Juliette Gordon Low established the first national Girl Scout office in Washington DC in 1913. She summoned Edith Johnston, her liaison in Savannah, to the capital to open the office, then hired a full-time local secretary, Cora Neal. As the movement spread across the United States, organizing and equipping new troops became too demanding for the two-woman office.
Low organized an advisory panel to monitor expansion through monthly meetings in Washington. The eight-womanRead more: The First National Girl Scout Convention
board included Neal, as well as actress Jeanne Eagles Coy; Gertrude Gordon, a 22-year old millionaire and close friend of President Woodrow Wilson’s future wife; debutantes Emma Bulloch, Sophy Johnston, Martha Bowers, and Alice Wainwright, First Lady Helen Taft’s former social secretary. These were shrewd appointments; including six prominent, young women would raise the profile and prestige of the new organization.
Mary Rafter, leader of the first troop established in Washington, chaired the new advisory body. She was a pioneer in the National Congress of Mothers organization (which would become the Parent-Teacher Association) and a vigorous advocate of education for girls and statehood for the District of Columbia.
But if the Girl Scouts were to be a truly national organization, its leadership should reflect the broad national interest.
Therefore, Low organized the first national Girl Scout convention, which took place June 10–12, 1915, at the prestigious Raleigh Hotel in Washington DC. The hotel, at the corner of 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, was barely one block from the Girl Scout National Headquarters, in the Munsey Building at 1327 E Street NW.
First Convention Creates National Council
With membership growing and expanding into more towns and more states, Low convened the first national Girl Scout convention in Washington DC in June 1915, three years after the very first troop meeting. The 51 delegates were tasked with giving Girl Scouting a firm legal footing and consistent practices, without sacrificing local autonomy. By all accounts, they succeeded.
The Girl Scouts have become a national organization! They have emerged from their chrysalis of helpless dependence, thrown aside their swaddling clothes of infancy, and now behold, they stand forth in all of the glory and pride of their emancipation, for they are now a real organization, an organization with a charter, a constitution, elected national officers, a standing and a brilliant future.Rally Bulletin June 1915
Mrs. Rafter, as president of the advisory board, presided over the convention, which adopted a constitution and bylaws and elected national officers. Delegates endorsed a federal structure whereby the national organization would serve as an umbrella for multiple, independent councils.
Delegates agreed to create the National Council as the primary decision-making body for the Movement. Papers were submitted to incorporate the group as “Girl Scouts, Inc.” in Washington DC. National dues were set at 25 cents.
The National Council was designed to ensure council input through regular national meetings (annually at first, every three years today). Local councils send delegates to the National Council, which would later be described as
the major link between Girl Scout councils and the national organization … and the basis for collaborative action in the development and delivery of the Girl Scout program.“The Democratic Process in Girl Scouting,” Leader (Winter 1998): 30-31.
Delegates selected Low for president, Mrs. Rafter as vice president, and Alice Wainwright as national commissioner. At-large members included the wives of the assistant secretary of agriculture, a Supreme Court justice, the Smithsonian Institute director, and the president of the Boy Scouts.
“When we started two years ago*,” Low told the delegates, “I hardly dared to hope that that we would succeed in becoming a national movement. … We now have a working machine of great power–North, South, East, and West–we have patrols registered in over a hundred cities.”
Rally at the National Zoo
After the business meeting, delegates drove to Pierce Mill for lunch at the tea house and then assembled at the National Zoo, where 250+ Girl Scouts, representing all 31 local troops, staged their first city-wide rally. Girls demonstrated semaphore, first aid, outdoor cooking and other skills. Three photogenic girls–representing justice, liberty, and peace–acted as living statues in a very popular patriotic tableaux.
Washington-based newspapers extensively covered both the meetings and the rally.
The exciting day ended with Mrs. Low presenting 45 proficiency badges to the girls. The recognitions, noted the Washington Times newspaper, corresponded to Boy Scout badges. The Evening Star gave a half page to the rally, complete with two photos, and details about the “efficiency” badges.
Another Washington Rally
The Girl Scouts of Washington DC subsequently published a 36-page booklet with the agenda, summaries of presentations, and a list of convention participants. The rally model expanded into a national monthly publication in 1917.
The booklet also included news from troops around the United States, a list of local commissioners (council presidents), a model constitution for councils, the Girl Scout law, and a list of uniforms, equipment, and prices.
With the longest membership roster in the country, the Girl Scouts of Washington offered tips for other cities and troops. Washington’s Troop 1, for example, had secured the city’s first summer camp by turning an abandoned bungalow into “Sunflower Lodge.”
The girls did all of the scrubbing, cleaning and even whitewashing, and then they set out to collect the flotsam and jetsam of family attics, storerooms and cellars in order to furnish it sufficiently to live in it.
Troop 1 used the lodge for several weeks, then rented it to other local troops.
Finally, the Washington Girl Scouts described how inexpensively the attractive rally Tableaux was assembled.
A sheet, bit of cheesecloth, a flag, two five-cent tin pans, a bit of silver cord from a candy box and two wreaths made from laurel leaves gathered after [the girls’] arrival at the park, were all that constituted the costumes of the little group that made one of the most striking pictures of the day.
The National Council governance structure has survived for over a century, continuing to shape the purpose of the Girl Scout Movement.
The 56th national convention convenes in Orlando, Florida, on July 18, 2023.
I’m packing my own supply of tin pans and silver cord, but I doubt Disney will let me forage for laurel leaves onsite.
© 2023 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, Girl Scout historian
*The first troop meeting was held in Savannah, Georgia, on March 12, 1912. A national office was established a year later, in Washington DC.