SAVANNAH — Recruited over tea at the mansion of a Georgia widow, the first Girl Scouts went on to earn proficiency badges for cooking meals and caring for babies. In a nod to their changing times, they also learned to shoot rifles and self-defense tactics such as "how to secure a burglar with eight inches of cord."
Now a century has passed and millions of Americans have taken the Girl Scout promise, sold Samoas and Thin Mints by the truckload and gone on to careers from CEOs to astronauts. As they celebrate their 100th anniversary this month, the Girl Scouts of the USA boast a record of progressiveness built on combining lessons in domestic know-how with outdoor adventures and technical skills aimed at teaching girls they can do anything.
Take 11-year-old Kathryn Hoersting from the Girl Scouts' birthplace of Savannah, who just got her cooking badge by making her family breakfast of hash with eggs. Next up: the "Special Agent" badge, which requires an introduction to forensic science and other crime-solving techniques.
"You get to work together on anything," said Kathryn, a third-generation Girl Scout whose Brownie and Scout vests are decorated with dozens of colorful badge awards. "It's just hanging out with your friends and doing something new and creative, something you love."
When Juliette Gordon Low rounded up her first troop on March 12, 1912, few women held jobs and only six states allowed them to vote. Low didn't set out to cause sweeping social change, to wage a battle of the sexes. Regardless, the Girl Scouts would help set the stage for the modern women's movement and gradually help bridge the gender gap.
Kathryn's grandmother, Amy Gerber, says being a Girl Scout in the 1950s gave her the courage to open and operate two conference centers in Arizona and become a grief counselor. The girl's mother, Wendy Hoersting, was a scout in the 1970s and became a nurse anesthetist.
"Girl Scouting from its inception was always forward-looking," said Mary Rothschild, a retired historian from Arizona State University who spent 30 years studying the Girl Scouts. "Although it was always rooted in domesticity, it always opened further paths to women."
And not just women of a particular class, race, religion or sexual orientation. The original Girls Scout troops from 1912 mixed girls who were Jewish, Protestant and Catholic. The first troop for black girls was formed a year later, and a year after that, troops were founded for girls attending schools for the blind and deaf. (Low herself suffered from serious hearing loss, and felt no girl should be denied participation because of a disability.)
Milly England was one of the earliest Girl Scouts, joining the Thistle Troop in her hometown of New Bedford, Mass., in 1914.
Now 111, England still has her Girl Scout ring with its emerald gemstone and recalls sewing her own uniform — a long-sleeved blouse with a blue neck scarf — that she wore on camping trips and to troops meetings, dances and suppers at a local church.
"I know we started something good. It was good for a lot of girls," England said. "... I wanted to belong to a gang always."
That history of hard-nosed inclusiveness has continued into the 21st century as Girl Scout troops have admitted not only members who are gay but, in at least one recent case, a transgender child as well.
It's a trait that's fueled some of the group's harshest critics and that's given it a distinctly different identity from the Boy Scouts, who have waged court battles to be able to exclude those who don't fit the group's Judeo-Christian mores.
It was during a trip to England that Low, a wealthy, childless socialite, became friends with Robert Baden-Powell, the former British Army officer who founded the Boy Scouts in 1907 to pass on the rugged frontier skills he had found lacking in young military recruits. Powell's sister had started an offshoot, the Girl Guides. Low became smitten with the idea and brought it to America with Baden-Powell's blessing.
"She believed it was an organization that was good for girls, but it was not necessarily trying to bring them to parity with boys," said Anastatia Sims, a history professor at Georgia Southern University who has spent years researching and writing about Low's life. "She is not feminist. She is not affiliated with any feminist movement. She does not talk in terms of any kinds of women's equality and does not seem to think in those terms."
The first Girl Scout handbook, published in 1913, encouraged girls to shoot rifles and gave instructions for tying up intruders. The original Scouts took camping trips and played basketball on outdoor courts shrouded from public view by curtains hung so that men couldn't glimpse the girls in their bloomers.
"She had girls in the outdoors, in the green environment, before it was cool to be green or cool for girls to be out there kicking balls," said Anna Maria Chavez, CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA, who credits much of the group's success to Low thinking well ahead of her time.
Barely a year after she started the group, Low moved its headquarters to Washington — it later moved to New York — and officially changed the name to Girl Scouts. Troops sprouted nationwide. Her original registration book shows 102 girls enlisted within just a few weeks. By 1914 there were 1,000 Girl Scouts, then 5,000 just a year later. By 1917, enrollment had swelled to 13,000, and today the girls number 2.3 million nationwide.
In 1947 the Girl Scouts published a new edition of their handbook with watercolor illustrations that showed white, black and Asian Scouts together. The book caused an outcry, especially in the segregated South.
An Ebony magazine story marking the Girl Scouts' 40th anniversary in 1952 noted there were 1,507 integrated troops mostly in the North and West and 1,634 all-black troops based mainly in the South.
