Girl Scouts adapted to the rapid changes that transformed US society in the 1970s.
At the 1969 National Council Session, Girl Scouts of the USA committed to creating a membership body rich with religious, racial, ethnic and economic diversity. The first step toward achieving that goal was reaching out to groups that were underrepresented in Girl Scouts.
Staff created specialized recruitment brochures, tailored to Black, Hispanic, Asian and American Indian communities. One initiative created a tracking and referral system to keep migrant workers in troops as they follow seasonal work throughout the year.
The Girl Scouts also focused on specific issues, such as pollution, civil rights, and hunger. Teens focused on the US government system when the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1971.
World to Explore replaced the 1963 program model, with five broad categories. The Dreams to Reality program expanded career exploration activities for all age levels.
But in my opinion, two words summarize Girl Scouts in the 1970s: Rockwood and Pants.
(I’m forgoing an opportunity to riff on Rockwood because I want to talk about PANTS.)
The hottest topic at that 1969 meeting in Seattle was uniforms. Responding to waves of requests from girls, GSUSA announced that it would remain a uniformed movement and update girl uniforms.
The most requested item? Pants. Active girls—not to mention their mothers—did not want to sacrifice movement for modesty. The 1973 Girl Scout catalog announced the arrival of PANTS, one option in a new, mix-and-match wardrobe.
Pants are now a permanent staple of the Girl Scout wardrobe. Now, I like pants as much as anybody, but I remain confused about the “uniform separates” idea. Personal choice and expression are fabulous, but “uniform” means identical, right?
The 1960s began with a bang, as the Girl Scouts celebrated its 50th birthday in 1962.
One year later, the organization dramatically reimagined age levels, badges, and more. The Intermediate age level split into Juniors and Cadettes in 1963. Intermediate level badges were divided between the two groups, with green borders for Juniors and gold borders for Cadettes.
For the first time in history, new handbooks for all levels were released at the same time. The new books featured a consistent design and were small enough to comfortably fit in a girl’s hand. (A second new-handbooks-for-everyone release came in 2011 with the current Girl’s Guide to Girl Scouting, which are the size of the average Daisy.)
Also in 1963, the small councils and Lone Troops in the greater Washington region combined to form the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital. The council grew again in 2006 and 2009, adding Frederick County, Maryland, and parts of West Virginia and western Maryland.
Travel opportunities flourished, as well. In 1968, GSUSA purchased 15,000 acres of rugged land in Wyoming to create the first Girl Scout National Center west of the Mississippi River. National Center West hosted thousands of girls for primitive camping, archaeology studies, and horseback opportunities until it closed in 1989.
The World Association for Girl Guides and Girl Scouts opened a fourth world center, Sangam, in Pune, India, in 1966. Traveling troops now had an Asian destination in addition to Our Chalet (Switzerland), Olave House (London), and Our Cabana (Mexico).
The 1969 National Council Session in Seattle, Washington, established the priorities for the 1970s. These included remaining a uniformed movement, creating a membership that reflected society, updating the Promise and Laws, and eliminating prejudice. The Council also approved an increase in annual membership dues, from $1 to $2.
The Girl Scouts received a Congressional charter in 1950 and a new name. “Girl Scouts of the United States of America” replaced the “Girl Scouts, Inc.” that had been used since 1915.
Girl Scouting thrived in the 1950s as the post-war Baby Boom meant millions of girls wanting to join. Membership grew from 630,000 in 1940 to 1 million in 1950.
Increasing demand for opportunities led to new programs. GSUSA launched the Green Umbrella campaign to consolidate councils, bring lone troops into the council structure, and streamline program delivery. Officials emphasized the new opportunities that would result, such as additional camp properties and better collaboration among Senior Girl Scout troops.
GSUSA developed new, narrowly focused programs that would make teen girls want to stay in Girl Scouts, especially the Senior Roundups. (Problems with retaining older girls? Some things never change.)
