Girl Scouts Serves As Feminist Outlet

Anuradha Lingappa

For my 20th birthday, my parents gave me a lifetime membership to the Girl Scouts of the United States. Being a Girl Scout shaped my identity when I was growing up, and I remained a member until I graduated from high school. I view my involvement with Girl Scouts as a foundation for the feminist ideals I now hold so dear.

Most people, especially my friends at Whitman College, are surprised when they learn how dedicated I am to an organization with such heteronormative and conservative connotations. This is always surprising, and it seems like no matter how empowering and progressive Girl Scouts strives to be, it is written off as soft and wishy-washy. Girl Scouts is usually placed in the shadow of Boy Scouts of the United States, and the discrepancy between how the two are publicly regarded illuminates underlying sexism at play. Boy Scouts is taken seriously as an organization that turns boys into men, while Girl Scouts is viewed as a gateway to nothing but domestic life. This slighting of Girl Scouts, when both organizations are centered on the same principles, sends a clear message––our society disregards the value of girls.

Since its establishment in 1912, Girl Scouts has aimed to empower girls by teaching skills and values, while providing a space for sisterhood and solidarity. Though inspired by Boy Scouts, the two organizations have never shared management. Girl Scouts, which has always been directed by women, has been open to girls of any racial or ethnic background since 1917, and their anti-segregation policies in the 1950s received a shout-out from Martin Luther King, Jr. Boy Scouts, on the other hand, banned African-American members until the 1940s. Boy Scouts did not have an official policy against racial discrimination and segregation until the mid-1970s, at which point the national president of Girl Scouts was an African-American woman. More recently, Girl Scouts has welcomed trans-identified girls since 2011, while the Boy Scouts ban on gay and bisexual members was only lifted earlier this month after a surprisingly controversial resolution in late 2013.

Most people associate Girl Scouts with one thing: cookies! Everyone loves Girl Scout cookies! Cookie season, especially for someone as tightly wound as my nine-year-old self is a very intense tim; I once sold more than 850 boxes. It generates around $700 million nationwide and teaches girls about business, work ethic, money-management and communication. However, cookie selling is marked by a culture that is more gendered and condescending than any other part of the Girl Scout experience. When I was at my cookie-selling prime, I discovered that nothing opened a stranger’s wallet like a charming smile and the embracing of a personality that was, at least for me, very fake. People only seemed to want cookies from that specific little girl with doe eyes and ringlets, who had no personality or ambition outside of the weirdly domestic cookie-selling world. It’s uncomfortable that this image is what most people consider Girl Scouts to be.

Girl Scouts does so much more than sell cookies! The organization revolves around leadership, the outdoors and art, and it gives girls an outlet to gain self-confidence and discover passions. Volunteer work and community outreach is absolutely crucial. The Gold Award, the highest honor in Girl Scouts, involves designing a service project with at least 80 hours of service work. Practical skills on patches range from first aid to backpacking to dancing to car mechanics. Nevertheless, most people only recognize Boy Scouts as the organization that instills these qualities into (straight, cis, male) youth. Snubbing of Girl Scouts carries over into the grown-up world, where people are impressed when men make it to Eagle Scout, but mocking when women stay in Girl Scouts for the same amount of time. When I sold cookies, people wanted to see me as this gimmicky doll dissociated from the woman she could someday become. Yet, Girl Scouts has never been that. For over a hundred years, it’s been about empowerment, inclusion, solidarity and strength.