World Thinking Day is a time to reflect upon on the global community of Girl Scouting and Girl Guiding and to examine issues faced by girls everywhere.
This February 22nd, let’s think about scouting’s forgotten ancestor, Agnes Baden-Powell.
Who is Agnes Baden-Powell?
Agnes Smythe Powell was born on December 16, 1858, in London. She was the ninth of fourteen children, and the only surviving daughter.
She was two years old when her father, the Reverend Baden Powell, died. Her grief-stricken mother soon announced that she was changing the family name in her husband’s honor. Thus, Agnes Powell became Agnes Baden-Powell.
In life and history, Agnes was overshadowed by her gallant older brother, Robert Baden-Powell, born in 1857. According to the familiar story, Robert created the Boy Scouts in 1909. When girls clamored to become scouts themselves, Robert instructed Agnes to create a similar, but more genteel version, the Girl Guides.
Despite overseeing the formative years of Girl Guiding, Agnes has been eclipsed by her sister-in-law, Olave. Many people mistakenly identify photos of Olave as Agnes.
Her Involvement Made Guiding Appear Suitable and Proper
Public opposition to the idea of “Girl Scouts” always focused on the concern that such girls would be tomboys and not proper homemakers. This minister’s daughter had a full range of domestic skills to offer, but she had more to offer.
She was an accomplished musician, proficient on violin, piano, and organ. She also had a curious streak and pursued a range of interests, including cycling, swimming, and steel engraving.
According to one acquaintance:
Anyone who had come into touch with her gentle influence, her interest in all womanly arts, and her love of birds, insects, and flowers, would scoff at the idea of her being the president of a sort of Amazon Cadet Corps.https://peoplepill.com/people/agnes-baden-powell/
She Embraced STEM before STEM Was Cool
Agnes was fascinated by science and explored many dimensions. She was a respected apiarist, kept a flocks of birds, bees, and butterflies. She maintained a long friendship with radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi.
She was fascinated by astronomy, weather, and aeronautics. Agnes and another brother, Baden Baden-Powell (yes, not a very creative name) built and flew hot air balloons. They later designed very early airplanes.
Agnes was granted honorary membership in the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1938.
She Wrote the First Guide Handbook
Agnes wrote the first Girl Guide Handbook, which Juliette Gordon Low later adapted for the Girl Scouts.
She was Under-Appreciated and Pushed Aside
Agnes would later be remembered as an able administrator, but in her lifetime she put family loyalty ahead of assertiveness, often to her detriment.
She is remembered as the first Girl Guide, but her own brother doubted her abilities. Robert enlisted Agnes’ help only after being turned down by various first aid societies.
But the worst treatment came from her sister-in-law. Olave St. Clair Soames met Robert on an ocean voyage in 1912. Despite their 32-year age gap, the two married on October 30, 1912.
With Robert’s encouragement, Olave systematically assumed the leadership position held by Agnes and marginalized her new sister-in-law.
Olave began as a lowly county Guide officer in 1916 and before the end of the year had become Chief Guide. Agnes was offered the new, honorary post of President as a consolation prize. But the very next year, Agnes was told that Princess Mary would now be president; she would move down to vice-president. She was not happy, but dutifully stepped aside.
Olave explained her reasoning in her memoirs:
[Agnes] was a very gifted woman and extremely clever but thoroughly Victorian in outlook. She organized a Committee from her elderly friends [Agnes was 57 in 1916] … these ladies did their best but they were not really in touch with the younger generation; their ideas were based on the old-fashioned women’s organizations.Quoted in Proctor, Scouting for Girls, pp. 33-34
Agnes tried to remain involved in Guiding, but was regarded as a relic and nuisance at Guide Headquarters. She was well-received on a two-week tour of Canada in 1931, although Robert had written Canadian and US officials that her trip was unofficial. “Eventually,” writes historian Tammy Proctor, “Agnes was barred from Guide functions and dismissed from all official roles.”
While Olave argued that the shift was necessary to bridge the widening generation gap within Guiding, she had no such qualms about maintaining the generation gap between her husband and herself.
She is Buried in an Unmarked Grave in London
Agnes died on June 2, 1945, and was buried in the family plot at Kensal Green Cemetery in London. The Agnes Baden-Powell Guild has been established to raise funds to restore the family plot and to include Agnes on the monument. Members also maintain a Agnes Baden-Powell Appreciation Society page on Facebook.
The next time you attend a World Thinking Day event, tell them that Agnes sent you.
©2021 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian