Elevate Difference

Growing Girls: The Natural Origins of Girls’ Organizations in America

As a former Girl Scout, I have vivid memories of my first trip to Camp Hoffman where my troop and I listened to the history of the organization. I particularly remember an awful amount of fanfare when my leader discussed Juliette Gordon Low, the fearless founder of the Girl Scouts. After reading Susan A. Miller’s Growing Girls, I feel a little jaded about my 2nd grade introduction to the Girl Scouts. This book, which particularly focuses on the creation and growth of the Girl Scouts and the Campfire Girls during the early 20th century, is equally pertinent to today’s camping and scouting opportunities for girls.

Typical of the time period, scouting programs for girls were originally created to solve the “problems” of Victorian girls—namely their evolution away from the domestic sphere and towards modernism, fashion, and popular culture. Scout leaders claimed to be experts on adolescent girls, yet over the course of the few decades covered in this book, both the Girl Scouts and the Campfire Girls continuously shifted the focus of their programming in an effort to strike just the right balance. Miller’s research shows the finely gendered line between offering programming that taught independence, survival skills and discipline, without the threat of being perceived as too masculine. Unfortunately, scouting programs during this time period included too many gender-related rules and regulations that left girls mostly observing nature instead of participating in it. Later programming focused heavily on equally ridiculous tasks such as charting one’s weight and the fun of washing dishes in the outdoors.

From the founding of their organizations, both the Girl Scouts and Campfire Girls recruited thousands of girls by using two important tools — summer camp, now a multi-million dollar part of American culture, and purchasable items. I was amazed to read about the attention that leaders put into their organization’s badges, uniforms, supplies and endless publications, such as the Woodcraft Manual for Girls and Kettles and Campfires.

It is very obvious that Miller conducted a tremendous amount of research for this book, which makes Growing Girls a valuable resource about the history of scouting, as well as gender relations in the early 20th century United States. A few points are a little dry, but overall I think that this text deserves a spot next other important books about adolescent girls such as Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s The Body Project _and Peggy Orenstein’s _SchoolGirls.

Written by: Kerri Kanelos, September 5th 2007