Most of us, if pressed to think about the Girl Scouts, conjure up images of girlish innocence: summer camp, volunteerism, and, of course, cookies. A small but growing segment of the public, however, has started to think of the Girl Scouts in far darker terms.
More than a decade ago, Kathryn Jean Lopez of the National Review wrote: “The Girl Scouts’ leaders hope to make their youthful charges the shock troops of an ongoing feminist revolution.” A number of prominent voices on the Christian right went on to join her in sounding an alarm about the organization, accusing it of religious and sexual subversion. Cathy Ruse of the Family Research Council alleged that the organization is “pushing promiscuous sex on the girls.” Bob Knight, while working for Concerned Women for America, accused the Girl Scouts of drifting into “radical feminism,” and while the word “witchcraft” has yet to be trotted out, popular right wing website WorldNetDaily has accused the Girl Scouts of promoting “lesbianism” and “paganism.”
For years, such suspicions swirled in a disorganized cloud, until in the spring of 2010, they coalesced around an urban legend that the Girl Scouts were working with Planned Parenthood to secretly distribute sex manuals to young girls. Wendy Wright, also of CWA, was one of those who promoted the fast-spreading tale, writing on CWA’s website that “the group hosted a ‘no adults allowed’ meeting at the United Nations (U.N.) where a graphic sex guide was distributed.” The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute was also instrumental in promoting the story, insinuating that the Girl Scouts were using a Planned Parenthood brochure to promote casual sex and to encourage HIV-positive people to conceal their status from sex partners.
Planned Parenthood and the United Nations hijacking a girl’s organization to encourage orgiastic behavior? If the story had been generated by a computer programmed to push right-wing buttons it could hardly have been better suited to the task. And yet these critics aren’t entirely wrong to perceive the group as a feminist organization, however mild and mainstream its strain of feminism may be, or to perceive the group as comparatively forward-looking (something that’s obvious when you contrast the group, both now and historically, with the Boy Scouts). Since their founding, the Girl Scouts have taken the well-being of girls as their mission, and they lobby to this end both nationally and internationally. So even as specific accusations against the group are spurious, it makes a certain amount sense that the group’s conservative Christian critics, who value traditional gender roles, would oppose an organization that takes female equality as a given.
The realities behind the Girl Scouts-U.N.-Planned Parenthood myth perfectly illustrate the moderately feminist approach the organization takes toward scouting. Almost the moment the myth began to spread last year, the Girl Scouts’ national organization circulated a statement debunking it. According to this statement, in March 2010, the Girl Scouts held a meeting at the 54th Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations, gathering 30 to 35 teenage girls and encouraging them to “take action on global issues concerning women and girls.” The International Planned Parenthood Federation brochure that the right-wing blogosphere accused the Girl Scouts of having passed around (“Healthy, Happy and Hot: A young person’s guide to their rights, sexuality, and living with HIV”) was not distributed at the meeting. None of the girls in attendance or their chaperones ever saw the brochure until after it started circulating on the Internet, according to a Girl Scouts of the USA press spokesperson. *
The Girl Scouts’ statement made no difference. Members of the Christian right continued doggedly spreading stories of Girl Scout-sponsored, Planned Parenthood-funded sex workshops. Last fall, the Family Research Council went on to accuse the group of “encouraging a permissive sexuality.” In early 2011, two teenage girls claiming to be ex-Girl Scouts founded a website accusing the organization of not being “trustworthy or honorable,” in the process garnering a barrage of media coverage. Against this backdrop, networks of Christian conservatives encouraged parents to take their girls out of Girl Scouts and enroll them in American Heritage Girls, a girls’ group that claims a “Judeo-Christian” mission and that was founded in 1995 as an alternative to the far more secular Girl Scouts.
According to American Heritage Girls supporters, American Heritage Girls are closer to the original Girl Scout mission than are the modern Girl Scouts, which these critics say have abandoned traditional values in favor of a new, radical feminist agenda. But while the “we didn’t leave the Girl Scouts; the Girl Scouts left us” storyline may fit into a larger narrative of national moral decline, it simply isn’t true. Or it’s mostly not true. The problem isn’t just that the Girl Scouts practice a brand of girl empowerment so middle-of-the-road it’s rarely even labeled as feminism, let alone radical feminism. The larger problem with this storyline is the idea that the Girl Scouts’ focus on girl empowerment is anything new. Progressivism was baked into the Girl Scouts from the beginning, a fact that’s particularly obvious when you compare the organization to its more conservative counterpart, the Boy Scouts.
Boy and Girl Scouts have much in common, but from the beginning they diverged in fundamental ways, and these differences linger in the organizations to this day. The founding of Boy Scouts in 1910 stemmed from a larger turn-of-the-century crisis in Anglo-American masculinity, according to historian Susan Miller, author of Growing Girls: The Natural Origins of Girls’ Organizations in America. Increasing urbanization caused Americans to worry that young men were becoming soft and emasculated; organizations like the Boy Scouts promised to restore virile masculinity. “American men were supposed to get their manhood by struggling against nature,” says Miller, pointing to how Boy Scouts learned skills useful to westbound adventurers and colonialist explorers.
Two years later, Juliette Gordon Low founded the Girl Scouts, which faithfully replicated Boy Scout protocols, but for girls instead of boys. Changing the gender of the scouts, however, shifted the cultural meaning of scouting. While scouting for boys was about preserving the tradition of rugged, outdoorsy masculinity, scouting girls looked to the future, shucking off Victorian models of women as delicate flowers and replacing them with physically capable and adventurous women. (The Boy Scouts had previously backed another girls’ organization, the Campfire Girls, which incorporated some elements of scouting, but with more of an eye towards domestication. Not so surprisingly, the national leadership of the Boy Scouts reacted poorly to the Girl Scouts, which had girls acting more as the Boy Scouts imagined boys should act.)
These origins set the two organizations on strikingly different paths, despite their common emphasis on physical activity and volunteerism. The Boy Scouts still employ a nostalgic worldview, while the Girl Scouts focus more on keeping with the times. A quick overview of the Girl Scouts website shows the organization’s pride in its lobbying efforts on behalf of girls, and a wide range of published research addressing 21st century concerns such as body image, bullying, and yes, sexual health—with an emphasis on waiting for sex until maturity. (The Boy Scouts by contrast produce publications that shy away from these more provocative concerns and instead emphasize themes such as respect for elders and church attendance.)
So, yes, the Girl Scouts could be described as feminist, but only in the most moderate sense of the term. It’s telling that Christian right critics avoid dealing directly with the group’s “go girl!” brand of empowerment, choosing instead to promote lurid tall tales. Maybe their tactic amounts to a tacit acknowledgement of just how mainstream the Girl Scouts’ feminism is, and just how far from the mainstream the anti-feminist views of the Scouts’ Christian right critics have become. The Girl Scouts focus on building self-esteem, teaching girls to care for their health, and promoting educational opportunities that help the girls’ economic futures. Its Christian right critics cling to a tradition where women exist primarily to serve. If this tradition conflicts with the Girl Scout mission to help girls “develop their full individual potential,” well, no wonder Bob Knight, the former Concerned Women for America anti-feminist organizer, had to spin that mission as “narcissistic devotion to self.”
Correction, Sept. 15, 2011: Because of an editing error, this article originally misstated the name of the Girl Scouts’ national organization. It is Girl Scouts of the USA, not Girl Scouts of America. (Return to the corrected sentence.)