Taylor Swift is a Carmel deLite girl. I know this because People magazine ran a feature on “Celeb Scouts” for Girl Scouts’ 100th anniversary in March 2012. That was one page of one magazine. In addition to the dozens upon dozens of print, television and radio features, the anniversary brought with it public service announcements designed by Edelman (the world’s largest public relations firm), a coffee table book, a trefoil-patterned iPhone case and the production of a new cookie called the Savannah Smile. It wasn’t long before the centennial caught the attention of Indiana state Rep. Bob Morris, who promptly accused the organization of promoting “a homosexual lifestyle” and functioning as a “tactical arm” of Planned Parenthood.
That Feb. 18, Morris wrote a letter to his fellow representatives. He was particularly outraged by a Colorado troop who had recently accepted a 7-year-old transgender kid: “Boys who decide to claim a ‘transgender’ or cross-dressing life-style are permitted to become a member of a Girl Scout troop, performing crafts with the girls and participate in overnight and camping activities — just like any real girl.”
Morris, a father of six, later issued a public apology for the letter’s strong language, which implicated the Girl Scouts in “the destruction of traditional American values” and “sexualizing of young girls,” but he did not retract its accusations.
“The honorary president of the Girl Scouts is Michelle Obama,” he reasoned, “and the Obamas are radically pro-abortion.” (The honorary president of the Girl Scouts is indeed the first lady of the United States, and has been since Edith Wilson held the title in 1917.)
One would think it would take an actual Girl Scout and some kindling to fan this flame into controversy, but news of the Morris letter went national. At one point, it was spoofed by Conan O’Brien via a mockup of a “Roe v. Wafers” cookie box. 2012 was the year of “The War on Women,” but it was also, according to the Girl Scouts, “The Year of the Girl.” So whose year was it, actually?
Morris wasn’t the only one to publicly accuse the Girl Scouts of pushing a covert liberal agenda. That April, Wasilla, Alaska, congressman Wes Keller, vice chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, questioned a bill celebrating the centennial because “of information that’s floating around the Internet” regarding the Girl Scouts’ “relationship with Planned Parenthood.” The following month, the Girl Scouts faced an “official inquiry” by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who critiqued their association with Doctors Without Borders, the Sierra Club and Oxfam (all of whom offer family planning services). The Girl Scouts, to their credit, didn’t blink.
“When you have a leadership brand like Girl Scouts, it’s natural that we would have some critics,” said current Girl Scouts CEO Anna Marie Chávez. “We’re proud of our inclusive approach because that is what has always made this organization strong.”
Conservative consternation may have come to a head in 2012 but it had been brewing for years. In 1993, the organization publicly approved the replacement of “God” with “Allah” or “my faith” in the Girl Scout promise, depending on the girl doing the promising. In response, a Cincinnati mother named Patti Garibay founded the “Christ-centered” American Heritage Girls, which now boasts over 20,000 members. In a 2004 “Today” show interview with then-Girl Scouts CEO Kathy Cloninger, Cloninger defended her organization’s philosophies and associations via a split-screen interview with John Pisciotta, co-director of Pro-Life Waco, Texas.
“Girls grow up with complex issues facing them and we partner with many organizations,” explained Cloninger. “We have relationships with our church communities, with YWCAs and with Planned Parenthoods across the country to bring information-based sex education.”
Being fundamentally secular, the Girl Scouts can partner with anyone they like. In this way, they could not be more unlike the Boy Scouts of America. The Boy Scouts were founded as a Christian organization (their first partnership was with the Mormon church in 1913) and they’ve never shaken the conservative horse blinders that go along with that. A decade ago, while the Girl Scouts were standing strong in the face of the Planned Parenthood connection, the Boy Scouts were fighting all the way to the Supreme Court for the right to discriminate against gays scouts (they lifted their long-standing ban on openly gay members this past spring but still have years of stigma to overcome). Then there are the infamous abuse lawsuits. The Boy Scouts have produced some of our most innovative leaders and the skills and training they provide are not terribly dissimilar from the Girl Scouts’. But the “Youth Protection” tab featured prominently on the Boy Scouts website didn’t get there for nothing. One click gets you “Steps to Reporting Child Abuse” as well as the three R’s: “Recognize, Resist and Report.” The Girl Scouts closest equivalent? A 4 pt. hyperlink at the bottom of their site called “Internet Safety Pledge,” which isn’t there so that Girl Scouts know how to protect each other from other Girl Scouts. It details “netiquette” and advises girls not to give out personal information and what actions to take in the face of “uncomfortable language.”
