Nix on Partisanship

Girl Scouts of the USA strives to create conscientious future voters who appreciate the unique qualities of the American political system.

From the founding of Girl Scouts in 1912, girls could earn badges that involved learning about their government, laws, and elections.

After women received the right to vote 100 years ago, Girl Scouts stepped in to help anyway they could. Sometimes an act as simple as holding a baby while mother goes into the voting booth can make a difference in turnout.

There are clear limits on political involvement. The Blue Book–GSUSA’s collection of bylaws, policies, and the corporate constitution–states the following:

Blue Book, 2020 edition, page 20

Individual Girl Scouts may engage in partisan political activities, but only as civilians. They cannot appear in uniform, as that would suggest the organization has endorsed a particular candidate or expressed an opinion on a public issue.

A Little Too Active

Sometimes good intentions may get out of hand, as happened during the 1960 Presidential Election.

It seems that Intermediate* Troops 670 and 702 from Bethesda, Maryland, loved to do community service projects. When their leader, Mrs. Smith heard that the Volunteers for Nixon-Lodge headquarters needed help, she immediately signed the girls up. The field trip to 1000 16th Street NW in Washington did not raise any red flags among parents, as most were Republicans themselves.

*In 1963, the Intermediate level was divided in Juniors (grades 4-6) and Cadettes (grades 7-9).

A dozen girls, in their green uniforms, yellow ties, and jaunty berets, had a blast at the campaign office. They stuffed envelopes; assembled press releases; and filled campaign kits with buttons and bumper stickers.

Vice President Nixon’s press secretary, Herbert G. Klein called the Washington Post to suggest that there was a great photo opportunity happening at campaign headquarters. A campaign staffer had tipped off Klein and said the girls might be working at the Kennedy-Johnson office another day.

A witty local reporter asked the girls whether “some people might not regard Nixon’s defeat as a community service,” the girls giggled and confidently stated, “Kennedy isn’t going to be elected.”

The girls had put in about four hours of work when a telephone rang; the caller asked for Mrs. Smith. In fact, the caller was Helaine Todd, executive director of the National* Capital Area Girl Scout Council.

*Also in 1963, the National Capital Girl Scout Council and four other councils combined to form the Nation’s Capital Girl Scout Council.

Todd was a tad upset. She informed Mrs. Smith that “Partisan political activity is absolutely against local and national Girl Scout policy. ” Todd also declared that the girls could not count the day toward service hours. (That seems a bit over the top, in my opinion.)


CanStockPhoto, Inc.

Mrs. Smith, a relatively new leader, was “flabbergasted and aghast.” She grabbed the girls and swiftly exited. At the next troop meeting, she turned the experience into a learning opportunity, explaining what she had done wrong.

Of course, Nixon lost in 1960. Much could–and has–been said about Richard Nixon. But I must give the Nixon family credit for being strong supporters of Girl Scouts–before and after their White House years.

Both Nixon daughters, Julie and Tricia, were active Girl Scouts and future First Lady Pat Nixon was their co-leader.

Mrs. Nixon greets Cadette Girl Scouts at GSUSA Headquarters (Nixon Foundation)

Mrs. Nixon greatly enjoyed her time as honorary national president of GSUSA, welcoming girls to the White House and visiting the national headquarters in New York.

Since Edith Wilson in 1917, all First Ladies have been invited to serve as honorary national president. All Most accept it graciously and participate in unique ways.

Mrs. Nixon’s affection for the Girl Scouts endured until her death.

Pat Nixon welcomes Girl Scouts to the Nixon Library, July 1990 (Nixon Foundation)

The Nixon Foundation has honored her work with a special exhibition.

Check the GSUSA Blog for information about the current honorary national president and her involvement with Girl Scouts.

Or maybe not ….

©2020 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian

Pants! We Want Pants!

What issue topped the agenda of the 1969 National Council session?

Pants. The membership spoke, and they wanted uniforms with pants.

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. 

