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No Heroes: Girl Scouts

Being apolitical is not working for an organization I've cherished for much of my life.

Credit: Chris Helms via Flickr / Girl Scouts // Remix by Caitlin Schneider

Welcome to No Heroes, a series about high pedestals, hard falls, and why you should (almost) never stan.

A few weeks ago, the official Twitter account of the Girl Scouts of the USA did a very bad tweet. It’s now deleted, but here’s a screenshot:

Whew, I shudder anew every time I look at that graphic. Anyway, a lot of people got very upset! The account then…doubled down?

Man, it’s not easy being GREEN. The tweets soon disappeared, and then, later that same day: 

The account then went silent for two weeks after that (and uh, seems to have done some thinking about their social media staffing?), but just yesterday, it returned with this: 

Wow, interesting collection of words that mean nothing there. I can only assume the account will now return to posting more ordinary missives about leadership events, women in STEM, birthday announcements, blog posts, event promo, and other things of the sort. And I should say here: that regular news stream and the organization as a whole are, in my estimation, a net positive and force for good. Empowerment, a sense of adventure, and education for girls are all good things! But man, the spirit of the mission really hits different in the aftermath of the Girl Scouts’ tribute to aggressive nonpartisanship and whatever the hell “constructive dialogue” is. 

That mission, as it were, began with founder Juliette Gordon Low, who established the Girl Scouts in the midst of the Progressive Era in 1912. Low hailed from Georgia, but was introduced to scouting in England and Scotland after meeting Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts and a man worthy of his own No Heroes column. Low went to work with the Boy Scouts’ girl-centered counterpart, a group known as the Girl Guides, and those experiences inspired her to build a girl scouting organization in the United States. (Though understandably linked in people’s minds, the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts are not actually connected in any meaningful way beyond this origin story.) 

Low was motivated to teach girls self-reliance in part because of her own experience. Her husband, William Mackay Low, died in the midst of their divorce proceedings, and by all accounts, was an adulterous, oppressive partner who left his fortune to his lover. Low found freedom in her post-marriage life, and was 51 by the time she started the organization that would make her famous. 

From the very beginning, the Girl Scouts sought to teach young women about, well, everything: community service, camping, gardening, First Aid, astronomy, sports, cooking. linguistics, typing, farming, and much more—all during a time when women weren’t even able to vote. And from the beginning, the organization placed a great deal of significance on inclusivity, which remains a cornerstone of its messaging today. That said, the organization has had its share of growing pains when it comes to practicing what it preaches. The Girl Scouts have always emphasized welcoming those with disabilities (Low was partially deaf herself), and the first Black scouts joined soon after the group was formed in 1913. Even so, the troops were largely segregated until the 1950s and it should be noted that Low was concerned that their inclusion would cause white members to leave. In her book, Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts, author Stacy A. Cordery writes that while the Girl Scouts projected the image of being an organization for all girls, “It is safe to say that in 1912, at a time of virulent racism, neither Daisy [a nickname] Low nor those who authorized the constitution considered African-American girls to be part of the ‘all.’”

Decades later in 2011, a Colorado troop became the first troop to admit a transgender girl and a few years after that, the Girl Scouts rejected a large donation offered on the condition that the money would “not be used to support transgender girls.” The official website of the Girl Scouts now states: “Placement of transgender youth is handled on a case-by-case basis, with the welfare and best interests of the child and the members of the troop/group in question a top priority. That said, if the child is recognized by the family and school/community as a girl and lives culturally as a girl, then Girl Scouts is an organization that can serve her in a setting that is both emotionally and physically safe.”

Today, the Girl Scouts also offer programs for girls with incarcerated parents and girls who are in detention centers themselves, and individual chapters have their own statements on diversity and inclusion, each with individualized language and areas of focus. 

All of that is the kind of proof of concept that strengthens my own loyalty to the Scouts—and what makes their messaging around Amy Coney Barrett so infuriating. The fact that the organization is allergic to the idea of outward political allegiance is not surprising, but it’s pretty laughable considering their history, branding, day-to-day operations, and essential identity as an organization designed to push women forward. Barrett, on the other hand, is a fanatical right-winger who could help overturn Roe v Wade, has a horrifying track record on racial justice, and would almost certainly disapprove of a transgender Girl Scout. To cheer her on for simply being a woman isn’t a gesture of feminism. At best, it’s a lesson in willful ignorance. At worst it’s an endorsement.

As far as public record goes, Juliette Gordon Low herself never identified as a feminist, but evidence seems to suggest that she did support suffrage, albeit mildly. That said, she may have laid the groundwork for the organization’s political agnosticism today, as she mandated that the Girl Scouts stay publicly neutral on the subject so as to not alienate anyone or prevent girls from joining. For over 100 years, the organization has been in a constant quest to exist in a space of absolute inclusion, which apparently means inviting in even those who wish to take away the rights of the women it aims to emancipate.

