Monday, March 12, 2012

Put a Candle on that Thin Mint—The Girl Scouts Turn 100

Dangerous subversives on the march!

The Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) has been making it into the news a lot lately not just in the community notes section of the newspaper amid the rummage sales, bingo nights, and Accountant of the Year awards.  And not, as they had surely hoped exclusively in fawning articles marking the organization’s centennial celebration.

No, it turns out that to some folks the Girl Scouts are an imminent threat to Western Civilization.  They have become a prime target in the war against women, junior division.

It started in January when a California Scout, responding to a group called Honest Girl Scouts posted an eight minute video on YouTube.  It became an overnight viral sensation.  The girl was angry because a Denver Scout troop had accepted the membership of a transgender boy.  She accused the Scouts of violating the safety of girls by admitting a boy and of lying to parents and Scouts.  She urged a boycott of Girl Scout Cookie sales.  Almost overnight the girl became the darling of the Right Wing and trashing the Girl Scouts became the popular meme of the moment.

On the other hand, responding to the rapidly rising viciousness of attacks on the GSA, many folks responded by ordering more cookies than they ever had.  In fact, cookie sales soared.

That was not the end.  In February Indiana Republican, Rep. Bob Morris of Fort Wayne was the sole vote against a routine resolution recognizing the GSA’s centennial.  He sent an e-mail to his colleagues, which rapidly made front page news, accusing the organization of being involved with the Great Satan of the Religious Right, Planned Parenthood—an old charge vehemently denied by both organizations.  But he went further.  According to USA Today Morris, “…said that liberal Girl Scout leaders ‘indoctrinate’ girls with Planned Parenthood principles and that the Scouts tout 50 role models, all but three of whom he said are ‘feminists, lesbians or Communists.’”

Morris was a hero to the radio ranters, but was quickly the laugh stock of Indiana.  The mixture of bemusement and outrage was so great that Indian House Speaker Brian Bosma scrambled to head off damage to his party.  He announced that he had personally bought over 400 boxes of cookies and handed out Thin Mints on the floor of the House.  He called on women members who were once Girl Scouts—which turned out to every female member of the house on both sides of the aisle—to stand together to make a formal motion for adjournment.   It might have worked to diffuse public anger, but today Bosma has a huge target painted on his back by Tea Party activists bent on revenge.

Tone deaf to public outrage with these attacks, the right wing continues to press them with ever more virulence.  At least one Southern church made a big public display of kicking the Girl Scout Troop it had long sponsored out of its building.  More congregations are expected to follow.

The GSA seems a little stunned by the furor.  The Boy Scouts of America (BSA), with which it has no relationship except the shared name of Scouts, has typically been the most controversial.  National BSA leadership has made headlines be repeatedly reinforcing stringent rules against admitting Gays and atheists, which by its definition includes even members of non-theistic religions like Buddhism, pagans, and Unitarian Universalists who will not affirm loyalty to a personal God.  They have even expelled loyal leaders, lifelong Eagle Scouts, and parents who are critical of their position.  

The BSA is the official youth organization for boys of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, and his heavily supported by the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the conservative Southern Baptist Convention.  Catholic leaders have strongly supported the BSA stand and many parishes sponsor Troops.  On the other hand the BSA severed all ties with the Unitarian Universalist Association several years ago for daring to mildly criticize these positions in a separate pamphlet given to their own members seeking to win a religious award.

It was long noted that the Girl Scouts would not follow the same path.  They never had a policy of excluding lesbians either as Scouts or leaders and had no religious test for membership.  That long ago put them on the Right wing’s shit list.  But until recently the popularity of the Girl Scouts has kept them from making many overt attacks.

The gloves are off now.  The GSA tries to correct misinformation and outright lies and vainly tries to keep the controversy from affecting the girls themselves and their troops.

Let’s celebrate the birthday today and extend our wishes for many more!

On March 12, 1912 Juliette Gordon Low established the first troop of Girl Guides in America in her hometown of Savannah, Georgia.  The troop included 12 girls, mostly friends of her niece Margaret Gordon, who became the first enrolled member.  The following year Low changed the name of her organization to Girl Scouts of America (GSA). 
Low was born in 1860.  Her father, a member of an old Georgia family was soon off to war as a Confederate officer.  Her mother was a Kinzie, one of the founding families of Chicago.  Her mother encouraged Daisy, as she was called, in her interest in both the arts and social service. She wrote poetry, painted, and eventually became a skilled sculptor.
She grew up privileged and enjoyed the finest education available to girls of her class.  She was sent to boarding school at the Virginia Female Institute and then to fashionable French finishing school in New York.  She spent years touring extensively in Europe and the U.S. before marrying William Mackay Low, a wealthy Englishman in her Savannah home. 
An errant grain of rice thrown at the wedding ruptured an ear drum and the following infection left her totally deaf in that ear.  Childhood illness had severely damaged the hearing in the other.  Despite her disability Low continued to lead an active life. 
The couple settled in England, but Low returned annually for extended stay in the States.  When the Spanish American War broke out, her father was commissioned a General.  Low joined her mother in establishing a hospital for wounded soldiers. 
Although she afterward returned to England, her marriage was in a shambles.  She separated from her husband but for social reasons could not divorce.  His death in 1905 freed her to find a new mission in life.  
A chance meeting in 1911with Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides in Britain awakened her interest in youth work.  She returned to her ancestral home in Savannah and began the work. 
She did not slavishly copy Baden-Powell program, which she thought did not do enough to encourage independence in young women and which kept them in an inferior status to boys.  She kept her organization separate from the new Boy Scouts of America so as not to be swamped.  But she defiantly took the name Scouts to emphasize parity. 
Her program did not just include wholesome outdoor activity and domestic arts, but also encouraged the arts, intellectual development and leadership skill necessary for women to establish careers and take positions of civic leadership.  She also defied convention—and shocked many—by insisting that disabled girls be admitted as full members in integrated troops. 
She saw her organization grow rapidly from its humble beginnings and spread across the nation.  With her extensive international experience and her contact with Girl Guide and Scout movements in Europe on all sides even during the First World War she helped establish the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts after the end of the conflict. 
Low died of breast cancer in her beloved home in 1927.  In 1953 the Girl Scouts purchased and restored that home as the Juliette Gordon Low Girl Scout National Center.  Known reverently as simply The Birthplace, it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965. 


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