Of course, not everything is perfect and unimpeachable in Girl Scout land. Just because the national leadership of the Girl Scouts has played it cool doesn’t mean there aren’t fractures at the local level. In Boise, Idaho, for example, an industrious 10-year-old named Grace Swanke founded “Cookies for Life” with the help of her parents, donating proceeds from her homemade cookies to a pro-life center … built a driveway’s width apart from Idaho’s largest Planned Parenthood. When I looked up the local news segment on “Cookies for Life,” my first thought was: Well, is that the worst of it? That’s not so bad, actually. With 3.2 million members, it seemed a marvel to me that there weren’t more Graces, more Heritage Girls, more internal divisions. Shouldn’t the Girl Scouts have torn itself apart into partisan camps long ago? After Morris’ letter, I wondered if the very public centennial celebrations would succumb to the same election-year rancor as the rest of 2012 America.
* * *
The first Girl Scouts gathering I went to during the Year of the Girl was in Washington, D.C. On a sweat-inducing Saturday in June, more than 250,000 young girls came to the capital for an all-day sing-along they dubbed “Rock the Mall.” The set list featured the classics: “Make New Friends,” “I Love Being a Girl Scout,” “The Brownie Smile Song,” “God Bless America.” The performers included local a cappella groups, step teams, flash mobs, Erin Willett (a finalist from NBC’s “The Voice”), and former Brownie and pop sensation Mandy Moore. I myself never made it past the Brownies. I sensed that it might not be so cool to keep wearing that khaki vest come fifth grade.
As it turns out, had I continued to pepper my outfits with patches, I would have had plenty of company. One in two adult American women is a former Girl Scout — a statistic I had thought very unreal when I first came across it, despite falling on the positive side of it myself. Say what you will about the vests, but those goody-goody girls I had worried would tarnish my cool? They have become one of the world’s most powerful and progressive women’s organizations.
The Rock the Mall event was the largest in a year dotted with birthday celebrations around the country. It was the brainchild of Lidia Soto-Harmon, CEO of the Girl Scouts Council of the Nation’s Capital. Soto-Harmon oversees a $14 million operating budget, more than 100 employees and thousands of volunteers. She is also a woman who sat across from me at a picnic table in the shadow of the Washington Monument, wearing a “100 Years!” fascinator on her head. Ribbons grazed her forehead and a pink plastic cupcake the size of a fist protruded from her temple.
I asked her how difficult it was to reserve the entire Mall for the event. “It’s competitive,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe. Or maybe you would. It’s been a remarkable grass-roots experience, putting this event together. The actual anniversary is in March and that would be one very cold day on the Mall. Plus all the kids would be in school. But the summer is cutthroat so we basically spent the whole night waiting, camped outside the permit office. My team got there in the dark, definitely before 5 a.m. We made sure that when the doors opened, we were the first to apply. And now just look what the girls have done.”
She gestured around us. Between Constitution and Independence Avenues, rivers of concession stands, scouting paraphernalia and volunteer tents flowed into a bay of estrogen. No tissue was left undappled by nosebleed or snot or glitter. Imagine a preteen Woodstock, but with a greater emphasis on peace and unity. Is there a music festival in history that could compete with such public displays of understanding when it comes to accidentally stepping on blankets, giving directions and maintaining a constant state of hydrated conviviality? Every time I crossed the lawn, I heard the palm-smacking of “patty cake” or troop leaders explaining watered-down American history with intense avuncularity.
