Girl Guiding and 'Ultimate Feminism'
by Cariad Martin
The wonderful world of girl guides can only be as feminist as the women running the show...
The Times recently interviewed Julie Bentley, the newly appointed Chief Executive of Girl Guiding, and she told them in no uncertain terms that she was proud to be part of what she dubbed "the ultimate feminist organisation." Having run the Family Planning Association for the past five years, Bentley specified to the Times that taking on the role of chief executive of Girlguiding was a natural extension of her work in sexual health.
This caused a mixed reaction amongst the feminists who had previously cast aside Girl Guiding as traditional and irrelevant. Some reevaluated their stance, while others rolled their eyes and sniggered that it couldn't possibly be feminist until they'd gotten rid of the sewing-type badges.
I've been volunteering for over a year now at my local Rainbows and Brownies, and while I couldn't give a monkey's what those cynics think about me, I do think they might be overlooking the significance of an organisation which is probably nurturing the next generation of loud, proud, blogging, protesting, patriarchy-smashing badasses, also known in my house as "my little feminist army."
However, I think the key thing here, and it's the reason I'm so over the moon about the appointment of Julie Bentley, is that the girls' experience can only be as feminist as the women running the show.
Julie Bentley. Photo: Andrew Crowley
Girl Guiding have been publishing results from their Girls' Attitude Survey, which asked girls between 7 and 21 their views on a range of topics from family and relationships to world events. The results are sometimes encouraging, sometimes troubling, and occasionally outright shocking, but they're vital in understanding how young women today see the world, and their place within it.
To give you a taster, 60% see feminism as a largely positive movement, with 68% of them strongly agreeing that women are judged more on their appearance than on their ability.
And their weekly meeting at Rainbows, Brownies or Guides is the ideal place to hang out with other kids their age without those social pressures. We actively avoid commenting on anything superficial - a new haircut, for example - and make a conscious effort to greet each girl by name when she walks in, and take the time to tell them when they're doing a good job or have a great idea, or are kind to one another.
We have one Rainbow, I'll call her Amber, who couldn't leave her mother's side when she first started, so heavily was she burdened by shyness. She's 6 years old but her speech is impaired because she spent so many years with her fingers in her mouth refusing to talk to anybody. Next week she will be singing on stage in front of all the parents for our Christmas performance. Her schoolteachers actually called her mum in to discuss how much she had blossomed since being at Rainbows.
I welled up when she sang her song in dress rehearsals, and I probably will again when she performs it on the night, because she is the perfect example of why these things can be vital, and how they can genuinely change a kid's life, and she is absolutely why I donate my time.
I could easily argue that there is something inherently feminist about a safe space for girls to develop skills and confidence, but as I said before, the girls' experience relies heavily on the women who take the time to volunteer. So if you're an awesome female who thinks she might have some nugget of wisdom to pass on to the next generation of awesome females, I strongly recommend seeing if your local unit could use a hand.
And don't think you have to be profound or experienced, I once made my girls' day by accidentally teaching them how to power slide. I cheered up another by telling her about James Dean after she was bullied for wearing a leather jacket and vest. All you're really doing is giving them experiences and perspectives that they might not have had elsewhere.
I'll let you in on a secret; I was actually a Cub Scout and not a Brownie or Guide when I was a kid. But feminism is such a big part of my life that I felt an organisation for girls might be the right one for me in my adult life, and there was a lightbulb moment when I knew that was the right decision.
One of the first activities I ran by myself was when I was asked to teach the girls about the story of St. George and the dragon. At first I was kind of disappointed, it had religious connotations, it was 'school-like', and offered an old-fashioned view of gender. But then I got my act together, planned an activity, and got to stand up in front of the girls and say this: "So, even though we celebrate St. George's Day, the story of St. George is clearly fictional, because in real life a princess could obviously fight her own dragon."