How the Girl Guides changed for the better

Being a Girl Guide was once all about duty, self-denial and WI-style homecrafts – and Liz Hoggard doesn't remember all her years in blue uniform fondly. But a century after its birth, the movement has changed for the better
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Emma Thompson and Kate Silverton loved it. Even Kate Moss turned up every week. It's the country's largest female movement, involving more than half a million girls and women. So why do I, a feminist, still have such a love-hate relationship with the Guides?

Today Girlguiding UK, which celebrates its centenary this year, presents itself as a liberal, modern organisation for young women. It's no longer just about "homemaking" (jams, hospital corners) and "hostessing". Gone are such archaic qualifications as the laundress badge, where you had to discuss starches and detergents, or the minstrel's badge, where you had to play the national anthem from memory. These days their annual Big Gig features bands including Girls Aloud, Pixie Lott and The Saturdays. When Scouting for Girls appeared at 2008's Birmingham gig, they sent the crowd wild by telling them, "We're your band!"

According to Liz Burnley, the silver-haired Chief Guide: "What makes us so popular today is that we put girls in the lead in everything – making decisions, shaping what we do and speaking out on issues that are important to them."

Back in the mid-Seventies when I was a Guide, however, it seemed like one long church parade. The emphasis was on duty and self-denial. The uniform was quasi-militaristic – a dark-blue tunic shirt and cross-over tie. The dreaded hat – a navy air-hostess number – had to be worn with the Guide badge placed directly above the left eye. Sizes were unforgiving. Larger girls burst their shirts. Tall Guides like myself ended up in obscenely short skirts. Flaky, late (my trefoil badge unpolished), I was never going to be a star. Camp – the very word still sends shivers down my spine – was torment for an unsporty teen. My kindling never lit. I was hopeless at making gadgets. And worst of all, if you didn't attend Sunday church, you had to clean out the latrines.

My friend Mary, an East Yorkshire Guide in the Eighties, shares my horror. "I remember dropping the contents of a chemical toilet on my foot, and getting so desperate for a wee that I wet myself in the long queue of Brownies waiting to use the solitary toilet tent after a long hike. I also remember making lots of camping equipment, such as washing-up bowl stands (what was wrong with a table?), by lashing multitudes of sticks together. I really hope today's Guides aren't wasting their time on such tedious, pointless grunt work."

Guide meetings in the local church hall would start with a roll-call and then three girls would put the flag up, or "present the colours" in Guidespeak. After company inspection, the group leaders would check we had the correct knot in our ties, that our shoes, hands and nails were clean. Even the contents of our pockets were checked. It was like Fight Club with worse outfits. You'd think we'd have made our excuses and left. But no, we continued to turn up every Tuesday night, convinced that, this week, it was going to be different. Good girls (and we were basically good) find it hard to quit.

I took numerous badges – Entertainer, Homemaker, Knotter, Backwoodsman (making shelters out of plastic bags). Eventually I became a patrol leader.

"Patrol time", the hour a week you spent with your little troupe, was a torment. I had no idea how to entertain my patrol or chivvy them into good deeds. My poor mother got roped in as a tester for the homemaker badge. She'd literally have girls queuing at the door as she untidied the Tupperware in the kitchen cupboard so that yet another hapless Guide could restore order.

"We spent a lot of our time playing not-very-edifying running-around games such as Ladders and Bulldog because that was a lot easier for the Guiders to organise than anything more structured," recalls Helen, now 40, a writer. "I liked meeting a different set of girls to those I went to school with. And I enjoyed some of the things we learned that I wouldn't have encountered elsewhere, as they lay outside the school curriculum at the time – such as first aid and camping. But a lot of what we did resembled a junior version of the Women's Institute."