That fact is made all the more frustrating by the fact that, frankly, that tightrope walk is a losing battle anyway. The Christian right has been coming after the Scouts for years because of loose and largely unsubstantiated connections to Planned Parenthood, claiming the organization encourages religious and sexual subversion and “radical feminism.” While Girl Scouts of the USA does provide some content regarding sex and relationships, a page that appears to have been about sex and pregnancy seems to have disappeared and the organization officially refuses to take a stance on “human sexuality, birth control, and abortion.” This isn’t even the first time the Scouts have gotten in trouble for a tweet: in 2014, the account posted a link to a Huffington Post article about “Women Of The Year,” which included Texas State Senator Wendy Davis, a supporter of abortion rights, and this, naturally, launched a national boycott from anti-abortionists. Even in this most recent Twitter dust storm, after people got angry about the initial tweet, other people got mad at the account for taking the tweet down. Unfortunately, the organization will most likely take all this to reinforce the idea that they should just avoid politics entirely. But people are always going to be mad, whether you’re desperate to placate them or not.  

There are a lot of reasons to feel complicated about the Scouts—that it can be an exercise in reinforcing gender norms and the idea of female wholesomeness, that it’s often bungled its own message of inclusion, that Low had some problematic ideas about Americanizing immigrants, that it’s still overwhelmingly white, or that it has some odd messaging within the Girl Scout Promise and Girl Scout Law, and a great deal of attention paid to faith. (While the Girl Scouts of the USA is technically a secular organization and welcoming to many religious affiliations (members can even substitute the word “god” in the Promise with whatever they want), it also maintains strong Catholic ties, even amid denouncements from the religious far right.) So yes, for women who’ve had a positive history with the Scouts, maintaining an allegiance can be hard. But for me, in 2020, it’s the screaming adherence to being apolitical that’s most difficult.

I was a Girl Scout for many, many years, and have almost entirely wonderful memories of my time with Troop 714 in Okemos, Michigan. (OK, everything except for selling cookies, I absolutely hated selling cookies.) My troop went on field trips, had sleepovers, did service projects, built fires on lakeshores, cooked, made friendship bracelets, and learned from real-life professionals about different careers. What I remember most about the experience, though, is that it bonded me to the girls I went to school with in a way that transcended the social life we had during school hours. Ironically, as someone who hates karaoke, some of my fondest memories come from middle school afternoons where we’d collectively sing a song called “Here We Go Zudio”. We’d scream, laugh, hold hands, perform for one another, and probably drive our troop leaders insane. Looking back, the strength of my positive associations is entirely to the credit of those women, who gave up countless hours and often their homes to give us community, structure, friendship, and maybe a little business acumen. 

Tons of women have had experiences like mine. Many have not. That’s the nature of an organization with 3.2 million members currently and 50 million in its history. It’s not all going to be good and it’s not all going to be bad, and so much of it has to do with the people leading local chapters. But it’s worth being skeptical about the mindset of the larger body, and how it feeds into those many splintered groups. 

It’s also fully ridiculous to act like the Girl Scouts aren’t “political.” The organization is seen as political and is political—not just because it exists in the world, but because it encourages civic engagement, advocacy, and environmental awareness. It also participated in the inauguration of Donald Trump and aided efforts in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, and it’s a testament to this country’s bizarre relationship to war that we don’t see such a thing as a political act. The Girl Scouts cannot engage in electoral politics in a technical sense, but it’s doing the work in other ways. I would like to think that Amy Coney Barrett doesn’t fit into that work, and the tweet was simply some mainstream feminism gone dumb, but I might be wrong. Either way, it’s a frustrating display from a powerful, institutional behemoth that shapes millions of young minds.  

I don’t really remember anything explicitly political making its way into my scouting life, and if I’m being honest, I don’t know how my leaders would have handled a year like 2020. I would like to think they would have taught me to think critically, to march for Black lives, to wear a mask, and to question the authority of the police (all of which aren’t technically political either), but I can’t really be sure. At least now I would’ve had the internet to show me how some scout defectors, like the Radical Monarchs, are creating scouting spaces of their own.

The main Girl Scouts website does have a statement on Black Lives Matter, though it’s unclear when it was posted and is fairly unspecific. Still, they did post a message in support of the movement earlier this summer at the height of the George Floyd protests:

Those two statements, even as boilerplate as they are, represent the kind of action that could have a powerful effect on the girls in the Girl Scout community. I know the organization isn’t going to post “Screw Amy Coney Barrett!!!” or play “Fuck Tha Police” at the cookie stand outside the supermarket, but engaging with young women—who again, are overwhelmingly white—on what’s happening in the world, is necessary in a world where a white supremacist is (still) in charge of the United States and police are regularly getting away with murder. It goes beyond “stop doing bad tweets”—it’s about ending the practice of pretending like you, or anyone, can exist outside of what’s happening in the world. It’s about standing up for the values you supposedly cherish. It’s about not screaming that you are GREEN.

The Girl Scouts is a 108-year-old organization for girls, but it’s time for it to grow up. Now more than ever we are in a constant state of holding multiple truths in our heads and hearts: It is a force for good, and it needs to change. I’m not going to tell you to make your own cookies or anything—I will be buying the cookies and you should buy the cookies—but we have to be asking more from our storied institutions. Staying silent or offering vague messages of empowerment aren’t enough when so much is at stake.  

Quotations are tired, so forgive me, but in my research, I came across a quote from Juliette Gordon Low that has been bouncing around in my head: “The work of today is the history of tomorrow and we are its makers.”

That sentiment itself is a call to action, even if it’s from someone who didn’t live it to its full extent. When I was younger, the Girl Scouts asked me to expect more from myself. Now, I’d like to ask more from them.