"But even in Dixie the Scouts were making slow and steady progress toward surmounting the racial barriers of the region," the Ebony story said, crediting southern Scouts with holding interracial meetings and quietly urging white newspapers to drop policies that forbade publishing photos of blacks.
Decades later, Girl Scouts officials say they're still pushing boundaries and working to boost girls' confidence to be leaders in areas still dominated by men, such as in business and science. Hillary Rodham Clinton was a Girl Scout, as was Laura Bush. Journalist Barbara Walters, Olympic figure skater Peggy Fleming, tennis star Venus Williams and singer Mariah Carey all wore Girl Scout uniforms, as did at least seven astronauts, 13 current and former members of Congress and numerous executives and CEOs.
In Ames, Iowa, six Girl Scouts have applied for a patent after they designed a prosthetic hand to enable a 4-year-old girl born without fingers on her right hand to grip pencils and crayons. Their device, called the BOB-1, won first place in a contest for young inventors last year and earned them a meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House Science Fair on Feb. 7.
As part of their research, the six girls talked to prosthetics manufacturers, physical therapists and people living with hand or arm disabilities. The final product — made from plastic, Velcro and foam at a cost of about $10 — came about through trial, error and do-overs after the first prototypes broke.
"We made a bunch of different ideas," said 12-year-old Zoe Groat. "We used rubber gloves and cut them up and used pencil grippers, paper, glue and tons of tape."
As their ranks grew, the Girl Scouts had to fall back on their own resourcefulness after they outgrew their initial source of funding — Low's personal fortune.
In 1917, a troop in Muskogee, Okla., came up with its own moneymaker: girls would sell cookies baked at home with their mothers. It didn't take long for the idea to spread. By 1936, the Girl Scouts were starting to partner with commercial bakers to sell cookies across the nation.
In the decades since, Girl Scout cookies transcended their origins as a mere fundraiser and became an iconic American treat. Last year, troops across America sold a whopping 207 million boxes of Thin Mints, Tagalongs, Trefoils and other varieties, raking in record revenues of $760 million. That's about 90 boxes of cookies sold for every Girl Scout.
A booming cookie business is just another example of the difference between Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. In fact, though the Boy Scouts' founder gave Low her inspiration, the two groups have never had an official connection.
In 2009, the Boy Scouts of America announced its first official partnership with a like-minded organization serving the opposite sex — the American Heritage Girls, a Christian-focused group founded by former Girl Scouts volunteers who broke away in protest over what they saw as Girl Scouting being watered down by secularism.
The move highlighted how different the two scouting groups really are. While the Boy Scouts have been criticized for excluding gays and atheists, the Girl Scouts have taken flak for pushing inclusion beyond the comfort zones of more conservative Americans.
Rothschild, the retired historian, notes that in the 1970s the Catholic church pulled support from Girl Scouts in Philadelphia after local troops established a proficiency badge course dealing with womanhood that included information on sexuality and birth control.
In 1993, Christian conservatives were outraged when the Girl Scouts agreed at their national convention to allow girls substitute another word for "God" — such as Allah or Buddha — in the Girl Scout promise that reads: "On my honor, I will try to serve God and my country."
That change appalled Patti Garibay a Girl Scout troop leader for 13 years in Cincinnati who had raised all three of her daughters as Scouts.
"I was quite the student of Juliette Low and knew she was a woman of faith," said Garibay, who in 1995 founded the American Heritage Girls, which calls itself a "Judeo-Christian focused" alternative and has grown to 18,000 members in 45 states. She noted that the Boy Scouts' founder, Baydon-Powell, had once said: "Scouting is nothing less than applied Christianity."
Unlike the Boy Scouts, who took their battle to exclude gays to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Girl Scouts have a policy forbidding such discrimination that states: "We believe that sexual orientation is a private matter for girls and their families to address."
That policy was recently put to the test in Colorado when a woman sought to enroll her 7-year-old transgender child, who was born a boy but was being raised as a girl. The local Girl Scout troop at first refused to allow the child to enroll, but relented on orders from its governing council at the state level.
Some conservative groups were outraged and called for a boycott of Girl Scout cookies this year. National Girl Scout officials say the organization has no policy on transgender children and left the decision up to its council in Colorado.
"Most of the criticism about us stems from our history of openness and inclusivity, and we are very proud of that," said Michelle Tompkins, spokeswoman for Girl Scouts of the USA.
Girl Scouts leaders say that history began with Juliette Low, who was largely deaf and in the 1920s made sure Scouts with disabilities would be able to earn the Golden Eaglet — at the time the name of the Girl Scouts' highest honor — even if they were unable to perform all of the physical requirements.
Low died of cancer in Savannah in 1927. She had left explicit instructions that she be buried in her Girl Scouts uniform.