By the age of 17 I had sweated through enough badges to qualify as a Queen's Guide – the Oscar of Guiding. I bought presents for the Guiders and planned my escape. No such luck. They started getting out leaflets about becoming a Ranger. Now even I knew Rangers were a bit weird. What type of 18-25 year-old wants to spend her weekends learning to tie knots when she could be going to nightclubs? I handed the leaflets back. For years I'd cross the road if I saw a blue uniform. But you never really escape. During a period of redundancy in the early Nineties I worked on their magazines at Guiding HQ (more anon).

But mostly I'd wonder exactly what spending 10 years, first as a Brownie then a Guide, had done for my character. Does it make you a better person? Keep you out of trouble? What does it teach you about practical good sense, being a good sport?

To celebrate the centenary this year, famous women are queuing to rave about their experiences as Guides. Did I miss something? So for the last month I've been on an odyssey, interviewing Guides old and new. Why would I want to join the association now, I asked them?

For Guiding UK's Liz Burnley, it provides a unique girl-only space. When education is so target and exam-driven, Guiding is a way for young women to flourish in an organic, more spontaneous way. She stresses that there is far more autonomy than in my day, when Guiders never lost an opportunity to tell you off. The main aim today is confidence-boosting. "Guiding is about moving girls towards independence and taking responsibility for themselves in the family, community and wider world."

All adult Guiders are volunteers. "You're there purely because you care," explains Burnley. "Many parents don't realise you don't get paid." Gone is the dreaded A-line skirt and hat. You can wear jeans, shorts, cargo pants, polo shirts, hijabs and hoodies. Although when I take a stroll around the shop at London's Girlguiding HQ, it's not what you'd call fashion-forward – more Fifties Marks & Spencer than TopShop. But encouragingly the movement is less girly. There are badges for circus skills, science, sport, independent living and crime prevention.

Now patrol time is more likely to involve a session about space travel, becoming a chocolatier or organising a live web event. And there is a political edge. A recent issue of Guiding magazine tackled the representation of refugees in this country, reminding girls of their positive contributions. The tabloids love the Guides of course. Every time a survey reveals that modern girls want to learn about safe sex or how to survive the credit crunch or assemble flatpack furniture, we get all the old jokes about kindling. But we shouldn't forget just how radical the movement was in the early days. Girl Guides unofficially began in 1909 – before woman even had the vote – after a group of girls gate-crashed the first Scouts Rally asking for a group of their own. Forbidden to join their brothers, they donned scout uniforms and crept into the grounds of Crystal Palace to confront scouting's founding father, Lord Baden-Powell. He listened, and a year later established the Guide Association for 11 to 18-year-olds , with his sister Agnes at the helm.

I like the sound of the early, revolutionary Guides. In an age when skirts were ankle-length and young ladies never ran, the idea of camping and hiking must have been extraordinary. Badges on offer included air mechanic, cyclist, electrician, sailor and telegraph operator.

During the First World War, Guides worked for MI5 – as messengers passing on highly classified information. Guide Gift Week in May 1940 saw them raise more than £50,000 to buy two planes and 20 ambulances. Guide leaders worked alongside British soldiers to help Jewish inmates liberated from Belsen.

Over the years, Guiding was at the forefront in campaigns against racism and apartheid. They opened units in prisons and hospitals for the blind, deaf and those with mobility problems.

So how did a radical movement become so bossy and small-minded, obsessed with WI-style homecrafts and flower arranging? By the time I joined, it was all about being a hostess, cook and homemaker. Meetings were held at the church hall. You pledged your duty to God and the Queen. It was pretty exclusively Christian, middle-class and white. Many of us witnessed the bad side of being a single-sex group – with bitching and cliquey behaviour. And the constant emphasis on obedience made you rebellious.

As Rona, now 51, recalls: "My friend and I had a scam going whereby we falsified the certificate signatures. We used to sign for each other pretending to be teachers at school – for the history badge, the orienteering badge, the writer's badge. I could have pulled it off all the way to a Queen's Guide gold-star badge if not for the essential camping component – which being from a Scottish mining village where camping was unheard of (no middle class), nobody would have believed we had done. Not even the guide troop went camping. We were the sort of deprived council estate Guides who should have got badges for mugging and staying off crack, and where baby care meant looking after your own."