Official Uniform Catalog from 1963
Fashion Design, 1997-2011

Designing uniforms is a multifaceted process. The overall design needs to be visually unifying and reflect contemporary fashion without falling for passing fads that will shorten their appeal. The cut must flatter a wide range of body types, the fabric needs to be suitable for multiple climates, and the color palette needs to enhance skin tones ranging from very fair to very dark. Decorations and trims are kept to a minimum, both to keep costs down as well as to not compete with official insignia. 

Senior Uniform, 1960-1971

First up was the smallest age group—Senior Girl Scouts.  These high schoolers were still wearing the two-piece skirt suit introduced in 1960. Made out of a deep green sharkskin cotton fabric, the brightly colored uniform trim indicated the wearer’s area of concentration. Troops focused on International Friendship, for example, wore yellow ties and hat cords, Wing troops orange, and Homemaker troops turquoise. This iconic uniform, topped with an Overseas-style hat, was beloved by fans of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, but fell out of favor with the bell-bottom and suede fringe-wearing girls of the late 1960s. Girls had quickly nicknamed the suit the “Stewardess uniform,” but by now it was no longer a compliment. Besides, even the flight attendants had moved on to trendier styles. Seniors themselves had their own ideas about a uniform; they wanted pants—and mini-skirts, too.

After considering suggestions, designs, and even samples sent by girls, the National Equipment Service (NES) settled on two versions of a sleek step-in style A-line dress that buttoned up the front. For feedback, they took the uniform to the girls.

Manufacturers created samples in sizes 6 through 20 and shipped them to Rockwood National Camp and the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace in Savannah. Visiting Seniors of all shapes and sizes tried on the samples and completed feedback cards. They had a definite preference for one version and one shade of green, but indicated that they wanted heavier fabric, a belt, and pants. Designers made more revisions and presented the result to the National Executive Committee for final approval. NES was still not convinced of the need for pants, but they conceded defeat on the matter. 

Senior Uniform, 1971-1980

Ultimately, the girls were rewarded with pants in the same green cotton poplin fabric, but the semi-flared legs hardly qualified as bell-bottoms. The ensemble included a soft beret made of the same fabric, a tab tie, and a formidable green leather belt that was 1.5” wide with adjustment holes running the entire length.

But the most notable feature was the dress’s hemline—or, rather, the lack of one. After endless debates among focus groups and survey responses, GSUSA gave up trying to settle on the appropriate length. The dress was sold unhemmed, with a hang-tag reading: “The Official GS Uniform with the Unofficial Hemline.” If girls wanted mini-skirted uniforms, Headquarters seemed to say, let parents deal with the matter.  Many Senior Girl Scouts were accustomed to sewing their own clothes and turned the new dress into a short tunic to be worn over the new pants. Just how many ditched the pants once out their front door is unknown. 

And to really be mod, GSUSA created a line of hippy, crunchy-granola inspired casual pieces at the same time. Can’t you just imagine Marcia Brady or Laurie Partridge in these funky frocks?

GSUSA pieces for the fashion-forward Senior Girl Scout in 1971

Nope, me either. And if you look closely at the 1973 image showing the new uniforms, that spiffy green cape is marked “SALE,” although it doesn’t come through well in the picture. Guess these duds were a dud.

The other age levels received new uniforms in 1973. Instead of a single dress, Brownies, Juniors, and Cadettes each had their choice of five or six mix-and-match pieces, that included jumpers, pants, shorts, cotton blouses, and hideous polyester double-knit turtleneck bodysuits that were hot, itchy, had a stiff plastic zipper that grabbed your hair, and featured a snap crotch that perpetually pinched your privates. 

Catalog descriptions of the new clothing reflected the lingo of the time, emphasizing choice, individuality, and liberation:

1973 Catalog Copy Introducing New Uniforms

New space-age materials meant less wrinkling and less ironing.

The new styles included several pieces for each age level, creating another point of consistency.

Each level had a tie that snapped together. No more arguments about how to tie a neckerchief or which way the ends should point. The polyester, turtleneck bodysuit was high fashion at the time, not to mention indestructible and UNCOMFORTABLE. Can clothing cause PTSD? Because if so, these bodysuits would have.

