organization which nurtured it.
“I went from a shy little kid to becoming a leader,” said Shuster, who has held an array of positions from Day Camp director to cookie coordinator to National Delegate. “The activities and experience I’ve had both as a girl and as an adult in Girl Scouts have been absolutely phenomenal.”
Jones credits a Girl Scout leader for inspiring her interest in first aid. She became the first female volunteer firefighter in East Amherst, N.Y., and was awarded the Red Cross’ highest honor, the Clara Barton Award.
One pitfall of her training was she always fretted about safety when taking her troop of 42 girls camping, which they did often.
“We went camping 286 times,” Jones recalled. “Why I know it was that many times is because I hated it the first time, and I hated it the last time.”
Marsha Alleman, another lifetime Girl Scout, says her fondest memories come from Girl Scout camping trips.
“Back then you had to dig your own latrine,” she recalled. “It was primitive camping. That’s what made it so much more fun.”
Shuster, Jones and Alleman are part of a team, along with Charlene Woolfe, which has spent the last decade cataloguing and recording Girl Scout history in Southwest Florida as the Gulfcoast council celebrates its 50th anniversary simultaneously with the parent organization’s centennial.
The group has created a history book and collected artifacts for a new museum at council headquarters in Sarasota.
After 53 years of scouting, Alleman claims she loves Girl Scouts so much, “I bleed green!”
“It has truly made me the person I am today,” she said. “Once a girl learns she can do something and do it well and share with others, it opens up the world to her.”