The Girl Scouts celebrate 100 years of courage, confidence, and character

If apparitions of dancing, delicious Tagalong Cookies are all that pops into your head when you hear “Girl Scouts,” know you are sorely misguided.

There is perhaps no cookie more ubiquitous than those doled out in colorful neon boxes each year by the Girl Scouts. A box-laden table in front of your local grocery store means more than just a pantry full of Thin Mints for the first time in a year; it means the arrival of spring. The act of baking and giving out cookies is historically feminine—a woman’s ubiquity in the kitchen has long been part of traditional ladylike behavior and a key component of a “happy” nuclear family.

“Ladylike” behavior is not what the Girl Scouts is about. In fact, it’s not what they’ve ever been about since their foundation 100 years ago. If Girl Scouts’ founder Juliette Gordon Low were around right now, she’d wonder where that stereotype could have possibly come from.

Low, who has often been described as feisty and zealously independent, wasn’t one of those little girls made of “sugar and spice and everything nice.” As a child, she had a penchant for climbing trees, taking imaginary hunting trips, writing stories, and standing on her head.

Before women could even vote, Low founded the Girl Scouts movement (originally dubbed American Girl Guides) to mobilize young girls into leading active lives outside the home and turn them into powerful, confident women with a defined sense of purpose—something Low didn’t discover herself until she founded Girl Scouts.

Low passed away in 1927, but she left a healthy legacy that’s arguably the most widely celebrated youth movement ever created. Today, it continues to flourish. Chris Salley-Davis, program director for Girl Scouts of Western Ohio, says that one of the things she values most about Girl Scouts is that, even over 100 years in a country awry with discordance and change, Girl Scouts has remained unsullied.

“The foundation hasn’t changed…girl scouting has always been based on the needs and interests of girls,” says Salley-Davis.

But still, the struggle with public perception has been the greatest obstacle in the Scouts’ success. Girl Scouts suffers from long-standing history of misbranding. Salley-Davis describes the dilemma as a case of the “three Cs”—cookies, camping, and crafts. That’s not to say Girl Scouts never encounter those activities—they’re allowed to have fun, insists Salley-Davis, but Girl Scouts doesn’t feed off superficiality.

Peel behind the stereotype and find another very different three Cs: “Our mission is to build girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place,” reads the Girl Scouts’ mission statement. Besides, it’s surely not cookies, camping, and crafts that lead Girl Scout alumnae to earn an average of nearly $9,000 more than non-alumnae.

Who is the average Girl Scout? Being a “girl” is just about the only requirement. “Any kind of girl can and should be a Girl Scout. Scouting really helps girls discover what they are capable of, and through doing, girls develop true confidence,” says Jamie Bryant, Girl Scouts volunteer and founder/editor-in-chief of girl-centric Kiki Magazine. “If they do and succeed, they realize their possibilities and begin to reach further. If they do and fail, the community of Girl Scouts encourages them to push forward with determination and supports them as they try again.”

At a time when segregation and discrimination was the norm, Low was recruiting African-American, American Indian, and Hispanic girls, even before civil rights laws caught up with her. In 1956, the famed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described Girl Scouts as a “force for desegregation.” Today, promoting diversity is still an integral tenet of the organization; the Scouts make targeted efforts to increase their presence in underrepresented demographics and communities.

“Like girls from 100 years ago, today’s girls still struggle against stereotypes about what they like to do and are able to do. And yet, with all that girls are actually doing today, I still sense they feel conflicts about what they like and what they feel they should like. That sense of ‘should’ is something that girls today are still trying to navigate,” says Bryant.

Salley-Davis started off her career with Girl Scouts as a recruiter, and she recalls one incident that was particularly rewarding. A recruiting effort at an economically disadvantaged school in Cincinnati ended with Salley-Davis manning a number of 7th and 8th grade girls at a cookie stand in Findlay Market.

“[Selling the cookies] was the longest two hours of my life. I realized, wait, they have no idea what customer service is…One person walked by, and they were like, ‘Do you want to buy some cookies?’ and they said no, and one girl was like, ‘You don’t need any anyways!’” she chuckles. “We had to stop, and pull them over and talk to them. That’s when I realized that there is a lot more to the cookie sale. At the end of the day, the girls were saying ‘thank you’ as people walked away.”

Salley-Davis ran into one of the girls from that same cookie sale two years later at the Girl Scouts’ Blue Ash office—she was helping her cousin, who was also a Girl Scout. “Even in that short time, we couldn’t figure out why they wanted to be with us,” says Salley-Davis. During middle school, Girl Scouts tends to struggle with recruitment; during puberty and the magical discovery of the opposite sex, somehow Girl Scouts is no longer “cool.”

But still, these girls—many of whom came from broken or unsupervised homes—willingly followed Salley-Davis to Findlay Market, and showed up to meetings for the next eight weeks. It wasn’t overzealous parents forcing them to be extracurricular superstars—they showed up at their own will. Sometimes, she says, all it takes is a little extra love and attention to change a girl’s life; that’s the magic of Girl Scouts.

“I don’t think that every girl has the same support system…it’s really important for girls to have positive role models in life beyond their family, and girls can get it through other outlets. Girl Scouts creates this sisterhood that I definitely feel like I’ve been a part of as an adult. There’s more of a support system for a girl that was in Girl Scouts.”

There are 100 years worth of stories, and Salley-Davis’ tale is only one of a myriad. “Getting so involved in the history over the last year in preparation for the 100th anniversary celebration has made me realize I’m a little dot in this movement.”

Photos provided by the Girl Scout National Historic Preservation Center