The recent political entanglements, Soto-Harmon stressed, were a just distraction from the Girl Scouts’ newly revamped leadership program. This is a two-pronged messaging drum that was beaten especially hard to coincide with the centennial. First, there’s the ToGetHerThere program that aims to retain the Girl Scouts’ reputation for community service, outdoor skill training and super-awesome patches while encouraging girls to assume leadership roles. ToGetHerThere is targeted at ages 17 and up and is its own entity within the organization, complete with interactive website, volunteer opportunities, corporate sponsorship ideas and leadership training. “Today’s girls are destined to lead tomorrow’s boardrooms and courthouses and run our hospitals and technology start-ups,” explains the site. “But a cycle of discouragement is stopping girls from moving forward.” The second prong is correlated but more general: an attempt to get more girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math, collectively known as the STEM fields.
“Girls begin to leave science and math to the boys as early as fifth grade,” according to Soto-Harmon, “and yet we know that the U.S. will need 3 million more scientists and engineers by the time today’s girls graduate from college. Our goal is to spark their curiosity …”
“You hear that?” asked Connie Lindsey, passing me and Soto-Harmon and gesturing at the stage speakers. Lindsey is the national board president of Girl Scouts of the USA, the highest-ranking volunteer in the entire organization. Later that day, I met with her and Anna Maria Chávez, CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA (this conversation consisted of a great deal of hyperarticulate and impressively fervent beaming about the Girl Scouts’ mission). Lindsey had just come from meeting with President Obama (aka the honorary president of the Boy Scouts) down the road.
“That’s the sound of hundreds of thousands of girls changing the face of this country. It’s a good sound. Imagine if Daisy could hear this.”
It’s a nice thought, but, as any Girl Scout with a cursory knowledge of the organization’s history will tell you, founder Juliette Gordon Low (nickname: Daisy — the littlest scouts are named for her, not the flower) was mostly deaf. On the day of her Savannah wedding to gambler, alcoholic, philanderer, smuggler and general layabout, Willie Low, a grain of celebratory rice embedded in her ear. She suffered the rest of her life with debilitating earaches, unrelated chronic bronchitis and a laundry list of health problems too extensive to type. But she was fun and she was a fighter. She probably would appreciate Rock the Mall. Some of the Girl Scouts’ national staff affectionately refer to her as “J-Low.”
“Our purpose,” Soto-Harmon spoke up as the Girl Scout Chorus of Nassau County, N.Y., took the stage, “has always been to empower girls, teach them to dream big, teach them to be resilient and stand up for themselves. Add that to the emphasis on community service that’s been there from the start.”
And as for the organization’s response to the charge of being in league with the abortion-provider-in-chief?
“Some of the things you read about,” Soto-Harmon pushed her cupcake out of her face, “some of the accusations leveled, it’s like from Mars. We are nonpartisan and as a result, there are people who might like to tarnish the Girl Scouts. Issues of human sexuality are best left to parents and guardians and their children to discuss. You want to know how the Girl Scouts has survived 100 years? It’s because we listen. We’re a force to be reckoned with because we listen to what girls want, not what we want them to want.”
Soto-Harmon excused herself. She had a quarter-of-a-million-person event to run. Before she left, she introduced me to three attractive, bubbly teenage girls who took a break from the cacophony to lean on picnic tables backstage. They came all the way from Houston to do some mall-rocking. Like most of the teenage Rock the Mall attendees who have dabbled in the ToGetHerThere program, they deemed it “exciting” and “awesome,” but I thought their community service projects to obtain their awards — Bronze (minimum 20 hours), Silver (minimum 50 hours) and Gold (minimum 80 hours) — sounded like they had been grafted from 1912.
Catherine, 16, arranged a book drive at a local hospital. Her friend Rachel, 15, volunteered at a local animal shelter. And Belle, 17, wanted to know if I’d ever tried riding a bike in Houston. I told her I had not.
