Jennifer Helgren is Professor of History at University of the Pacific. She is author of American Girls and Global Responsibility: A New Relation to the World during the Early Cold War (2017) and co-editor of Girlhood: A Global History (2012). She has written extensively about girlhood, youth organizations, and citizenship. Her book The Camp Fire Girls: Gender, Race, and American Girlhood, 1910-1980 (Nebraska, 2022) was published in December.
Two national youth organizations, Camp Fire and the Girl Scouts, celebrate their anniversaries in March. Camp Fire (called the Camp Fire Girls until the 1970s when it admitted boys) was founded on March 17, 1910–though it currently celebrates its Absolutely Incredible Kid Day (and birthday) on the third Thursday in March each year–and the Girl Scouts commemorate Juliette Gordon Low’s first gathering of girls in Savannah, Georgia on March 12, 1912. Throughout the twentieth century, newspapers in March carried stories about the girls’ efforts to give service, celebrate, and recruit new members in honor of their organization’s birthdays.
Youth workers started girl’s organizations to combat what they saw as a crisis in girlhood. Charlotte Gulick, one of the most influential in the network of reformers who started Camp Fire, observed that “changing conditions of our National life” presented an urgent need for a national organization for America’s adolescent girls. “Woman’s natural activities,” she feared, were “weakened at the foundation” as many economic, educational, and caregiving functions moved out of familial life and into public institutions. At the same time, Camp Fire officials estimated that twenty times as much recreational programming existed for boys than for girls. They maintained that girls could not simply join boys’ groups. Camp Fire organizers defined its task as training “the girls to be womanly just as the boy scout [sic] activities train the boys to be manly.” They did not seek to relegate girls to the home but to bring traditional feminine qualities into civic life. As founder Luther Gulick wrote, girls would learn “to serve their country and their times by consecrating to it the most precious quality of womanhood: to bring about more sympathy and love in the world.” The Girl Scouts, too, embraced domestic and practical feminism, teaching traditional tasks while expanding women’s roles in civics and outdoor adventure.
The organization’s birthdays became a means to think big about national service and learning. Eleanor Roosevelt announced Camp Fire’s 1934 project. The effort to do something on a grand scale started during World War I when Camp Fire Girls sent clothing to babies in Belgium and other war-struck countries. In the heart of the Great Depression, national conservation projects prevailed. During World War II, Camp Fire projects used military themes to “Fortify the Family” and “Serve by Saving,” and during the Cold War and Civil Rights era, projects promised to “Make Mine Democracy” and teach children to “Be Different Together.” Similarly, Girl Scouts’ anniversary weeks included parades, special worship services, recruiting efforts, and service projects.
Youth organizations, important sites for the definition of citizenship, shaped the history of girlhood and the history of the twentieth century. They told young people what their responsibilities and rights were as youth and shaped their expectations for the future, and they did so in gendered and racialized ways. Once established, these two organizations counted about five percent of American girls as members at any given time. According to a Girl Scout alumnae impact study, Girl Scouts alone likely reached over half of American women over their lifetimes.
Until the 1970s, the girls who joined were overwhelmingly white and middle class, but the Girl Scouts and Camp Fire were early adopters of inclusion policies. In the 1910s, they granted access to their programs to girls and women of all backgrounds, though this happened unevenly and often in accordance with local segregation policies and customs. Inclusive trends in American society existed alongside racialized notions of belonging. Thus, although Camp Fire admitted Black girls, immigrants, girls with disabilities, girls in Hansen disease centers in the Philippines, and girls in American Indian boarding schools, its leadership assumed that a universal American girlhood, based on white middle-class norms, existed and they stressed assimilation to it. Moreover, the common practice of appropriating stereotyped American Indian and Gypsy imagery magnified racial hierarchies and wove ideas about race into children’s daily lives.
Meanwhile, girls responded to youth organizations in their own individual, cultural, and generational ways. The Native girls who joined Camp Fire did so through assimilative institutions such as boarding schools, but they also used the “Indian Lore” theme to share their ancestors’ stories and traditions with one another. One Yakama group, pictured above, used Camp Fire’s Indian-like gowns to incorporate elements of Yakama dress into the Camp Fire ceremonial gown and blended their Indigenous identities with their Camp Fire membership.
Scholars increasingly recognize that to understand the history of girls and women in the United States, we must take youth organizations seriously. Camp Fire and Girl Scouts have been symbols of American girlhood and real spaces for girls’ self-expression. The meanings girls gave to their experiences in youth organizations shaped those organizations’ programs, and in that process, twentieth-century girls helped define American girlhood.