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Spotlight: The Origins Of The Boy Scouts And The Girl Scouts

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The Boy Scouts got its start in Britain at the turn of the 20th century. Not long after, the Girl Scouts — known originally as the Girl Guides — was established. Today, the scouting movement has gone international.

Worldview’s Jerome McDonnell sat down with Scott Johnston and Susan Swetnam to discuss the international scouting movement. Johnston is a doctoral candidate of history at McMaster University who wrote his master’s thesis on the Boy Scout and Girl Guide movements in imperial and international relations. Swetnam is professor emerita at Idaho State University. Her paper in Frontiers looked at how girl scouting in the United States was seen as subversive for supporting women’s movements and internationalism in the 1950s. 

On Robert Baden-Powell, a key figure in scouting

Scott Johnston: Baden-Powell was a British war hero during the Boer War, which was at the turn of the century, 1899 to 1902. During that war, he became famous for defending a city called Mafeking for several months. During that time, at least the story goes, he noticed that youth there were very helpful in sending messages, and this sort of planted the idea in him that youth could be useful citizens and soldiers. So he went on back to Britain after the War was over, to use his fame to write a book called Scouting For Boys which was actually an adaptation of an earlier book that was meant for adults to learn how to scout, to survive in the wilderness, to be useful generally. So he converted that first book into one directed at boys. 

He was worried about the perceived decline of the British race back in the age of imperialism. The Edwardians were very worried that if they didn't conquer the world, someone else will. There was also a lot of embarrassment about the Boer War. During the Boer War, even though the British won, it took them three years to do it an d so it was seen as an embarrassment and they were worried that their country was going into decline. So Baden-Powell thought that by improving the youth of British society, they'd create a better future for their country. It was, of course, a racial understanding of the way the world works, but that was very common in the Edwardian period.

On how Girl Scouts came to be

Susan Swetnam: What happened was that the nascent Boy Scout movement was so attractive and interesting, that they started just showing up at Boy Scout events in Britain. There was a lot of, of course, pushback against that because one of the central core of the theory of the Boy Scouts was to make boys masculine and strong and sort of reinvigorate British youth. And when girls starts you're showing up, people are afraid that the boys would be sissified by having girls along, and of course the girls just kept coming. Then there was a lot of pushback about the genders mixing. So a couple of years after Baden-Powell formed Boy Scouting, his sister Agnes was sort of deputized, and partly on his asking and partly her own interest, formed a Girl Scout branch which she called Girl Guides because the word “Scouts” was deemed to be a little bit too strong, as if one is going off by oneself for the girls. So “guides” actually connotes that the girls are going to help and guide their families, and guide their culture, and guide each other. 

There's a suggestion that partly it's to make girls useful citizens. And that doesn't just mean feminists. It means, rather than sort of “useless dolls” — that phrase was used about the new young woman — make them into old fashioned, character-driven, nurturing, competent wives and mothers. And so in a way, the outdoor components and the sense of empowerment for girls is very very tied in philosophy to first wave feminism; but in another way, there's this little reactionary strain about what it means to be a good woman that's going on too. So those two strains in Girl Scouting have been a tightrope that the movement has walked from the earliest days, really, until the present, not just in Britain but all over the world and especially in the United States.

On Juliette Gordon Low, the woman who brought Girl Scouting to the United States

Swetnam: She was a wealthy widow from Georgia who used to summer or spent part of the year in Great Britain. She met the Powells, Powell’s sister and got involved in scouting and actually ran a troop or a group for disadvantaged girls in Scotland where she was staying. She trained as a leader and brought it back to the United States, and she actually founded the first Girl Scout troop in the U.S. in 1912. She was a little stubborn, and she called it the Girl Scouts and there was a whole lot of sort of resentment. Baden-Powell himself tried to get her to change it to “Guides” as it was in Britain, but she thought that that sort of American frontier spirit in girls would really like Scouts better than Guides. It seems now, why could that be an issue to anybody, but it certainly was between 1912 and 1920.

On the popularity of scouting

Johnston: That's perfectly accurate, that's what happened. In fact, he didn't even mean to create an organization. He just wrote this book and put it out there, and he kind of planned that it would be used by groups that had already existed — the Y.M.C.A., or there was a group called the Boys Brigade. And he just thought these would be fun games for them to play in their organizations. But it became so popular that he realized that he had to create something of its own just to keep the whole thing going.

Swetnam: Oh it was unbelievable how quickly it took off. Yes indeed, well before the First World War, just exponential growth and in the beginning, Low was was very well connected and there were many other well-off women, women who would have been club women in that era who were interested in members of women's clubs who were interested in fostering civic participation and women’s domestic housekeeping, municipal housekeeping as it's been called in the literature. They joined with Low, and they were very powerful and very wealthy women and together they built a movement just exponentially in a very very short time. During World War One, in the United States, the Girl Scouts actually had a problem because there was such a wave of patriotism, and girls were doing all these useful things like rolling bandages and helping with hospitals and writing messages around and all that sort of thing, so there were actually much longer waiting lists for troops than there were troops to take care of them.

On the argument that scouting was militaristic

Johnston: One of the biggest debates among historians is about whether or not the Boy Scouts were a militaristic organization at the beginning. And the truth is that the Boy Scouts had to walk a very fine line to survive. On the one hand, they were being pressured by the military to become an official cadet organization, a branch of the military. Baden-Powell didn't want this, because he wanted to keep control of his own movement. He was also worried that it would become simply an organization where boys are forced to march and drill and learn to be soldiers, and he realized that that wasn't any fun. He understood kids, he liked kids, he didn't think that this would be an organization that would succeed. But on the other hand, he was also being pressured by the pacifists in the movement. 