“Oh, well, if you had you’d know that the bicycle paths were really bad. They had all these giant gaping holes in them and it’s obviously important that people ride bikes. I really wanted to raise money to fix the bicycle paths but,” she couldn’t hide her disappointment, “the city saw the problem and filled them in.”
As an alternative, Belle “rehabilitated an Australian shepherd puppy” she found on the street, nursing it away from death’s door.
* * *
That afternoon, beneath the shade of an elm tree, I awkwardly chatted up a couple of mothers and their troops. They were taking a break to cool each other with hand-held spray fans. Aside from growing up to be astronauts, computer programmers, veterinarians and engineers (or the non-STEM goals — the ballerina dream is alive and well), the younger girls seemed to have far more immediate concerns. The girls wanted, in no particular order: lunch, candy, dancing, water, patches and swaps.
“What are swaps?”
I had just gotten on the good side of an 11-year-old named Laylah and now I was really blowing it.
“I don’t get it,” she furrowed her brow. “Weren’t you ever a Girl Scout?”
Laylah looked me up and down as if reevaluating my status as a woman on this planet. Her mother stepped in to school me. SWAPS (Special Whatchamacallits Affectionately Pinned Somewhere) are homemade keepsakes crafted in bulk by a troop for the purpose of exchange with another troop. They became popular at Girl Scout roundups in the 1950s. It’s hard to say when they came back into fashion but I’m going to guess 1988. Lots of jean jackets ripe for heart-shaped cutouts and foam hamburgers. Either way, they were news to me. I cleared my throat.
“I was briefly a Brownie.”
“Oh,” Laylah made a face.
“Don’t judge,” I made a face back.
“I wasn’t,” she tried not to laugh. “Hey, you want to come to the Top Sellers Booth?”
In just one year Laylah sold 1,023 boxes, a number that would put all the “red feathers” in “Troop Beverly Hills” to shame. I lamented my inability to reference this iconic Shelley Long film from my childhood in front of Laylah but she was of a different generation. Case in point: Part of what enabled her to move so many cookie units is the online Cookie Club program where girls “learn about goals and selling tips, set selling and personal goals, track their progress and record their customer lists so they can be saved and reused each cookie season.” Laylah got her first email account and learned how to use a spreadsheet via the Cookie Club.
“The cookie tradition is still there,” explained her mother, “but now it’s more about teaching girls how to run a business.”
In her book about the leadership lessons offered by the example of the Girl Scouts (“Tough Cookies”), Kathy Cloninger writes that the cookies are “the most successful national marketing endeavor of any nonprofit organization” in the country. It is the heart, soul and wallet of the Girl Scouts. The top-selling cookie flavors alone, Thin Mints and Samoas, have netted the origination over $300 million in the past decade with 75 percent of every box sold funneled back into the local councils and the remainder going to one of two officially licensed bakeries. (One Girl Scout staffer confided in me that “this one time, a Michigan troop went rogue and made their own gluten-free cookie. An email went out about that. I saw a picture of the package and the trefoil had a smiley face. You do not alter the trefoil.”)
As one might suspect, only the top cookie sellers of 2012 were permitted in the Top Sellers Booth. I followed behind as Laylah led the way. Inside, a makeshift red carpet guided us to a sunglasses-decorating station with Tupperware tubs of sequins and googly eyes. The top sellers also received a backpack that read “You’re Following a Top Cookie Seller.” Laylah asked a volunteer if it was OK for her to mess around with the decorating supplies. She proceeded to carefully select tacky-backed rhinestones for me to stick on my own sunglasses.
“She’s so polite,” I reported back to her mother as we emerged from the tent.
“She is. They all are.”
* * *
Early the next morning, I put on my newly glamorized frames and walked over to the Smithsonian. I had time to kill before my train left. I’d always wanted to see the Hope Diamond and decided I deserved the quiet after the previous day’s prepubescent ear assault. I should have known better. The Girl Scouts didn’t come to D.C. to rock and run. The steps of the Smithsonian were already packed with ponytails bobbing above green T-shirts and khaki sashes. As I waited for my turn to glimpse the diamond, wondering how many growth spurts can fit comfortably in one museum, I was privy to a now-familiar conversation. Two troops verbally unfurled their SWAPS bounty as their grown-up leaders exchanged travel woes.