The new Cadette uniform included the very first vest, instead of a badge sash. They were made from dark green felt, and some people mistakenly think they were homemade.

This week a new collection of uniform pieces debuted. So far, they are targeted toward the older age levels.

Hopefully GSUSA will never repeat the snap-zip-bodysuit debacle of the 1970s.

©2020 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian

Making New Friends, Again

Why is “Make New Friends” such a popular Girl Scout song?

Because staff come and go so quickly that we’re always dealing with someone new.

Four years ago, when Anna Maria Chavez resigned as GSUSA CEO, I wrote a blog post about “If I Were CEO.” I listed five steps that could be done to strengthen the Girl Scout movement. It was a popular post, and GSUSA used the framework for its own blog.

Now we are saying goodbye to CEO Sylvia Acevedo, and the points I made four years ago are still relevant.

One directly addressed the perpetual issue of staff turnover:

3. Invest in Staff Stability

Girl Scout councils have become pass-through workplaces. Few staff stay as long as two years, regarding the jobs as temporary stages in their careers. But younger doesn’t necessarily mean better in terms of employees; it simply means cheaper. How do we get them to put down roots? We could ask new hires to make a two-year commitment. We could also recruit from another demographic—current volunteers. Would empty-nesters, long-time volunteers whose troops have graduated, be interested? They are already  familiar with the program, so they would have less of a learning curve. We can’t build strong relationships and continuity with fleeting partner.

Another point asks you to consider your own communication style:

4. Promote a Culture of Collaboration

The various components of our movement must commit to improving communication, treating others with respect, and not going off to pout in our tents. This is OUR movement. It is up to us to find ways to perpetuate it.

APR23AR07

The old recipe for Brownie Stew applies in the conference room as well as the campsite: everyone brings something to the table—new ideas, hard-earned experience, and enthusiasm, to name a few. Just because an adult wasn’t a member as girl doesn’t mean they can’t contribute today.

We must eliminate the fear of being expelled or fired that intimidates leaders and staff into silence.

Staff must learn to value the contribution of volunteers—that means recognizing the hours they serve as well as the dollars they give. Both forms of contribution are equally vital to the future of our movement.

National, council, staff, volunteer, girl—we’re all part of the same big troop.

…But Keep the Old

Girl Scout careers seem to be getting shorter and shorter. Most of our early CEOs (or “National Directors”) spent a decade or more in one position. But now, programs are launched then fade away because the driving force has hit the road. Who is left to clean up the crumbs?

Past CEOs of GSUSA

The result of staff churn is an unfortunate feeling among volunteers that we can wait you out. Why listen to new procedures when we can be fairly sure that the presenter won’t be around for next year?

No wonder there are so many, many verses for “Make New Friends.”

©2020 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian

The Mount Rushmore Flag

How big is the largest US flag that you have ever seen?

Perhaps it is the one flown over the US Capitol? The famous “Star Spangled Banner” of 1814 on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History? There’s a car dealership near my House that claims to have the largest.

But for sheer size, the US Flags flown at Mount Rushmore towers over the contenders.

It’s one thing to observe an object from a distance, but to really appreciate it, you need to get up close and personal. You need to compare it to a known point of reference, such as your basic 5-foot tall, 12-year old American girl.

In 1990, a retired flag that had long flown at Mount Rushmore went on a grand tour of the United States as part of the US Interior Department’s “Take Pride in America” initiative. Nine 20×30 “Gettysburg Peace Flags” were also part of the tour. The nine had been dedicated on the Gettysburg National Battlefield in 1988.

Flag covers Lincoln before finished portrait is revealed on July 4, 1937. Note that work to create Theodore Roosevelt has just begun. (Rapid City Journal)

The giant flag went into service on July 4, 1987, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the massive US landmark. When the ceremony began, this flag covered the massive face of President Abraham Lincoln. Despite high winds, the flag was majestically raised to reveal Lincoln.

