When it was founded in 1912, the Girl Scouts consisted of 18 members in a single troop. Today, the youth organization counts millions of girls and women among its ranks and among the most well-known and influential non-profits in the entire world. Some of the most famous and successful women executives, athletes, politicians, artists, academics, and spiritual leaders were Girl Scouts in their youth.
For much of America, January signals the start of the annual ritual of stockpiling the Girl Scouts' famous cookies at the booths that pop up every year at grocery stores, schools, and countless other places. Thin Mints, Samoas, and the rest can be found in tens of millions of households—in fact, Americans buy more Girl Scouts cookies than they do Oreos. Selling cookies, however, is only a means to an end.
The founding principles of the Girl Scouts are not about cookies; they're about girl power. Character, self-reliance, honor, and self-respect are the foundational concepts, and the organization's founder sought to empower, prepare, and educate girls nearly a decade before women were even allowed to vote. The Girl Scouts exposes girls to outdoor activities they likely wouldn't otherwise encounter, as well as to supplementary education in fields like science, technology, engineering, and math. Along the way, Girl Scouts pursue badges and other merit awards, learn critical life skills, participate in civic engagement, meet lifelong friends, and, perhaps most importantly, have lots of fun in a safe place.
March 12 is National Girl Scout Day, which makes this a perfect time to learn more about the Girl Scouts, a group that has endured through the generations and molded tens of millions of American women. Here's a look at one of the most iconic organizations in America, how it got started, what they do, how they learn, who they help, and how they've managed to remain a part of the American consciousness for more than a century.
You might also like: 30 major moments in Boy Scouts history
It's a common misconception that the Girl Scouts are an offshoot of the Boy Scouts. The two organizations were scouting movement pioneers in the early 20th century, and they have existed side by side through the current day. They are also rooted in similar philosophies and principles, but they are separate organizations and are not affiliated with each other.
Not only are the Girl Scouts separate from the Boy Scouts, but the two organizations are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute. When the Boy Scouts in 2018 began admitting girls into its previously gender-segregated troops, they dropped the "Boy" and just used "Scouts" for recruiting purposes. The Girl Scouts filed suit alleging that this change dilutes the Girl Scouts brand, creates confusion, and hurts recruiting efforts.
Born in 1860, Georgia native Juliette Gordon Low was a trailblazing advocate for the full inclusion of girls and women in a what was then an America run by men. In 1912, Low had a fateful meeting with Sir Robert Baden-Powell, the legendary British military hero and founder of the Boy Scouts. The encounter inspired Low to create the Girl Scouts, an organization that would defy not only gender conventions of the era, but also customs dealing with race, ethnicity, and physical ability.
Low remains the grandest figure in Girl Scout history and tradition. The Juliette Low World Friendship Fund finances scouting projects for women and girls across the world. Buildings and schools are named after her, monuments have been erected in commemoration of her work, and in 1948, she got her very own 3-cent stamp.
It's hard to imagine that anyone who has heard of the Girls Scouts has not also heard of Girl Scout Cookies. The Girl Scouts' most enduring symbol was born in Muskogee, Okla., in 1917 when the Mistletoe Troop baked cookies and sold them in the high school cafeteria to raise money for Girl Scout activities.
Every year, more than a million Girl Scouts sell about $800 million worth of their famous cookies; 50 million American homes wind up with at least one box in their kitchens. Every single one of those cookies is made by two baking companies: Little Brownie Bakers and ABC Bakers. In 1948, during a post-war Girl Scouts boom, 20 bakers were licensed to sell Girl Scout Cookies, but the process was slowly streamlined and consolidated.
A Thin Mint always contains 40 calories and always costs 16 cents, but in Minneapolis, they're richer and the coating is smoother than the ones you'd get in Austin. Since the two licensed bakers use different recipes and even packaging, Girl Scout Cookies look and taste different from region to region, and sometimes, even from locality to locality.
Today, there are 12 varieties of Girl Scout Cookies. In the 1950s, the Girl Scouts graduated from three cookie options to four. By 1982, the four remaining licensed bakers produced up to seven varieties, with three mandatory and four optional. By the 1990s, low-fat and sugar-free options were counted among the eight cookie types produced by the two remaining licensed bakers.
Americans gobble up 200 million boxes of Girl Scout Cookies a year, and every box sold helps to pay for Girl Scout activities while also giving a hands-on lesson in real-world entrepreneurship to America's next generation of women business owners. Among them all, however, one scout stands tall above the rest. In 2017, Oklahoma City Girl Scout Katie Francis broke the six-figure mark when she brought her career cookie sales to 100,100, earning her the lifetime record in Girl Scout Cookie sales.
