Beyond Camping and Cookies: AAUW and the Girl Scouts

March 11, 2014

Black and white photo of an older woman pinning a younger woman -- both in their uniforms.

Juliette Gordon Low in uniform awarding the Golden Eaglet to a Girl Scout, 1919

This week, we celebrate Girl Scout Week. Maybe you were a Girl Scout yourself, or perhaps you have one in your family. Or you may just love those cookies! But did you know that AAUW has historical connections to the organization, which was founded by Savannah, Georgia’s Juliette Gordon Low on March 12, 1912?

We begin with the AAUW Journal, one of the most historically rich resources in AAUW’s archives. National Director of the Girl Scouts Josephine Schain wrote an article called “Helping Girls to Grow Up: The Girl Scout Program — A Venture in Progressive Education” for the June 1933 issue of the journal.

Schain (1886–1972) was born in Browns Valley, Minnesota; attended the University of Minnesota; and earned a bachelor of laws degree in 1908. After she left the university, she worked in a settlement house on New York’s Lower East Side. She also became active in both the suffrage and peace movements, which were attracting young women at the time. She served as chair of the National Committee on the Cause and Cure of War, an organization designed to promote peaceful solutions to world conflicts. She also managed to fit into her busy schedule a five-year commitment, starting in 1930, as the national director of the Girl Scouts.

In the AAUW Journal article, Schain informed AAUW members about the purpose of the Girl Scouts: for girls to explore new and unique experiences in a nonthreatening environment, establishing a level of comfort with their interests. All scouting was done under the guidance and supervision of a supportive troop leader. The troop leader moved the Scouts into activities she found interesting. In other words, it was woman-led then, as it is today. Proficiency badges, now called journeys, offered girls the opportunity to achieve expertise in a certain skill or interest.

So just why did Schain reach out to AAUW members? Surely, some of our members were already troop leaders, but how else should they become involved? She explained, “Members of the AAUW will be particularly interested in the possibilities for vocational guidance which the Girl Scout program offers.” In other words, she called upon AAUW members (with their unique blend of higher education and work experience) to become what today we could call mentors. Through scouting, AAUW members could guide girls toward careers that matched their interests and passions.

Schain explained why this was important. Girl Scouts fared comparatively well in college admittance and scholarship applications in the 1930s. Experience with Scouts was proof to educational institutions that “a girl is an all-round and upstanding applicant for admission or for a scholarship. Those seeking candidates for four-year room and board scholarship have found over and over that the successful candidates have been Girl Scouts.” This is an interesting historical angle to an organization that has at times struggled for relevancy in contemporary society, one that competes with a wealth of offerings of extracurricular activities and college preparatory experiences that didn’t exist even a short time ago.

Schain’s 80-year-old message is still relevant today. Today, senior and ambassador Girl Scouts develop ideas for Gold Award projects, designed to tackle problems and provide sustainable solutions in their communities. Recognized as the pinnacle of achievement in Girl Scouting, Gold Awards help girls stand out in the college and scholarship application process.

So how can we live up to Schain’s message and become involved today? Even if you’re not up for being a troop leader, each Gold Award project needs an adviser, someone from the community who knows about the issue and can guide the project through to completion. Interested? Contact your local Girl Scouts council. Sounds even better than a box of Thin Mints, doesn’t it?



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