The flag was used for the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and the 1989 Presidential Inauguration. When its tour ended, the flag returned to South Dakota, where in 1991 it was used to cover the face of President Theodore Roosevelt, during a ceremony to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the dedication of that presidential portrait.

The exhibit arrived in the Nation’s Capital in 1990, where it would teach youth to take pride in their country, as well as its many cultural and natural resources. Local Girl Scouts were invited to participate in the largest flag ceremony of their lives, using this massive banner.

On Saturday, October 20, 1990, more than 2,500 Girl Scouts assembled at the Potomac Polo Club in Poolesville, Maryland, on the border with the District of Columbia, for the occasion.

The girls quickly realized that it would take nearly all of them to maneuver the flag into position.

The large flag was difficult to maneuver.

The Mount Rushmore flag measures 45 feet by 90 feet and weighs 300 pounds. Girls formed two rows to begin removing the flag from its storage case. In addition to the girls holding the flag by the edges, a contingent of small Brownies and Daisies walked underneath the flag so it would not sag or touch the ground.

The Girl Scouts progressed down the length of the polo field and stopped in front of a large, telescoping crane. The girls solemnly passed the flag, hand over hand, toward an iron bar attached to the crane. Once it was firmly attached to the bar, the crane raised it into position.

The Mount Rushmore Flag is raised to its full height.

The ceremony, organized by Thelma Glowacki and Stephanie Gonos, took nearly the entire day. Local Congresswoman Connie Morella spoke, calling the event a “wonderful display of woman power.” Local news anchors, the Quantico Marine Corps Band, the Coast Guard Silent Drill Team, a majorette and drum corps, among many, many others, also participated.

As the day came to an end, the flag was slowly lowered and returned to its case. The girls then formed a giant friendship circle and began to sing “Taps.” Finally, a bugle call sounded, and everyone silently left the field.

An emotional, patriotic day was done.

©2020 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian

Martha and the Stailey Sisters

No, it’s not a girl band from the 1960s. It’s a girl group from the 1910s!

My last post profiled Martha Bowers Taft, who began a Girl Scout troop at the Noel Settlement House in Washington, DC, in 1914.

Near the end of 1914, Martha married Robert Taft, son of President William Howard Taft, at St. John’s Church in Lafayette Square (and scene of protests this week).

My favorite part of Martha’s story is that her troop attended the wedding. The girls were mentioned by name in the plentiful news coverage of this enormous social event. Can’t you just imagine these little disadvantaged girls mingling with Washington’s elite?

Washington Post (October 25, 1914)

I thought some of the names seems familiar. The connection was something way, way back in my mind.

I was right. After a deep dive into our council’s archives produced two tintypes.

After a little cleanup with PhotoShop, I’m thrilled to present:

The Stailey Sisters!

I don’t know why Margaret, the fourth Stailey girl mentioned in the newspaper, was not included in the photo session. Alas.

But look at those proud girls in the Girl Scout uniforms! And they even brought their semaphore flags!!

©2020 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian

Who’s That Girl Scout? Martha Bowers Taft

The first Girl Scout troops were often an unusual combination of social classes.

The women who organized troops in a city could be described as “clubwomen.” They were upper-class matrons interested in social causes that could improve their communities.

Their backgrounds resembled that of Juliette Gordon Low, who brought Girl Scouting to the United States. To grow the movement, JGL reached out to her friends and boarding school chums and prodded them to start troops in their communities.

These women handled the administrative and financial needs, but many considered themselves too old to lead a troop. Instead, they turned to their daughters: young women who had recently `graduated from college and sought meaningful work, at least until they married. Their participation also gave the new movement a stamp of respectability that would help recruit more members.

Daughters were also nearer the age of the girls, who mostly were teenagers in the early years.

Troop captains (as leaders were originally called) had to be at least 21 years old and a 1921 survey found that most were under 25 years old.

Martha Bowers exemplified the use of Girl Scouting to bridge extreme economic and social divides in Washington, DC.

