SAVANNAH, Ga. — Recruited over tea at the mansion of a Georgia widow, the first Girl Scouts went on to earn proficiency badges for cooking meals and caring for babies. In a nod to their changing times, they also learned to shoot rifles and self-defense tactics such as "how to secure a burglar with eight inches of cord."
Now a century has passed and millions of Americans have taken the Girl Scout promise, sold Samoas and Thin Mints by the truckload and gone on to careers from CEOs to astronauts. As they celebrate their 100th anniversary this month, the Girl Scouts of the USA boast a record of progressiveness built on combining lessons in domestic know-how with outdoor adventures and technical skills aimed at teaching girls they can do anything.
Take 11-year-old Kathryn Hoersting from the Girl Scouts' birthplace of Savannah, who just got her cooking badge by making her family breakfast of hash with eggs. Next up: the "Special Agent" badge, which requires an introduction to forensic science and other crime-solving techniques.
"You get to work together on anything," said Kathryn, a third-generation Girl Scout whose Brownie and Scout vests are decorated with dozens of colorful badge awards. "It's just hanging out with your friends and doing something new and creative, something you love."
When Juliette Gordon Low rounded up her first troop on March 12, 1912, few women held jobs and only six states allowed them to vote. Low didn't set out to cause sweeping social change, to wage a battle of the sexes. Regardless, the Girl Scouts would help set the stage for the modern women's movement and gradually help bridge the gender gap.
Kathryn's grandmother, Amy Gerber, says being a Girl Scout in the 1950s gave her the courage to open and operate two conference centers in Arizona and become a grief counselor. The girl's mother, Wendy Hoersting, was a scout in the 1970s and became a nurse anesthetist.
"Girl Scouting from its inception was always forward-looking," said Mary Rothschild, a retired historian from Arizona State University who spent 30 years studying the Girl Scouts. "Although it was always rooted in domesticity, it always opened further paths to women."
And not just women of a particular class, race, religion or sexual orientation. The original Girls Scout troops from 1912 mixed girls who were Jewish, Protestant and Catholic. The first troop for black girls was formed a year later, and a year after that, troops were founded for girls attending schools for the blind and deaf. (Low herself suffered from serious hearing loss, and felt no girl should be denied participation because of a disability.)
Milly England was one of the earliest Girl Scouts, joining the Thistle Troop in her hometown of New Bedford, Mass., in 1914.
Now 111, England still has her Girl Scout ring with its emerald gemstone and recalls sewing her own uniform — a long-sleeved blouse with a blue neck scarf — that she wore on camping trips and to troops meetings, dances and suppers at a local church.
"I know we started something good. It was good for a lot of girls," England said. "... I wanted to belong to a gang always."
That history of hard-nosed inclusiveness has continued into the 21st century as Girl Scout troops have admitted not only members who are gay but, in at least one recent case, a transgender child as well.
It's a trait that's fueled some of the group's harshest critics and that's given it a distinctly different identity from the Boy Scouts, who have waged court battles to be able to exclude those who don't fit the group's Judeo-Christian mores.
It was during a trip to England that Low, a wealthy, childless socialite, became friends with Robert Baden-Powell, the former British Army officer who founded the Boy Scouts in 1907 to pass on the rugged frontier skills he had found lacking in young military recruits. Powell's sister had started an offshoot, the Girl Guides. Low became smitten with the idea and brought it to America with Baden-Powell's blessing.
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