In Every Girl Scout Cookie, a Dash of Idealism

Girl Scout founder Juliette Gordon Low with a parrot. i i

hide captionFounder of the Girl Scouts of America, Juliette Gordon Low (1860-1927). Known as Daisy, Gordon Low organized the first troop in her hometown of Savannah, Ga., in 1912.

Helen North/Getty Images
Girl Scout founder Juliette Gordon Low with a parrot.

Founder of the Girl Scouts of America, Juliette Gordon Low (1860-1927). Known as Daisy, Gordon Low organized the first troop in her hometown of Savannah, Ga., in 1912.

Helen North/Getty Images

As the Trefoils, Thin Mints and Samoas crumble in your mouth this Girl Scout cookie season, instead of lamenting the calories, think of the lofty ideals behind the creation of the organization causing your guilty pleasure: leadership training and community service.

Before the cookies and green uniforms, the Girl Scouts — which was founded in 1912 by Juliette Gordon Low — helped young girls learn how to develop self-reliance and resourcefulness through exposure to the outdoors and engagement in their communities.

Gordon Low, a widow and native of Savannah, Ga., decided to start the organization after meeting Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, while traveling in Europe. Gordon Low, who was deaf, worked with the Girl Guides in Scotland, then decided to take the idea back to America. She returned to her hometown and organized the first meeting of what would eventually become Girl Scouts of the USA.

"I've got something for the girls of Savannah, and all of America, and all the world, and we're going to start it tonight!" Gordon Low told a friend on her return to the states.

The first troop consisted of 18 girls; Gordon Low's niece, Margaret, signed on as the first registered member. A skilled painter and sculptor, Gordon Low encouraged her young charges to prepare to be homemakers but to also consider that they might lead professional lives. She urged them to engage in their community; in those early days, Gordon Low and her troop members helped with the war effort in their community. They learned about food production and conservation and worked in hospitals. They also baked and sold cookies to help pay for their activities.

By 1920 there was a troop of physically challenged girls, a fundraising plan, a national director, a training program for troop leaders and a troop of African-American girls. The organization would later desegregate its troops.

Members could earn more than 25 badges, which Gordon Low called "a symbol that you have done the thing it stands for often enough, thoroughly enough, and well enough to be prepared to give service in it."

"You wear the badge to let people know that you are prepared and willing to be called on because you are a Girl Scout," Gordon Low said.

During its first eight years, Girl Scouts Inc. grew to nearly 70,000 members nationwide. Before Gordon Low died from breast cancer in 1927, she saw membership grow to 200,000. The organization also extended its reach to China, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Syria, allowing American girls living there to participate. A radio troop was started in Pittsburgh; it partnered with station KDKA to broadcast the local meeting every Monday. A Native American troop formed in central New York.

Girl Scouts stepped up during the Depression, leading community relief efforts and gathering food for the poor. The group also established the Helen Keller Scholarship to help train leaders to work with blind girls. During World War II, many troops taught women survival skills and operated bicycle courier services.

In 1956, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described the organization as a "force for desegregation"; in 1969, the Girl Scouts launched a nationwide project to help support civil rights and fight against prejudice. A few years later, in 1975, the first African-American national president took the helm of the Girl Scouts.

Throughout its existence, Girl Scouts has received many accolades — in 1981, corporate management guru Peter Drucker declared it the best-run organization in America.

"The Girl Scouts help youngsters become confident, capable young women who respect themselves and other people," Drucker wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 1989.

In recent years, Girl Scouts has continued its legacy of community outreach: It's created mother-daughter prison visitation programs, promoted an anti-drug campaign, encouraged young people to be active and launched a literacy program. But the group has never been able to attract more than 10 percent of American girls to join its ranks.

On Tuesday, the organization appointed its first chief marketing officer in an effort to transform the organization to meet the needs and changing interests of girls in the 21st century.

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