GSUSA responded to the enormous social changes that accompanied the emerging Cold War and defense buildup. One initiative focused on my hometown, Paducah, Kentucky, and the massive influx of families (and daughters) to work at a new plutonium processing facility.
There were some councils, mainly in the south, that still practiced segregation. But by the 1950s, many began to reconsider their policies and could no longer reconcile segregation with “For All Girls.”
in 1955, the Girl Scouts of Washington DC and Montgomery County, Maryland*, desegregated their flagship outdoor property, Camp May Flather, located in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia.
Camp May Flather’s desegregation came one year after the US Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, decision. It would take another four years before Virginia began to desegregate its public school system.
*The current Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital did not exist before 1963. Instead, the Washington area was dotted with smaller councils, with (almost) each county having its own.
This weekend marks the centennial of Washington DC’s Knickerbocker Theater Disaster of January 28, 1922. Most Washingtonians know that it is connected with the city’s largest snowstorm. But there is also an important Girl Scout connection.
Epic Snow Storm
After a snowstorm dumped 28 inches of snow on the city, cabin fever led some residents to hike to the Knickerbocker Theatre at the intersection of 18th Street and Columbia Road NW. Not all staff had made it in to work that evening, but the show went on, with patrons ready to watch the silent movie Get Rich Quick, Wallingford!
Above their heads, snow had been accumulating on the building’s flat, steel-and-concrete roof for days. The combined weight was more than the roof could bear. Suddenly, the audience heard a hissing sound. A faint cloud of white plaster dust beginning to swirl above the orchestra—or was it snow? It seemed to glimmer in the dark theater.
With a thunderous crack, the roof collapsed under the weight of the snow, falling in one giant slab. The roof had caught the front edge of the balcony and pulled it down on top of the orchestra and the patrons seated below. People sitting in the front rows of the balcony were catapulted from their seats into the rows below. The rear of the balcony remained attached to the wall, dangling ominously over the enormous pile of twisted iron and steel, concrete slabs, plaster dust, and audience. The downward force created a huge blast of air that blew open the auditorium doors and propelled some late arrivals into the lobby. The collapse lasted less than a minute.
It would take hours for rescuers to clear the debris, soldiers came from nearby bases to help. But they soon heard a clear voice calling out. It was a woman’s voice, it belonged to 26-year old Helen Hopkins, leader of Girl Scout Troop 8.
Trapped under four steel girders, a stunned Helen could hear the agonized cries of the wounded and dying around her and realized that she, too was seriously injured. Blinking in the darkness and struggling to breathe through the thick plaster dust caked on her face and trying to remain calm, Helen began to evaluate her injuries. One arm was pinned under the rubble and useless, and the other one badly swollen, but she reached out to her friend Freddie, and found his hand. She held Freddie’s hand until it grew cold as he succumbed to his injuries. The man who had been seated on her other side lay dead, as well. She saw other people lying around her, but all appeared motionless and silent.
Helen tried to remember her first aid training. All of her girls had earned their First Aide proficiency badges. Their handbooks spelled out what to do in an emergency, starting with “Keep cool. The only way to do this effectually is to learn beforehand what to do and how to do it. Then you are not frightened and can do readily and with coolness whatever is necessary to be done.” Helen took the deepest breath should could and struggled to focus her thoughts.
Helen believed she was in shock. She knew had to get her blood to circulate throughout her body, so she began pinching her body using her thumb and forefinger, although the two could hardly meet, her hand was so enlarged. If nothing else, the sheer pain that resulted gave her something to focus on and helped her to remain conscious. She could hardly move her head, as her long hair was caught on some piece of debris, but she was determined to live.
Rescuers worked slowly, but Helen could hear them inside the dark theater. Gathering her remaining strength, using the loud, strong voice she’d honed on troop hikes and in the church choir, she called out to the rescuers.
But help did not arrive immediately, so Helen continued to shout.
Finally someone answered Helen’s calls. Realizing that she had their attention, Helen began directing the rescuers to her location and that of people hidden under debris around her. She also sang song after song, trying to cheer other survivors, urging them to hang on just a little bit longer.
