Today is International Women’s Day and I thought this was a perfect chance to talk about one of the biggest women’s movements across the world – Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. Present in 146 countries worldwide, reaching ten million girls and young women, it is an incredibly dynamic movement and one which is close to my heart, as I have been a member since I was five years old. I was a Rainbow, a Brownie, a Guide, a Young Leader and am now an Assistant Guider and cannot imagine having not being part of Girlguiding. I really think it influenced my interest in women’s history (which, when I think about it, comes from way before university to school when I would always find the opportunity to discuss the female role in everything we were learning about). It also instilled a sense of feminism and gender equality in me from a young age, teaching me that being born a girl should not hinder me, that I could aspire to do anything I wanted to and was just as capable as my male friends and relatives – an invaluable message for today of all days.
The Girl Guiding movement grew out of the Boy Scout movement, founded by Lord Robert Baden-Powell, a Boer War hero who was asked in the early twentieth century to set up something to give young boys a hobby and to keep them out of mischief. The Boy Scouts were set up in 1907, and Scouting for Boys was published a year later, which became one of the bestselling books of the twentieth century. In 1909, a Boy Scout rally was held at Crystal Palace in London and was interrupted by a group of young women, who arrived saying that they were Girl Scouts, and that they wanted something for the girls. Lord Baden-Powell’s sister Agnes Baden-Powell officially established the Guide Association in 1910 and was later joined by Olave, Robert’s wife, whom he married in 1912. Groups were established in numerous places all over the world, including the 1912 founding of the Girl Scout movement by Juliette Gordon Low. An International Council was formed in 1919, and nine years later, at the Fifth International Conference of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, where delegates from twenty-six countries met, the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) was founded.
The Guides were on hand to help in many situations – research has been done in particular into their contribution to the war effort. During the Second World War (1939-1945), there were three quarters of a million Girl Guides, who were a perfect resource of young women with practical skills. Some of the things they got involved with included being first aiders, electricians, mechanics, signallers, nursery nurses, teachers, helping “Dig for Victory”, welcoming refugees into their units and teaching cooking skills under the restrictions of rationing. In Poland, the Girl Guides were part of the resistance, carrying messages, smuggling food and helping Jewish children to safety. (My mum loved Janie Hampton’s book How the Girl Guides Won the War from 2011 if anyone wants to read more about this!)
I feel like many people see the Guides as quite placid, sat doing crafts and fundraising, but this really isn’t the case. Incredibly important work has been done and integral friendships fostered in the 100+ years since the movement was founded. It has a long lasting effect on the women involved – an interesting fact I read in a Guardian newspaper article was that 70% of the record number of women senators sworn in in January 2012 in USA had been Girl Scouts. In 2012, the newly-appointed Chief Executive of Girlguiding UK, Julie Bentley, commented that it is
“the ultimate feminist organisation”.
Alongside WAGGGS, it offers so many opportunities that girls might not have, supporting the individual whilst also instigating work for wider social change, giving girls the chance to be themselves in a safe and supportive space.
In Guides, I found a place where there were no barriers to women – we could select our own opportunities and govern our own programme with the support of our leaders, who took the role of facilitators. As a Guide, and as a Leader now, I went on my first trip abroad, have slept in a Cathedral (twice), slept over in two different castles and a country house, visited three different countries, been on numerous camping trips, made friends who live on different continents to me and forged bonds with said friends, from near and far, for life. Most of my female relatives and quite a lot of my friends have had some kind of involvement with the movement. (As somebody who researches women’s history and is interest in female relationships – albeit eighteenth-century ones – this is incredibly important to me). In our Guide unit, we have been completing challenges for to celebrate the 100th Birthday of Staffordshire Girlguiding, and one of them was to collect memories of ex-members: they made such interesting reading, with many sending in photos and examples of their old uniforms and discussing things they got to do as members. So really, on this International Women’s Day, I wanted to write a little bit of a love letter to those smart and pro-active young women who turned up at the 1909 Crystal Palace rally demanding something for the girls, as I will be eternally grateful to them for the opportunities their actions have given me.