When it comes to shaping America's girls, few organizations have the reach of the Girl Scouts. A full 50 million American women were Girl Scouts during childhood.
Some of the most accomplished, successful, and influential women in the country are Girl Scouts alumni. Nancy Reagan was a Girl Scout, as were Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Pat Nixon, Michelle Obama, Ethel Kennedy, and Tipper Gore. Gwyneth Paltrow was a Girl Scout, as were Lucille Ball, Dakota Fanning, Taylor Swift, Barbara Walters, Katie Couric, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. They are just a few of the so-called Famous Formers, and they're scattered among the highest echelons of the government, the military, the worlds of arts and entertainment, sports, science, education, and business.
When people think of Girl Scouts, cookies and camping usually come to mind. While outdoor activities and civic engagement are still key components of Girl Scout life, the program puts a heavy focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. Exposing girls to STEM studies early works toward a goal first set by Juliette Gordon Low: preparing girls for success and independence as women. There are several STEM-related badges for Girl Scouts to pursue.
The Girl Scouts maintains a Public Policy and Advocacy Office in Washington D.C. The office works with both Congress and the White House to push a legislative agenda that promotes opportunities for girls and women.
The Girl Scouts is a secular organization that doesn't promote a particular religion, but it does encourage girls to apply their religious beliefs to the principles of scouting and vice versa. Several faith groups participate in the Girl Scouts' Religious Recognition program. More than 500,000 Girl Scouts are Roman Catholic, and the Catholic Church has maintained a partnership with a Girl Scouts for more than 100 years.
The official Girl Scouts acronym G.I.R.L. represents the character traits the organization has long worked to develop in its young members. G.I.R.L. stands for: go-getter, innovator, risk-taker, leader.
The Girl Scout Promise is a vow to serve God and country—although scouts can substitute the word "God" to comply with their individual beliefs—to help people, and to live by the Girl Scout Law. The Girl Scout Law deals with character traits like honesty, compassion, courage, and strength, as well as actions like respecting others and using resources wisely.
More than 100 councils organize Girl Scout groups and troops across the United States, but it's also an international organization. Troops and groups are active in at least 92 countries, and the Girl Scouts are part of a larger scouting network that includes 10 million girls in 146 countries.
Like the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts enjoy the official endorsement of the United States government. Congress chartered the organization on March 16, 1950.
In the United States today, 2.5 million Americans identify as Girl Scouts. About 1.7 million of them are girl members, and 750,000 are adult volunteers.
As a Georgia-born daughter of a Confederate Civil War veteran, Juliette Gordon Low knew that mandatory integration would doom the Girl Scouts to being a regional organization, so she left the decision to include or reject African-American girls up to state and local councils. African-American girls were part of the third troop ever formed in 1913, while the first all-black troop was founded in 1917 and the first black troop in the South emerged in 1932. By the 1950s, nationwide integration was in full swing. Dr. Martin Luther King called the Girl Scouts "a force for desegregation." The Boy Scouts, by comparison, didn't start desegregating in the South until 1974.
Feb. 22 has been a special day for Girl Scouts everywhere since 1926. That's the year that World Thinking Day was launched at the Fourth International Conference of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS), the organization that represents scouting groups for girls worldwide. On World Thinking Day, Girl Scouts and Girl Guides, as they're called in much of Europe, get together in 150 different countries and perform activities that promote global improvement. They also pause to reflect on the movement, its founders, and the roughly quarter-billion Girl Scouts and Girl Guides that came before them.
Among the most important and recognizable women in politics were Girl Scouts first. In 2009, First Lady Michelle Obama accepted the position of honorary national president of the Girl Scouts. The tradition of First Ladies assuming that role dates back Lou Henry Hoover in 1929.
In 1987, the Girl Scouts turned 75, and the U.S. Postal Service honored the organization with its very own stamp. The 22-cent postage stamp features 14 Girl Scout badges over a background that is the same color as the Girl Scouts sash.
Although the Girl Scouts is more than 100 years old, the organization's march into the modern era has not softened its fascination with and reverence for Juliette Gordon Low. Her birth home in Savannah, Ga., is to this day known simply as "the Birthplace." Designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1965, "the Birthplace" is the Girl Scouts First Headquarters building, and it houses a museum and a shop.
Born at the start of the Civil War, Juliette Gordon Low died of cancer in 1927, but she left the world a much different place than she found it—the Girl Scouts grew from 18 members to 165,000 during her lifetime. Her life's work was represented in the uniform she wore, and when she died, she was buried in her Girl Scouts uniform. In her pocket was a telegram from the Girl Scouts USA national officers that read, "You are not only the first Girl Scout, but the best Girl Scout of them all.”