Finally, a patch of daylight shone onto Helen. After hours in the dark, she had been found. It took soldiers nearly four hours to dig her out of the rubble. Rescuers had to cut off some of her long blond hair that was tangled into the debris.
Helen was the first trapped victim to be removed from the theater alive. Soldiers carried her out of the theater on a stretcher and across the street to the Christian Science church. Weak and confused, she called out, “Mother, it was the everlasting arms that saved me!” She was loaded into an ambulance, which sped away, rocking from side to side over snow drifts, and taken to Garfield Hospital on Florida Avenue NW. Thanks to her clear instructions, ten other survivors were located and removed to safety.
The soldiers “could not find words in which to praise her courage and when they attempted to tell her of their admiration, she said that she was a Girl Scout and could do no less.”
Praise for Helen
Helen’s story quickly spread throughout Washington, as newspaper readers were eager to have a happy ending to balance the sadness of the 98 lives lost and some 133 people injured. She became a celebrity, with newspapers across the country providing updates on her condition and mentioning that she was a Girl Scout leader. First Lady Florence Harding sent Helen a large, autographed photograph of herself in her own Girl Scout uniform, with her dog Laddie Boy nearby. Mrs. Harding regularly sent bouquets to Helen while she recuperated at home.
Girl Scouts of the USA awarded Helen the Bronze Cross, a recognitions reserved for persons displaying gallantry, resourcefulness, and personal peril while saving the lives of others. She would be the first Girl Scout from Washington to receive the honor.
Lou Henry Hoover, then national president of the Girl Scouts, hosted the medal ceremony at her home in Georgetown. Each local troop was allowed to send one member, and all of Helen’s troop was invited. Troop 8 assembled in the Hoover’s garden for the ceremony, dressed in freshly washed and ironed uniforms. In addition to their leaders outstanding honor, the girls were allowed to hold their own Court of Awards ceremony at this time. Helen had recently married and was moving to Philadelphia, but the girls had a replacement– Mrs. Hoover.
Another Girl Scout Connection
Among the people following Helen’s story was her mother’s close friend, Carolyn Gangwer Caughey. Carolyn had amassed a considerable sum of money by buildings and managing apartment buildings. Impressed by the Girl Scout program, she decided to leave her entire estate to the Girl Scouts of the USA. The centerpiece of this gift was Carolyn’s country home–Rockwood.
But that’s another story, to be continued in the spring ….
For more about the Knickerbocker disaster, see the two books written by my pal, Kevin Ambrose.
Only six weeks left until March 12, 2022, the 110th birthday of the Girl Scouts of the USA!
In the 1940s, World War II defined activities across the United States, including the Girl Scouts. Most councils had already introduced a civil-defense component into their programs so girls were ready to help out on the home front. Within hours of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Girl Scouts of Hawaii rallied to clear debris and offer a range of support services.
The February 1942 issue of Leader magazine was devoted to the war effort. Each age group had a role to perform–and often they could earn a badge in the process.
High-school age Girl Scouts could join the Senior Service Scouts program and perform war-related service, such as airplane spotting.
The Traveling Women’s History Museum has a delightful 10-minute video about Girl Scouts in World War II. The museum began as a Girl Scout Gold Award project by Rachael McCullough of the Girl Scout Council of Eastern Pennsylvania. (The link above is to a Facebook page, scroll down for the video.)
Her video would make a great troop or service unit meeting topic!
Former Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs passed away on January 12, 2022. His Washington Post obituary cites his prosecution of the “Catonsville Nine” as one of the highlights of his career. Personally, I think his advocacy on behalf of the “Rockwood Nine” was instrumental in saving part of Rockwood National Girl Scout Camp.
The Catonsville Nine
The Catonsville Nine case dates to May 1968, when two Catholic priests and seven Catholic activists stormed a Draft Board office in Catonsville, Maryland, to destroy draft records. Sachs, then US Attorney for Maryland, successfully prosecuted the nine, arguing that, however just their cause might have been, their actions were illegal.