Martha, age 25, was the daughter of Lloyd Bowers, the former U.S. solicitor general. She had attended the Rosemary Hall School in Connecticut, studied at Bryn Mawr and the Sorbonne, and made her society debut in the 1909-1910 season.

The sudden death of her father in late 1910 left her extremely wealthy.

Martha’s travels, wardrobe and activities were avidly followed in leading newspapers.

In 1914, when the GS national headquarters was in Washington, DC., JGL appointed ten prominent women, including Martha, to a new Advisory Board.

Martha was also instructed to form a troop at Noel Settlement House, which provided community and recreational services to some of Washington’s poorest residents. The staff was particularly proud of their dance program.

The object of this social organization is to keep the boys and girls away from the vicious dance halls, of which there are many in the northeast, and to keep them off the streets.

Washington Herald (December 17, 1911).

Located at 1243 H Street NE, Noel House already had several Boy Scout troops. Those had been organized by Mrs. Richard Wainwright, who chaired the new Girl Scout Advisory Board.

Troop 4, “White Rose” was very active, participating in several city events that spring and summer. They held a May Festival at Rosedale park, dancing in simple white dresses and carrying garlands of pink roses.

But the most exciting thing to happen to Troop 4 was the marriage of their leader to Robert Taft, son of President William Howard Taft. She was part of a group of wealthy young women who were all marrying around the same time.

Washington Times (June 21, 1914)

The October 14, 1914, ceremony took place at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House. It was undoubtedly a highlight of the 1914 social season.

Observers were especially anxious to see her dress.

The girls of Troop 4 were also invited to the wedding. Eight of them sat in the balcony, beaming in their crisp khaki uniforms. 

St. John’s interior. Imagine Troop 4 leaning over the balcony railing to watch their captain’s wedding below.

Forty years later, one of those girls sent a letter to the local Girl Scouts, still vividly remembering the wedding and the troop’s excitement.

Martha stayed active in local Girl Scouting, but not as a troop leader. She explained the value of Girl Scouting in a 1918 issue of The Rally, an early GS magazine:

Martha and her husband divided their time between Washington and Cincinnati, as her husband was elected a US Senator and, later, governor of Ohio. They had four sons, but she never lost her love for Girl Scouts, evidently.

As a child, her namesake granddaughter was known to introduce herself as follows:

My name is Martha Bowers Taft. My great-grandfather was President of the United States, my grandfather was a United States Senator, my daddy is Ambassador to Ireland, and I am a Brownie.

https://ivanmisner.com/tag/martha-bowers-taft/

©2020 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian

Clara Lisetor-Lane and the Girl Scouts of America

Please, never, ever, say “Girl Scouts of America” in front of me. Just don’t.

Why? BECAUSE IT IS WRONG. It falls on my editor-ears like nails on a blackboard.

I am a proud, lifetime member of the Girl Scouts of the USA, not some rogue “Girl Scouts of America” group. If you want to be ultra correct, it is Girl Scouts of the United States of America. That is the name printed on our Congressional Charter.

Cover of Leader Magazine, October 1950

Prior to that document, the formal name was “Girl Scouts, Inc.” That name was used when the movement incorporated in Washington, DC, in 1915. That’s how it appeared on early versions of the Girl Scout Constitution and By-Laws. That’s how it appeared on letterhead.

Letterhead from 1944

Actually some letterhead from the 1940s uses “GSUSA.” Perhaps that was purchased in advance of the charter announcement?

Please, be accurate. You’d get testy too if someone constantly got your name wrong.

But there’s another, even more important reason. There really was an actual “Girl Scouts of America.”

Journalist Clara Lisetor-Lane insisted that she had created the “Girl Scouts of America” in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1910; two years before Juliette Gordon Low’s first troop in Savannah.

Lisetor-Lane seemed to prefer working on publicity rather than recruitment. Newspapers of the era report her arrival in towns to organize troops, but no membership numbers were given.

