What Happened to the Girl Scouts?

To the leaders of two million Girl Scouts the name Juliette Gordon Low has all the special meaning which surrounds the founder of any idealistic movement. The official biography of Mrs. Low in early editions of the Girl Scout Handbook recounts that in 1912 when she returned to Georgia from England she telephoned a close friend:

"Come right over, Nina, I've got something for the girls of Savannah and all America and all the world and we are going to start it tonight." Start it she did, and the 1947 edition added: "The concept of 'One World' had taken shape in her lively mind many years before the phrase became common. She was one of the first true internationalists."

Local Scout executives with copies of the new Handbook must have been somewhat bewildered when in August, 1954, they received a twelve-page pamphlet ordering a number of changes in the text. Conspicuous among the "corrections" was the striking out of the "one world" and the "true internationalist" description of Mrs. Low's ideas. Substituted was the single sentence: "The concept of 'international friendship' had taken shape in her lively mind long before the phrase became familiar to everyone."

This emergency pamphlet was the more confusing because an entirely new edition of the Handbook had been issued only eleven months before. Every six or seven years the Girl Scouts completely revise their manual. In between—ordinarily—the book remains the same during additional printings except for minor typographical corrections.

Recommended Reading

But this was a special change. It had taken something like two years to assemble and write the new book. Yet less than a year after the first printing, more than sixty changes were ordered. Some expressions were toned down, strong sympathies diluted, and a few plain facts erased.

This set more than one Scouting parent to comparing various editions of the Handbook. It was evident that there had been a growing nervousness about international friendship.

For example, the 1947 Handbook described a Scouting insignia: “. . . the trefoil rests on a flamelike base, the flame of the love of mankind, symbolizing the highest thoughts of international friendship." But in 1953 the new Handbook cut the sentence at "mankind." The old Handbook said, "Scouts and Guides all over the world are known for their willingness to help other people." In 1953 the "all over the world" was dropped.

The 1947 Handbook had said, "No one human being is all good or all bad. So it could not be true of any one nation, creed or race." The 1953 Handbook put it in the form of a question: "Do I believe there is good in every person and nation?" The emergency pamphlet ordered this changed to "Do I believe there is some good in every person?"

The pamphlet correcting the new 1953 Handbook was filled with instructions like:

"Page 86. Change the sentence beginning with Line 2 to read: 'Service is your way of making a contribution to your community." A few months before, it had read: "Service is your way of making this a better world in which to live."

Where international friendship remained, steps were taken to make it less noticeable by altering marginal guides and paragraph headings. The pamphlet reads, for example: "Page 218. Cross out the heading, 'The World Conference."

In September the League of Women Voters of the United States was mentioned in three places as a source of information on government. By August the League had disappeared from sight.

A section devoted to "My World" (formerly "One World") in September contained sixty-five lines. In August it was cut down to thirty-five lines. What came out were such things as the fact that coffee comes from Brazil, olives from Spain, toys from Japan, wool from England, watches from Switzerland. Gone were such sentences as "Cablegrams, telegrams, and radiograms have also united us into a family of interdependent nations." Twenty-nine lines in warm espousal of the United Nations on these particular pages were reduced to seven lines, cold and noncommittal. In the 100,000 Handbooks sold since the "corrections" of last August, there is in this section a completely blank page (Page 229) representing the thirty lines cut out of "My World." Presumably Page 229 will remain blank for the next five years, or as long as this (hinted book will be the official manual.

Throughout the changes there is a tendency to shy away from the specific, to avoid names and titles that might be taken out of context.

The Architecture proficiency badge requires a project on traditional American architecture, then includes an optional project that in September, 1953, read: "Locate pictures of the work of such architects as Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Mies Vander Rohe." It now reads, "Locate pictures of the work of some present-day architects . . ." No names. An article on learning to know people different from ourselves formerly said, “Start now by making new friends among those you think you do not like." It now reads: "Start now by making new friends."