The Rockwood Nine
While it is hard to top the mental image of cat-burglar priests carrying out some Mission Impossible style caper, I can top that.
Imagine several dozen Junior Girl Scouts, all in uniform, marching into the Montgomery County, Maryland, Courthouse on January 29, 1979, to file a class-action lawsuit against the Girl Scouts of the USA. Two attorneys, brandishing giant, overstuffed briefcases accompanied them, as did an elderly woman who had been in the very first Girl Scout troop. The media had been tipped off about the procession, and photographers were on hand.
One of the attorneys, Maryland Assistant Attorney General Koontz, stepped in front of brandished microphones to explain the scene. Stephen H. Sachs, who had just been sworn in as Maryland Attorney General, had joined the girls’ lawsuit as the tenth plaintiff, citing an obscure law from 1931 that obligated the Attorney General to protect the interest of a charitable trust.
Rockwood had been the country estate of Washington philanthropist Carolyn Caughey, who left her considerable wealth to the Girl Scouts of the USA upon her death in 1936. Caughey created a trust that gave the Girl Scouts the 67-acre Rockwood immediately, while her other properties and investments would be liquidated and distributed to the Girl Scouts over time–provided the Girl Scouts used Rockwood for “character-building purposes.” When GSUSA sold Rockwood to a residential developer in 1978, a group of adult volunteers argued that the sale violated the terms of Mrs. Caughey’s bequest. GSUSA officials brushed off their inquiries, saying the national office dealt with councils, not individuals. Frustrated, seven adults and two girls (those in the photo above) went to court to block the sale.
Back to the Courthouse
When AG Sachs entered the fray, GSUSA could no longer dismiss the Rockwood opposition as a mere nuisance. Now they had to take notice.
The lawsuit unfolded over the next two years, in court filings, document requests, and depositions. Rockwood supporters created a formal organization, Friends of Rockwood, and raised money for legal fees through donations, bake sales, yard sales, and other grass-roots efforts. GSUSA tried as much as possible to ignore the Rockwood Nine and their attorney and communicate only with Sachs.
Both sides were hampered by poor-record keeping at GSUSA. There were plenty of rumors and legends about Mrs. Caughey and the acquisition of Rockwood, but neither side could come up with hard evidence. At one point Sachs even complained that GSUSA had ignored his requests for information.
Time to Settle, Folks
Ultimately, Sachs decided that neither side had a particularly strong case and that settlement would be in the best interests of all. The Attorney General’s Office approached the Montgomery County Parks office about turning part of Rockwood into a county park. The answer was favorable–provided that the deal include funds to improve the land and buildings.
By the time of the sale, Rockwood had grown to 93 acres.
The process of getting everyone on board with the compromise is too long for a blog post; the important part is that Sachs did. GSUSA sold the land, but had to pay the Rockwood Nine’s legal costs ($60,000) and seed money to Montgomery Parks (almost $1 million).
Today’s Rockwood Manor Park sits on 30 acres, and iconic buildings, especially the Manor House, remain. It is a popular venue for weddings and small group meetings.
Camp sales continue to be a point of contention between Girl Scout councils and members. I’m often asked what was the Rockwood difference? What advice can I offer?
I firmly believe the Rockwood difference was Stephen Sachs. His participation made the stakes much higher for GSUSA. With the Attorney General watching, volunteer complaints could no longer be ignored.
Girl Scouting came to Washington, DC, in June 1913 when Juliette Gordon Low decided her new girls’ empowerment movement needed a national headquarters. Although the headquarters moved to New York City in 1916, the Nation’s Capital Council in Washington, DC, is still actively involved in the programs. Girl Scouts of the Nation’s Capital chronicles the evolution of Girl Scouting in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia from 1913 to the present. Over 200 photographs will rekindle memories of making new friends, earning badges, spending summer nights outdoors, taking road trips, attending freezing inaugural parades, hiking along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, and participating in enormous sing-alongs around the Washington Monument.