A friend of mine was recently telling me about shipping her son off to sleepaway camp for the first time this summer. She had all of the usual anxieties — what if he hates it? what if he forgets to pack something crucial? what if he gets eaten by a bear? — compounded by the fact that going to camp wasn’t a part of her own childhood. She had come to Canada when she was a teenager, so the routine of sending a kid into the wilderness for two weeks at a time is brand new to her.
“What about you?” she asked. “Did you go to summer camp?”
“Welllllll,” I replied, “I went to Girl Guide camp.”
“Is that the same as regular camp?”
“It was… formative,” I said. “We had to pitch our own tents and cook our own meals and clean the latrines.”
“Definitely not the same,” she said with such finality that we both started laughing.
How, exactly, do you explain Guiding to someone who has never experienced it? When I describe activities from my Brownie days — like dancing around the magic toadstool and paying dues of “fairy gold” — I feel like I’m talking about a bad (or maybe really good) drug trip. And yet, in spite of the quaint Edwardian patina some of the Brownie and Girl Guide rituals retain to this day, the idea of an organization that teaches self-confidence, self-reliance and survival skills to girls still feels relevant.
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I was seven years old the first time I went to Girl Guide camp, and I was completely enchanted. A week spent in the company of other little girls? In the forest? With s’mores and sleeping bags? Yes please. There was not a single aspect of the experience that I didn’t find delightful, not even the night the leaders got so tired of our excited shrieks that they instituted a “silent supper” (we used this as an opportunity to invent a rudimentary sign language and spent the whole meal saying rude things about the grown-ups). I loved camp so much that halfway through I wrote home begging my parents to let me stay a second week.
As I got older, Guiding became more and more of a refuge from the intense pressures of tween girlhood. I was a late bloomer who struggled to understand the new social expectations I was facing — clothes, makeup, boys — and it was a relief to have this once-a-week space where we all wore unflattering uniforms and worked on practical things like tying knots and building campfires. Sure, I might not know how to wear eyeliner, but I could survive in the wilderness! It was also a relief in another way: in a world that seemed as if it was increasingly trying to convince me that women needed men, Guiding was a place where I could see first-hand that we could take care of ourselves just fine.
The founder of Scouts, Robert Baden-Powell, certainly never set out to create a movement that would empower young women. Actually, he didn’t even set out to create a movement at all; when he published Scouting for Boys in 1908, he intended it to be an activity guide for existing youth organizations. Instead, people started spontaneously forming their own troops using Baden-Powell’s work as their handbook. In 1909, 11,000 scouts turned up for a rally at London’s Crystal Palace; among the attendees that day were several girls, who had been forced to sneak in after being turned away at the door.
Baden-Powell was initially shocked and dismayed by the presence of girls at his rally. When one of them told him that they wanted to be Scouts too, he replied, “That’s impossible, this is only for the boys,” then later said that he would think about it. His sister, Agnes Baden-Powell, initially took charge of the nascent Girl Guides, but it was his much younger wife — just 23 to his 56 when they married in 1912 — who would have the largest impact on the organization.
Olave Baden-Powell was the third and youngest child of Katherine and Harold Soames, who had apparently been hoping for another son and named her after King Olaf of Norway. Olave was deeply unimpressed by conventional gender roles and was described by several sources as a “tomboy.” In The Boy-Man: The Life of Lord Baden-Powell, biographer Tim Jeal writes that, for most of her childhood, Olave preferred to wear her hair cropped short and was more interested in hiking, shooting and sports than she was traditionally feminine activities. When she got older, she took to tying handkerchiefs around her chest in order to flatten her breasts.
Given all this, it’s not too surprising that under Olave Baden-Powell’s leadership, Guides would be an organization that would quietly buck gender conventions.
I wasn’t joking when I told my friend that my time in Guiding had been formative. There were plenty of people in my life who told me that girls could be anything, but Guides was the first opportunity I had to witness women doing literally everything — even the sweatiest, grossest, most physically demanding work. It was an absolute revelation.
I know that not everyone’s experience of Guiding was the same as mine. There is a lot to unpack within the history of the organization, especially when it comes to whiteness and colonialism. The first handbook for Guides had the cringe-worthy title “How Girls Can Help Build Up The Empire,” and while it would be convenient to elide over things like this, I obviously can’t do that. Like just about anything else from early 20th century Britain, Girl Guides has its problematic aspects.
But in spite of my complicated feelings, I suspect that I’m not the only one whose budding feminist practice was shaped by Guiding. In a world that frequently told me that girls are catty and mean and can’t work as a team, Girl Guides gave me real-life evidence to the contrary — and showed me a version of girlhood that I didn’t get to see anywhere else. It also taught me skills beyond setting up campsites and scrubbing filthy outhouses; I learned stuff like self-confidence, self-reliance and how to roast a decent weenie. Years after I left the organization, I continue to learn from its teachings on teamwork, friendship and and setting achievable goals (although sadly I no longer earn badges for completing them).
Never mind the fact that, the older I get, the more value I see in being a woman in sensible shorts who can competently wield an axe.