What Did Girls Want?

Independence, Challenge, and a Cool Uniform
by
Elizabeth L. Maurer

Just over one hundred years ago, in 1916, a newly published book encouraged girls to build electromagnets, study the aerodynamics of flight, and send messages using Morse code. It instructed girls in the mechanics of pitching a tent, building a campfire, and using a compass. In a society that adhered to Victorian beliefs that there were “boy” activities and “girl” activities, emboldening girls to become knowledgeable and proficient in non-traditionally feminine skills was somewhat radical.

What was the title of this revolutionary publication? How Girls Can Help Their Country: A Handbook for Girl Scouts. The author was Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts of the USA.

Low was introduced to scouting in Great Britain, becoming close friends with Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, and his sister Agnes Baden-Powell, who founded a sister organization. The overwhelmingly positive reaction of girl to becoming British Girl Guides encouraged Low’s belief that all girls would benefit from scouting. She formed the first American Girl Scout troop in Savannah in 1912.

The turn of the 20th century saw many changes and challenges old ideas. Women increasingly confronted social conventions that discouraged them from going to college, finding constructive work, or participating in civic life. In a changing world, many parents feared that scouting would encourage girls to become tomboys. Low and the women who helped her to establish troops understood the challenges but also the potential rewards. “If you asked her daughter [why she wants to participate],” Low said talking about the rewards of scouting, “She would probably reply, ‘Because Girl Scouts have real Fun. “But,” she continued, “if I were to analyze the result of Scouting I would tell that mother that the most valuable asset her girl would gain is a sense of Individual Responsibility . . . brought about by Team Work.” Girls who embraced scouting did so precisely because it was a creative program that recognized changing roles.

The 1916 Girl Scout Handbook was the second American edition. It expanded upon the requirements for earning awards and changed the name from merely “proficiency” badges to “merit” badges. While girls earned badges that reflected traditional women’s roles, such as Child Nurse, Invalid Cooking, and Housekeeper, several others required deep exploration of technical and scientific concepts, i.e. “boy” stuff. Girls responded to the opportunity in droves.

Two Savannah, Georgia troops in 1912 with 18 girls had grown to 70,000 members nationwide in 1920. At Girl Scouts’ silver anniversary in 1937, more than 430,000 girls were enrolled. Girl Scouts numbered over 2.8 million scouts and adult leaders in 2014. Today’s girls honor Low’s mission to foster their individual growth, character, and self-sufficiency.

Check out the slide show below to see some artifacts from our collection!