To be honest, I was horrified when I ended up working on Guiding magazine at their London HQ in the early Nineties. It was like a Muriel Spark novel, ruled by ladies of a certain age who didn't come into work if it rained and "there was some confusion" about their lift. Young women were basically ignored. It was not an enlightened time. Tim Jeal had just published his biography, Baden-Powell – stating that the Great Man had been a repressed homosexual who loved to gaze at young boys swimming naked. Everyone was tight-lipped about the book. Odd really, when, as Jeal puts it, "Romantic friendships between senior Guide officials and ordinary Guiders were sufficiently common to excite little comment..."

I was reliably informed that several Guiders went on Camp holidays because it allowed them to escape their husbands and spend the weekend with their girlfriend. "Thank God," I thought, "Now I understand. It's not the mud and the rain that drives them. It's the sex!"

The Association was extremely wealthy – maiden ladies left them generous bequests. Today they own seven stately homes and a farm. But for an organisation devoted to the advancement of young women, it was woefully hierarchical. As one ex-staffer told me: "When I first went to work there I was pretty horrified at their attitude towards the mostly female workers. The first month I was there, a woman was sacked simply because she became pregnant. Maternity rights were kept to the barest minimum. For an organisation promoting the rights of women, this institution was way back in the Dark Ages."

Things are very different today. The organisation has been firmly dragged into the 21st century. It is far more inclusive, using an outreach programme to recruit young women who would never normally set foot in a Girl Guide meeting; everyone from teenage mothers to girls from conservative Muslim families. Burnley tells me the Guides have remained single-sex because it enables girls to mature better. They regularly conduct "Girls Shout Out!" surveys to ask girls for their views. But the overwhelming response is: boys can be loud and aggressive, and won't listen to girls. "They have repeatedly told us they want a girls-only space, to really be themselves." Guiding is a great training for the adult workplace, she adds. They get the chance to do the kind of activities which firms send managerial staff to do on leadership building weekends. "We conducted a "Women in the Lead" survey in 2007 with 250 inspirational figures in the UK and two thirds of them had been a Brownie or Guide. Of these, 73 per cent believed that guiding had deliberately contributed to their success." But she is keen to stress that Guides are not goody-goodies in white knee-socks any more. They are just the regular young women of the day.

"We will never say, you should not have sex until you are married, because if a Guide is going to do it, then she's going to do it anyway. What we will do is ask girls what they think about it and tell them about being safe." They've twinned with the eating disorder charity, Beat, and teen-sex charity, Brook. Guides do role-play and "scenario planning", to cover topics such as sex trafficking and exploitation, alcoholism, stress, bullying and compulsive eating.

Guiding still isn't remotely cool. The nature of the Guides means that the people who join are going to be a little less street-savvy. They retain their weird tribal rituals, the girlish slang. But in a world where women are expected to be physically perfect, there's definitely room for tomboys and happy geeks, who like nothing better than wearing wellies and cagoules. "The single-sex policy remains a good one, I think," says Diana, a magazine journalist, now 40.

"Allowing tweenies and teens one arena where there are free from the pressure to look good and impress boys has to be a positive thing. When kids are under so much pressure to achieve academically and have such a huge and prescriptive curriculum, I think the most important thing the movement can offer girls today is somewhere to have that rare commodity: uncomplicated fun in a safe environment."

And at £1 an evening it's cheaper than almost any other youth activity. Nicki Hodges, 40, who loathed her Guiding years, yet also worked with me at the Guide Association, has three daughters who have gone through Brownies and Guides. "My middle daughter absolutely loves Brownies and it is her favourite activity – better than ballet, music lessons and swimming. I wonder if this is because she detects a hint of disapproval from me. But I can also see the attraction. When you arrive at the church hall, there's a warm and welcoming feel. Once in a while they have a sleepover in the church hall, which is really exciting, and Brownie Pack Holiday was a real highlight. I don't know any other organisation that provides young people with so much fun. I've come to the conclusion that, at grassroots level, the Guide Association is something wonderful, and I try not to let my early experiences of the Guides affect my views now."

I haven't been completely converted. The obsession with religion is a killer. Girls still vow to serve God, Queen and Country, although the wording has been changed to "my God" to encourage girls from other faiths. But guiding is not open to people who are categorically against the idea of there ever being any sort of high spiritual being. Ask Guiding hierarchy about feminism, and they say: yes, if you mean boosting self-esteem. They get worried about sounding "too strident" or "anti-men", which is puzzling. But there's something rather nice about old-fashioned qualities of selflessness, deference and modesty. A Guide will stand up on the Tube if somebody needs to sit down.

And Guiding certainly bonds you in adversity. The magazine staff I met in the Nineties are my closest friends. Over 20 years we've seen each other through tricky jobs and bad love affairs. No one in the world makes me laugh as much. So it wasn't a total waste. Kamala, the naughtiest girl of our group, is actually a Snowy Owl now in Eltham, south-east London.

"Serving the community is a big reason," she says. "I think it's important for kids to have a wider network of influences than just mum and dad, and one which helps to round them out as individuals. I also like the structure of Guiding. The opening and closing of weekly meetings, familiar games, songs, badge work, give a sense of familiarity and progression. Another big factor is the focus on teamwork. The challenge is to get them to understand the value of giving up some of what they want for the betterment of the group. It's also lovely to see quieter girls get more confident as they stay longer. I run a small business and I can honestly say the leadership skills when you're faced with 16 girls and you're organising a series of games, getting them to put someone into the recovery position and tie a sling for first aid, as well as conducting a discussion about what they did on their summer holidays, is on a par with the challenges of managing a company."

"So many people tell us they were thrown out of Brownies for being naughty girls," laughs Burnley. "And actually I don't think anyone was ever thrown out. But you know I'd like to extend an invitation to all those ex-naughty girls to come and meet us. They've got a lot to offer!"

As a mass movement, Guiding has real power, though Nicole Kidman called on them last year when she launchedthe UNIFEM internet campaign, "Say no to violence against women". I'm humbled by their history even if you'd never get me near a tent again. Hotel is my favourite word in the English language, thanks to the Guides. But, you know, when David Cameron announced his National Citizen Service, which will send youths from all backgrounds on summer camps to train them for community projects, I couldn't help thinking. "Talk to the bloody Guides. They've been doing it for 100 years!"

For more details about events for the centenary, go to: Girlguiding.org.uk

FORMER GIRL GUIDES SPEAK:

Kate Silverton - TV presenter
"I was a Girl Guide and head girl. I was a tomboy then and in many respects still feel like one now."

Clare Short - politician
"When I think now about the angst that young women go through about their bodies and their clothing, looking back on the Guides it seems like a lovely time of innocent pleasure."

Susie Stoddart - racing driver
Guides made her realise "the importance of teamwork and motivation to achieve what you want".

Shappi Khorsandi - comedian
Guiding taught me "compassion and kindness".

JK Rowling - author
"I can easily imagine [Hermione Granger] in the Guides, given that she's resourceful, highly motivated and eager to learn. She might be a little over-competitive when it came to badges, though." And on her own First Aid badge: "I've never needed to make a sling since, but I'm on constant stand-by."

Emma Thompson - actress
"Girls and young women can gain the confidence to be equal partners and to make informed, responsible choices about their lives."

Ashley Jensen - Ugly Betty actress
"I was brought up in Annan in Dumfriesshire, which is a pretty big farming area, and although I was not brought up on a farm I gained my milkmaid badge, which I was exceptionally proud of. I enjoyed being part of a team and working alongside other people, and not being afraid to try new, challenging things that you may not have thought about yourself."

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