I spend a fair amount of my spare time volunteering with GirlguidingUK, specifically as a Brownie Assistant Guider. In fact, I spent my Easter weekend at Pack Holiday with seven other leaders and eighteen girls.
I’ve been a member of Girlguiding since I joined the Brownies at age seven. I enjoyed Brownies, as far as I remember, and mostly enjoyed Guides, although my problems with other teenagers did not disappear when we were at Guides. It did give me real experience of leadership, though, and the sensation of being capable at all sorts of practical things. If I learnt it at Guides, I know I can do it: tie a reef knot, light a fire, pitch a tent, wire a plug, lead a prayer, work in a team, identify edible woodland plants… not all of it directly useful in my ordinary daily life, perhaps, but no more useless than the things I learnt at school that I couldn’t do: use an electric saw, make things in metal, appreciate mathematics, play netball. To this day, my involvement in Girlguiding gives me chances to feel useful, to feel needed, to feel and be seen as strong and capable and worthwhile. It gives me a validation as a person which I don’t get anywhere else; even my academic work (which is often well-regarded and gets high marks) doesn’t make me a useful member of society.
I hope that the girls and young women I work with now find the experiences they have through Girlguiding as empowering as I did. I do think that there is a value in spending some time in women-only groups, and Girlguiding is such a space which doesn’t have the explicit political agenda of a feminist discussion meeting or reading group, though I personally value those things as well; I fear that that political agenda keeps as many women away as it brings in, especially when they are at a young age. I also think that there’s a value in spending time in mixed groups: my balance was that I was in a comprehensive school and a single-gender youth group, but there are many other ways of creating that balance. (A feminist friend once argued seriously that taking children into single-gender groups would reinforce their gender roles. I would argue that it need not necessarily be so, because my experience is that single-gender groups allowed me to break out of my assigned cis-gender woman’s role, and mixed-gender groups were those in which I was, for example, forced to do the washing up while boys watched me and played with knives. That said, I’m sure there are cases – the Scout camp I once visited where the young boys spent all their time playing and the cooking and washing up, things we would have made girls of that age help with, were done by middle-aged women – where the single-gender space reinforces gender roles.)
Overall, then, I think that Girlguiding and its sister organisations have much to offer my society which is good and in line with my feminist ideals. However, I also think that some aspects of our actual practice could do with reform, and that there are elements of our history which are distinctly problematic. For starters, Scouting, Baden-Powell’s original movement from which Girlguiding as exists today in the UK has evolved, was both located in a colonialist mindset, and culturally appropriative in offensive ways. Scouting for Boys, the original (1908) handbook of the movement, is classist and racist as well as jingoistic (the edition I’ve linked to has an excellent introduction which covers those points in more depth than I am able to here). However, we don’t teach from that book today, and I am much more interested in today’s movement: not least because I cannot change the past, but I can potentially alter our actions in the present.
The symptoms of B-P’s ideas and appropriations are visible today. I take song lyrics and other material passed down by word of mouth or tradition to be especially illustrative, and it is especially difficult to change and question. The Brownie Story, the ‘foundational myth’ of the section for members of GirlguidingUK aged between 7 and 10, was updated recently, adding some extra characters (including a girl with a non-English name), and making it clear that we don’t actually expect children today to go off into the woods at night. The colonialist lyrics of the Gang Show theme tune*, however, remain (“we’re riding along on the crest of a wave… and the world is ours”).
* In that thread, note that the very next post after the lyrics, a joke from ‘Bernard’, makes clear something about the underlying assumptions of the social atmosphere in which it exists (e.g. a “loin-cloth clad foreign looking burly bloke” must be a slave).
There are also clearly offensive songs in the Girlguiding singing tradition. I’m very fond of a song called ‘Red Men’, having learnt it in my youth: “We’re the men of the Old Dun Cow- How! All of us are red men, feathers in our head men, down among the dead men (mime cutting throat), Pow-wow! Pow-wow!” (I hope that the offensiveness of this doesn’t need explanation, but if it does, the phrase ‘stereotyping of Native Americans’ is going to be key.) I have heard it said that this is ok, so long as you know where you’re singing it and with whom, and that you’re being slightly offensive. I suspect that this means that the speaker thinks it’s not something for which she’s going to be punished so long as those who hear it aren’t offended or are too young to understand why it’s problematic. That she won’t be punished does not, however, make the action morally right.
In the UK, though, we’re unlikely to have any potential members in the Native American community to drive away. The problem becomes more pressing when in an area with a strong Asian community you are singing songs like this (I give it in full, as it’s short and an extract wouldn’t convey the whole problem):
I live in an itsy-bitsy housie,
I live on the third-third floor,
I take in a big amount of washing,
Frillies on the panties ten cents more.
I like chow-chow better than pow-wow,
I like pretty girl, she likes me.
Way down Honga-Kong,
Bigga man-a come along,
Take away my pretty girl,
I refuse to sing this song, though I’m currently struggling to come up with an age-appropriate explanation which I can give the Brownies about why. (For that matter, I haven’t yet managed to explain to my fellow leaders, who are still singing it.)
Why are there no British-Chinese Brownies in our Pack? The answer seems obvious.
If we did have them, though, I wonder if we would be able to deal with them appropriately. I met a British Afro-Caribbean Brownie once who was being told off for taking much longer than the other girls to colour in her pictures of people. After a few minutes watching her, I realised that it was because where the white girls felt that the colour of the white paper was just fine for everyone’s faces and hands, she was finding pens in different shades of brown and pink and colouring in every area of skin. Colourblindness, colour-carelessness, develops in white children at a very young age, and usually lasts throughout adulthood.
Only this weekend, I found myself asking a group of Brownies to prepare a Brownie’s Own, a short service usually including a little drama, a suitable song or two, and a prayer either of their own composition or chosen from a book. We have a few resources for this, which are both outdated (our songbook is Come and Praise, a fine work in its way but one which contains mostly songs they never sing at school any more), and religiously narrow: the two prayer books are called ‘Prayers for Children’ (on the twee side, and too young for Brownies), and ‘Hello Jesus’ (nicely done, age-appropriate, but unmistakably Christian). I did not feel comfortable handing any of those to the one Muslim girl who is currently in our group. (We wrote our own, with her full participation.)
As I said at the beginning of this post, I believe that GirlguidingUK has much to offer British society. (I suspect that offering it unchanged, perhaps at all, in other countries, especially former colonies, has a very different set of implications, in which I’m not well-versed.) Before we can really do that well and inclusively, though, we need to challenge some of the implicit structural and traditional racism which is silently embedded in the movement.
I’d like to end by noting that racism isn’t our only problem. We struggle to make it clear that it’s open to non-Christian members (though it is true non-Buddhist atheists and republicans cannot currently join without lying, as our Promise, the membership criterion, has us promise “to do my best to love my God” and “to serve the Queen and my country…”). We have not yet really addressed the issue of transgendered members, assuming in a haze of cissexual privilege that women just are people with female bodies. And we’re working on including girls and young women with disabilities.
(Tangent: I was once at a Girlguiding conference where we were asked on a questionaire what could be done to get more disabled members. The woman next to me suggested that we “take a hammer to the ones we have.”)
She was joking, but she was also onto part of an answer: this must be changed from the inside. Publicity campaigns won’t help if people are put off by what they find; and if they find something worthwhile, accepting, inclusive, useful, they will stay and bring their friends along too. I think I’ll start by editing my songbook and investigating multi-faith prayer books for children.
Edited 26/4/2009 to add: a very good paper on race in classrooms also happens to note that Brownies is restricted to white girls (page 6).