Thursday, March 1, 2012

Associated Press Highlights Girl Scouts Rich History

Russ Bynum reports for the Associated Press that a century has passed and millions of Americans have taken the Girl Scout promise, sold Samoas and Thin Mints by the truckload and gone on to careers from CEOs to astronauts. As they celebrate their 100th anniversary this month, Girl Scouts of the USA boast a record of progressiveness built on combining lessons in domestic know-how with outdoor adventures and technical skills aimed at teaching girls they can do anything.

Take 11-year-old Kathryn Hoersting from the Girl Scouts' birthplace of Savannah, who just got her cooking badge by making her family breakfast of hash with eggs. Next up: the "Special Agent" badge, which requires an introduction to forensic science and other crime-solving techniques.

"You get to work together on anything," said Kathryn, a third-generation Girl Scout whose Brownie and Scout vests are decorated with dozens of colorful badge awards. "It's just hanging out with your friends and doing something new and creative, something you love."

When Juliette Gordon Low rounded up her first troop on March 12, 1912, few women held jobs and only six states allowed them to vote. Low didn't set out to cause sweeping social change, to wage a battle of the sexes. Regardless, the Girl Scouts would help set the stage for the modern women's movement and gradually help bridge the gender gap.

Kathryn's grandmother, Amy Gerber, says being a Girl Scout in the 1950s gave her the courage to open and operate two conference centers in Arizona and become a grief counselor. The girl's mother, Wendy Hoersting, was a scout in the 1970s and became a nurse anesthetist.

And not just women of a particular class, race, religion or sexual orientation. The original Girls Scout troops from 1912 mixed girls who were Jewish, Protestant and Catholic. The first troop for black girls was formed a year later, and a year after that, troops were founded for girls attending schools for the blind and deaf. (Low herself suffered from serious hearing loss, and felt no girl should be denied participation because of a disability.)

That history of hard-nosed inclusiveness has continued into the 21st century as Girl Scout troops have admitted not only members who are gay but, in at least one recent case, a transgender child as well.

It's a trait that's fueled some of the group's harshest critics and that's given it a distinctly different identity from the Boy Scouts, who have waged court battles to be able to exclude those who don't fit the group's Judeo-Christian mores.

The first Girl Scout handbook, published in 1913, encouraged girls to shoot rifles and gave instructions for tying up intruders. The original Scouts took camping trips and played basketball on outdoor courts shrouded from public view by curtains hung so that men couldn't glimpse the girls in their bloomers.

"She had girls in the outdoors, in the green environment, before it was cool to be green or cool for girls to be out there kicking balls," said Anna Maria Chavez, CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA, who credits much of the group's success to Low thinking well ahead of her time.

An Ebony magazine story marking the Girl Scouts' 40th anniversary in 1952 noted there were 1,507 integrated troops mostly in the North and West and 1,634 all-black troops based mainly in the South.

"But even in Dixie the Scouts were making slow and steady progress toward surmounting the racial barriers of the region," the Ebony story said, crediting southern Scouts with holding interracial meetings and quietly urging white newspapers to drop policies that forbade publishing photos of blacks.

Read the entire article here.