Her program would encourage housekeeping and the outdoors. But some behavior was decidedly not for her Girl Scouts:

Sacramento Star, August 11, 1911.

In June 1911, her Girl Scouts of America, a few self-described “Girl Guides” and the Camp Fire Girls merged to become “Girl Pioneers of America.” The thoroughness of that merger is unclear; reports of the component organizations continued into 1912.

Excerpt from Chicago Tribune, April 29, 1924

Lisetor-Lane eventually took up other causes. She founded “Crusaders for Decency,” group that promoted “clean literature and films.”

But she never renounced her claim to starting the Girl Scouts.

Lisetor-Lane even crashed the 1924 Girl Scout national convention and challenged Low to met with her. (She didn’t.)

Lisetor-Lane went to her grave in 1960 insisting that Juliette Gordon Low had stolen her idea.

When the Girl Scouts of the USA celebrated its 50th birthday in 1962, the story of Clara Lisetor-Lane was revived in her home town. A few former members came forward and a Des Moines Register article was picked up by other newspapers.

Although Clara certainly would have been pleased by the renewed interest in her organization, I can only imagine her horror if she had seen how it appeared in the Moline, IL, Dispatch.

©2020 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian

Surviving the Big Trip

Surviving the Big Trip

Many Girl Scout troops spend several years working toward a “Big Trip.”

Often it is to one of the World Centers, located in London, Switzerland, Mexico, and India. Perhaps the destination is New York City, Washington DC, or Savannah, Georgia.

The Trip guides badgework, fundraising, camping and field trips that gradually build skills and cooperative behavior.

Planning a Big Trip to Washington DC, from Rockwood Film Strip

For the troop leaders, excitement is tempered by anxiety. How do you take twenty or so girls to the other side of the country; or the world?

(Plus, Girl Scout regulations specify that you must bring home the same number of girls that departed with you. Same number, I suppose you could swap some girls. Or at least threaten to.)

But relax, other volunteers and staff members will help you prepare the girls and yourself. At one time, trip plans had to be approved by the local Girl Scout council.

The Big Trip will make memories that last a lifetime, most of them good!

So, in a belated nod to Leader Appreciation Day, here is 1955 poem composed by a New York leader who took 64 seventh graders on a three-day trip to Washington, DC. And she survived!

Washington 1955 (Leaders’ Ditty)

Washington when Spring is here, to some may seem to be
A gay time, a play time, a time that’s fancy free.

With the blossoms and the buildings and the beauty of the city
To wander o’er and ponder o’er; and it really seems a pity

Or so you’d think, to have to steer wherever you may go
A gaggle of, or straggle of, Girl Scouts both fast and slow.

How very wrong such thoughts would be, the girls add to the fun,
But have no doubts, 64 Girl Scouts can keep you on the run.

They lose their buddies, sing strange songs and roam far and near
And history is a mystery to most of them I fear.

Senior Girl Scouts at Mt. Vernon, from Rockwood filmstrip

They stroll around Mount Vernon, while you revel in it too,
The FBI stands way high in their list of things to view.

Memorials and monuments and museums, where they see
Two-headed babies, gems of rubies – strange things you will agree.

But those they rank as equal to the homes of famous men,
Or the Capitol. They lap it all up – want to go again.

But see these green-clad forms stand still when the Guard is changing o’er
Way, that’s a sound of girls you’re proud of, now and evermore.

And though they give you headaches, if you’re honest, you must say
You’re glad you went, not sad you went, and you loved just every day.

Heading Home, 1950s (Rockwood Collection)

©2020 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian

Girl Scout Cookies, 1957

Girl Scout Cookies, 1957

It’s Girl Scout Cookie time in the Nation’s Capital, as well as around the country.

Troops will still deliver in person, like these girls from Fairfax County Virginia in 1957, or they can arrange to mail them to you.

Fairfax Virginia Girl Scouts hit the road to deliver cookies in 1957 (GSCNC archives)

Can’t wait that long? Enter your Zip code on the Girl Scouts of the USA website to locate a booth near you!

©2020 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian