The Girl Guides. Think of them and you may think of itchy uniforms, sewing and hostess badges. You might think arts and crafts, inspections and eggy bread. You might not necessarily think 'empowerment'. You probably wouldn’t think 'activism'. You almost certainly wouldn’t think 'feminist'.
Today marks World Thinking Day, when Guides & Girl Scouts in 145 different countries around the globe reach out to their international community. From Malawi to Pakistan to Ireland, Guides are organising to improve women’s healthcare through advocacy and education, hoping to improve on the 287,000 maternal deaths each year - an issue so important that Hilary Clinton targeted it in her agenda as Secretary of State. Year on year the International Girl Guiding Association has raised awareness and funds for difficult, complex issues including HIV/Aids and gender equality.
Perhaps that's a little too international to convince you? Earlier this month Girlguiding (the UK specific branch of the Guides) joined the calls from One Billion Women Rising, lending their support to a campaign for comprehensive, compulsory relationship education in schools, citing a need to educate both young boys and girls about mutual respect within relationships in the hopes of helping end violence against women. They’ve campaigned for positive female role models, calling out reality TV show’s such as The Only Way is Essex, after finding that two thirds of girls believed that women are still judged on appearance before ability, and that 1 in 3 had considered plastic surgery.
My mum, a Guider like her mum before her, laments that the movement has lost something. Too many discos and not enough campfires, she says. She worries that girls are missing out on the same empowerment the movement gave her. As a Guide who used up an entire box of matches trying to get a fire going, but also likes to shake and twist, I was always quite happy with the modern arrangement. I was also hugely impressed at the number of times our leaders let us attempt to cook things despite our horrendous track record. But that was the point - we were trusted to make our own decisions and make our own, multiple, mistakes.
There are those that have been appalled at the idea of girlguiding as a feminist force - to brand it as such is too political, too bold, too threatening. But to deny it is to deny its very origins: a woman demanding space to teach women and girls as boys were being taught. An insistence that girls were as capable as boys and should have the same opportunities available to them. And as many feminists will tell you, creating women only spaces is a political act in itself.
The Guides have 10 million members world wide. The UK branch has 500,000, making it the largest youth organisation in England & Wales, and the largest female organisation to boot. And they are determined to make the world a safer, equal world for women & girls. Julie Bentley, head of Girlguiding, announced last year it was her aim “to give girls an even louder voice on the issues that matter to them now – so they can help build a society they want to live in. One where they truly have the chance to be everything they can be.”
And if you’re still not convinced? Straight from the horses mouth; ‘‘We are the ultimate feminist organisation.’ Julie Bentley, 2012.