Swetnam: At the very beginning through World War One, there was some militarism associated with the movement. There wore uniforms and they learned things like semaphoring and laying trails and they drilled with rifles in Britain. During the war, some girl guides actually did things like carrying messages as couriers. But once World War One was over, I think that that war horrified women so much that that emphasis really dwindled very very quickly in Britain and in the United States. After about 1917, there's an increased interest in international friendship, and frankly in the peace movement. So the Boy Scouts continued with that but outside of that initial burst, Girl Scouts have pretty much let that go.

On internationalism in the Boy Scout and Girl Scout movement

Johnston: There was a man named Sir Francis Vane. He thought Boy Scouts were becoming too militaristic for his liking, and he created his own breakaway group called Francis Vane’s Boy Scouts,and they took almost all of London with it. It was a real threat to Baden Powell’s original Boy Scouts. They almost collapsed. The Vane Boy Scouts were incredibly successful overseas. In places like Italy for example, Baden-Powell Boy Scouts almost didn't exist at all, it was completely Vane’s Boy Scouts. Because of their success internationally, this was what forced Baden-Powell and the Boy Scouts to start looking overseas themselves to compete. 

Baden-Powell didn't see internationalism and imperialism as opposites. He thought that imperialism was one step on the road to internationalism. In his world view, all of the great powers - he would count America, for example, as one of these empires - would get together and discuss the issues of the day and that would form peace around the world, the coming together of these giant blocks of countries.

By the end of the Second World War, imperialism, militarism, all of this... The Scouting movement realizes that it doesn't work for them. Internationalism is what really helps sell the movement. In the post-war world, that's what they take over. The ideas of brotherhood and friendship and internationalism, and that's what makes them such a big success immediately after the war.

Swetnam: Well, Girl Scouts, because of this long tradition of decades-old tradition of internationalism and the promotion of international friendship, was corporately 100 percent behind the United Nations and actually was named as a consultant to the U.N. in things like Save the Children Fund and women's affairs. Many of the badges in the 1950s included activities that required girls to learn about the United Nations, and that of course didn't sit well with conservatives. At one point in the early-to-mid-fifties, a very conservative radio host, sort of a Rush Limbaugh of the era, discovered with quotes that the Girl Scouts were “promoting un-American interest in other nations.” He of course was also rabidly anti-U.N., and he wrote an article called “Even the Girl Scouts” and it went the 1953-equivalent of viral and was actually read into the Congressional Record as a protest against Girl Scouting at one point. The Illinois-American Legion, inspired by him, actually censured the Girl Scouts and tried to get the whole national American Legion to censure them because of this interest in suspicious interest in other culture. You can see where if one was really paranoid, one might be nervous about this because the Girl Scouts did have a badge that was inauspiciously named “One World,” which may not have been the best phrasing. But as soon as a soon as the Girl Scouts leadership realized what was happening, they very diplomatically amended the handbook, so “One World” became “My World,” and the U.N. activities became optional rather than obligatory. And girls were not required to see what the League of Women Voters was up to and things like that. The result was that the controversy faded but there was actually rather nasty pushback from the Left criticizing the Girl Scouts for caving in at all so it was quite a fraught time.

On how the Boy Scouts movement affected politics

Johnston: The law that existed for Scouts that affected politics was that the Boy Scouts were a friend to all other scouts, no matter country, class or creed. Now in fact this had changed. Originally, it was just class — Baden Powell at the beginning was not worried about other countries, he just wanted upper class and lower class boys to get along. But he added in the ‘country, class or creed’ as it grew and became more international. Another area you could think about the law affecting policy was in South Africa with segregation. Baden-Powell used the law to argue that segregation should not exist, all the Boy Scouts should be allowed to serve in one group together.

Jerome McDonnell: How did that go down?

Johnston: It didn't. He tried. It didn't work. The South African authorities shut him down, and this is what I say about flexibility. The Boy Scouts really could take the form that the local people wanted it to.

The strength of the Boy Scouts movement is its flexibility. The fact is that people made the Boy Scouts what they wanted to be around the world. So for example in India, they were pushing for independence from the Empire. They didn't want to be part of the Empire anymore and Baden Powell had never imagined that the Boy Scouts would be used as a tool for an uprising against the British. It never crossed his mind. But the Boy Scout law was all about equality, and the Indian Boy Scouts took this as a sign that the Boy Scouts could be used to push for independence from the British Empire. 

On how the Girl Scouts movement affected politics

Swetnam: Actually that sort of multiculturalism, and trusting people to make the right decisions for their own context has, from the beginning, also informed Girl Scouting in various countries. When Girl Scouting first came to India and to East Asia, there were many compromises in the uniforms so the girls could dress in culturally appropriate ways. The nature of the sorts of activities they did varied from place to place. Even in the U.S., there were trips established among Native Americans on really distant reservations that were very careful to take some local mores and local customs into account. One of my favorite examples of the flexibility of Girl Scouting, while of course staying true to the core principles, is the troops that were established in Japanese internment camps during the Second World War. This is how broad-minded Girl Scouts were. By the end of the Second World War, there was a Girl Scout troop in every single U.S. internment camps, and obviously there the program had to be tailored to the context.

Another one is going on now is here is here in Idaho, there's a saintly woman running a troop in a migrant labor camp over in western Idaho, where some of the girls probably don't have papers. And she's inventing a kind of scouting that works for these girls. It's an amazingly embracing movement.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. It was produced by Steve Bynum and edited by Vera Tan. Click the 'play' button to listen to the entire interview.

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