What happened to the Girl Scouts? What was behind this pusillanimous behavior? The answer lies not so much with the Girl Scouts as with the climate of the nation. When the 1947 Handbook came out it was still respectable to be enthusiastic about world friendship—and to say so. But since then anti-intellectual and anti-foreign forces have become increasingly potent and vindictive. TheGirl Scouts is basically an international organization.  It was able to issue more than a dozen printings of the 1947 Handbook without significant changes But when the new edition was written in 1953, the uneasiness began to show in places, although in other sections of the 510-page book there were enthusiastic, even rhapsodic, passages on international friendship.

In late 1953, political demagoguery was at fever pitch. Rhapsody over brotherhood—or sisterhood—was more suspect, than ever. Powerful congressional figures demoralized entire governmental agencies, concentrating on those concerned with foreign relations. Many great institutions were attacked and some retreated. The constitutional rights of the President himself were under attack.

So when, in March, 1954, an article denouncing the internationalism of the Girl Scout Handbook appeared in an ultraconservative magazine and provoked letters to the Girl Scouts and remarks in Congress, the Girl Scout national headquarters went into a panic.

The author of the anti-Handbook article was a Florida television newscaster, Robert T. Le Fevre, who had quarreled with local Scout leaders. In his article he listed thirteen specific passages he deplored as "internationalist" or "collectivist." His article was circulated to others hostile to the United Nations, and similar letters of protest began to arrive at Scout headquarters in New York. Le Fevre is an extreme right-wing propagandist. A measure of his thinking is to be found in his theory of world history revolving around "The Labor Boss." In 1950, for example, he predicted the "complete defeat of American forces" as planned by "The Labor Boss" (unidentified), prepared by "labor-boss stooge, Prof. Owen Lattimore," and implemented by "Dean Acheson, a labor-boss stooge." in ordering resistance in Korea, President Truman, of course, was concerned only "with following the dictates of the labor bosses."

Three months later, on May 27, the National Executive Council of the Girl Scouts of America authorized changes in the eight-month-old book. The changes were for the purpose of removing those phrases or references which isolationists or extremists might construe to have dangerous political connotations. Most of the changes—over forty—were in the areas Le Fevre attacked. Of his thirteen specified references, the Girl Scouts took out twelve. They drew the line on the thirteenth: he had said that mentioning the United States Public Health Service constituted an endorsement of socialized medicine by the Girl Scouts of America.

On June 18 the changes were sent to the printer to be incorporated in the next batch of Handbooks, due for September distribution. But September was not going to be soon enough.

The Illinois Legionnaires were holding their annual convention in Chicago during the first week in August. They condemned the Handbook for its un-American qualities. Especially reprehensible, they said, was its mention of the United Nations Charter, "the handiwork of that archtraitor, Alger Hiss." Girl Scout leaders say they told Legion leaders before the convention vote that the Handbook already had been changed, but the Legionnaires condemned the Girl Scouts anyway and went on to vote overwhelming support of Senator Joseph McCarthy. The Scouts did not wait for the new printing in the fall. They mailed out the twelve-page "correction" pamphlet at once. The Illinois Legion (the national Legion refused to get involved) then rescinded its censure, saying that the Girl Scout Handbook had been altered to meet all the requirements of the Legion's Americanism Committee.

Girl Scout national headquarters instructed local leaders not to comment on the attacks, warned them to keep quiet about the changes. Having appeased the critics, they hoped the problem would evaporate. But because the Handbook still has many pages devoted to its international theme albeit toned down-the extremists are still attacking it.

Have the Girl Scouts themselves changed? Have they altered their basic ideas about international friendship and the United Nations?

Nothing of the sort. The Girl Scouts of America was and is a fine organization which still encourages idealism, good citizenship, and international friendship. What happened in 1954 was that the Girl Scouts in the forty-second year of their existence decided it was no longer safe to say so too plainly.