Girl Scouts has been in existence for a full century, and there’s more behind its popularity than just cookies. Since 1912, when it was started in Savannah, Ga., with just 18 members, the organization has gained worldwide appeal and today boasts an active membership of 3.2 million girls and women.
Girl Scouts proudly displayed their flags as they led 1,000 girls, volunteers and community members across the Gervais Street bridge in celebration of the organization’s 100th anniversary.
Girl Scouts globally will celebrate its centennial at various times this year. For Girl Scouts of South Carolina – Mountains to Midlands, one of 112 councils in the United States, 100-year birthday celebrations began in February at the State House. Elected officials, community leaders and 100 Girl Scouts representing the council’s nearly 18,000 girl and adult members, listened as Rep. Laurie Funderburk, a businesswoman and attorney, read a proclamation signed by Gov. Nikki Haley. That event kicked off a year of centennial activities, including a celebratory walk in March across the Gervais Street bridge. In October, Girl Scouts will showcase their rich heritage with presentations and exhibits at the State Fair.
“Girl Scouts has made a difference in the past 100 years,” says Dr. Traci Young Cooper, a Girl Scout Women of Distinction in 2001 and a past board member of Girl Scouts of South Carolina – Mountains to Midlands. “I believe that Girl Scouting has made a profound impact on the community by changing with the times and proactively addressing key 21st century issues facing girls today: self-esteem, bullying and increased involvement in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). In our social world today, with the influx of negative stereotypes and images of girls and women, it is critical that pro-female organizations such as the Girls Scouts provide an arena for girls to find their identities and places for affirmation.”
When Girl Scouts was founded on March 12, 1912, by Juliette Gordon Low to give girls an opportunity to excel physically, mentally and spiritually, women were still eight years away from receiving the right to vote. Most women of the early 1900s did not attend college, own property or work outside the home. Times have, indeed, changed.
Assistant Troop Leader Karen Roof was a Girl Scout from elementary school through high school. Four years ago she decided to become a troop leader. She had worked at Girl Scout’s resident camp 20 years ago and made lasting relationships with attendees, counselors and leaders. She says at least twice a year she is shopping somewhere and hears her Girl Scout nickname called out from across the store. “As a Girl Scout, you can go anywhere and you automatically have something in common with other Girl Scouts. It’s a community. You’re part of something bigger,” she says.
Since its founding in 1912, Girl Scouts has always been socioeconomically diverse and inclusive of girls from all racial and ethnic groups.
Karen says that the most significant changes to Girl Scouts over the years have been fueled by technology. Now, instead of researching at libraries or on-site, Girl Scouts can often find what they need for badges online. Outdoor camping, which Karen says used to involve digging latrines and making fires, is not as appealing to 21st century Girl Scouts. Instead, overnight outings are often held at camp facilities rather than campgrounds.
“The fundamentals have not changed though,” Karen says. “The core values are still there, and the Gold Award remains the highest achievement a girl can earn. One very appealing change is that there are more programs that offer travel, both nationally and abroad.”
Primarily, being a Girl Scout instills confidence – which was one goal of the original founder. Phonecia Hughes received her Gold Award this past year and is now enrolled at the University of South Carolina. She says, “By allowing me opportunities to do public speaking at several Girl Scout functions and ceremonies, I developed a newfound confidence within myself. That confidence has been the key that has opened doors for job opportunities and public speaking opportunities outside of Girl Scouts.”
Bett Williams, now a Girl Scout board member, enjoys seeing girls learn new skills and step out of their comfort zones. “As an adult volunteer, I now appreciate what Girl Scouts must have meant for so many,” she says. She explains that at a time in the early- to mid-1900s, when men dominated leadership posts, girls and women were given opportunities to test their mettle within Girl Scouts.
While traditional camping remains popular, Girl Scouts today can experience a wider variety of outdoor adventures, such as rope climbing and kayaking.
Today, 100 years after its inception, there are an estimated 60 million Girl Scout alumnae in the United States. They comprise a population of women who attend college, earn masters and doctorate degrees, and are employed in a vast array of fields. Current statistics show that former Girl Scouts are currently 80 percent of women business owners, 68 percent of women in the U.S. Congress, and five of six female governors, including South Carolian’s own Nikki Haley.
“As a former Girl Scout, I have been most proud of the Girl Scouts’ progression into the 21st century,” says Traci. “As I raise a daughter who sees pop icons arrested for drunk driving, drugs or shoplifting while they maintain their celebrity status, I value what Girl Scouts can do to keep it real for our children.”
Girl Scouts also attempts to keep the outdoors important to girls. Remaining true to their heritage, Girl Scouts are continually encouraged to become involved in camping, archery, canoeing, fishing, nature walks and horseback riding. Protecting the environment also remains a top priority, as it was with its founder.
For those seeking travel adventures, Girl Scouts offers experiences for both domestic and international travel.
As the Girl Scouts move forward, there is an ongoing attempt to partner with community members in a ToGetHerThere initiative. Its goal is to create balanced leadership between men and women in just one generation.
Kim Hutzell, president and CEO of Girl Scouts of South Carolina – Mountains to Midlands, says, “Girl Scouts has perhaps more work to do in South Carolina than in most states. Though we have our first female governor, as the state with the lowest percentage of women elected to state government in the nation, and the only state with no women in the Senate, there is even more reason to focus on leadership development for girls and young women in South Carolina. We owe it to our daughters, sisters, nieces and students to have strong role models and to help them reach their full potential as leaders in society.”
Girl Scouts is in the planning stages to open a Leadership Center in Columbia. The 32,000-square-foot center will be located in the former S.C. Department of Agriculture building at 1101 Williams Street. Girl Scouts will use the building for meetings, overnight excursions and training and development. Plans include an indoor climbing wall and a Girlz Gear shop. The facility’s environment will focus on the five areas of Girl Scout leadership development: the arts, business enterprise, healthy living, outdoor education and STEM.
One hundred Girl Scouts gathered with elected officials and community leaders at the State House on Feb. 23 to help launch the 100th anniversary of Girl Scouts and the 2012 Year of the Girl.
Gov. Haley’s proclamation, read in February, declares 2012 the “Year of the Girl” and stated: “I, Nikki R. Haley … encourage all South Carolinians to recognize the positive impact Girl Scouting has on our communities and in the lives of its current and former members and to congratulate the organization for its contributions over the past century.”
Photography Courtesy of Girl Scouts of South Carolina-Mountains to Midlands, Inc.