One of these leaders was Samantha McGuire of Martinsville, Ind., “The Goldfish Capital of The World.” Samantha came to D.C. with her daughter, Claire, whose wheelchair was decorated with photos of her friends in Troop 341. Claire was born with Rett syndrome, a rare genetic disorder of the nervous system, the hallmarks of which are severe language and motor skill regression. It’s found almost exclusively in girls. Suffice it to say, her mother won the travel logistics contest without ever competing.
“Claire’s very cognitively aware,” she explained, “and she enjoys being a Girl Scout, so we thought we’d brave the crowds. We were able to get up the ramps and get her right up front.”
Claire picked at stickers as her mother touched her head.
“She has an older brother,” she said, keeping an eye on her daughter. “That’s how the girls at school even found out about Claire. Now they’re her buddies and this is something they can participate in together.”
Then, without having to emit so much as an “excuse me,” the ponytails parted to let McGuire wheel Claire over to the diamond.
It was then I realized that my days of using “such a Girl Scout” pejoratively were over. I wondered how people like Samantha McGuire — herself sporting a sizable gold cross around her neck — can be that much of a rice grain in the ear of conservative Girl Scout families. On the other hand, I also wondered if by attending Rock the Mall in the first place, I had merely strolled into a candy store, looked around and pronounced it full of sweets. Was it always like this or was it just 2012? Did the Girl Scouting movement look so unapologetically mission-focused all over the country? So virtuous, so undaunted by right-wing uproar so … good? Or were all the hard diamonds up north?
* * *
A deep-fried Samoa cookie is crafted by coating the basic coconut, chocolate and caramel ring in batter, frying it, and serving it in a pool of caramel that tests the sturdiness of the paper plate on which it’s served. These monsters resemble regular Samoas that have expanded into the host body of a doughnut. A biopsy of the structure reveals a dough hallway, lit through its breaded wall by the Texas sun, the remnants of the original cookie splattered as if the cookie has taken a ride in an amateur anti-gravity chamber. At the 125-year-old Texas State Fair, an event that draws an average of 3 million visitors to Dallas each October, this feat of desert engineering was a blip. A modest concoction. There’s nothing spectacular about a cookie when you’ve come to a place that offers so many creative consumption combinations.
You have your deep-fried hotdogs, your deep-fried lemonade, your deep-fried macaroni and cheese sliders, your deep-fried beer, your deep-fried red velvet cupcakes topped with fried chicken wings, your deep-fried guacamole and butter balls, your deep-fried cotton candy-coated bacon, your deep-fried corn dogs, your deep-fried bacon cinnamon rolls and something called a “picnic on a stick,” which consists of fruit and goat cheese. Just kidding. It’s a thrice-fried shish kebab of fried pickles, double-fried potatoes and fried chicken. Note to fact-checker: Each instance of “fried” in that sentence is accurate.
I wasn’t in Washington anymore.
To celebrate the centennial down South, the Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas took over the historic Hall of State at the center of the fairgrounds. Girl Scout volunteers and staff positioned themselves at the door to the cavernous hall, wearing bright “Do Not Mess With the Centenniy’all” T-shirts. They held sleeves of cookies and planned on giving away 10,000 of them during the course of the fair. Behind them, a century of scouting essence was on display. The prerecorded sounds of individual exhibits (including 8-foot high cookie boxes and a plaster bust of Daisy Low) echoed against the ceilings of the main room. The Girl Scouts had hired Dallas-based Corporate Magic to design the exhibit.
Stephen Dahlem, senior creative director, spoke with a mouthful of Tagalongs when he shook my hand.
“I’m sorry,” he said, holding his free palm to his mouth, “I’ve been living on these.”
Dahlem kept referring to the Hall of State as “the Cinderella’s Castle of state fair locations.” Which was clearly a mixed blessing. Because the Hall is a national historical monument, with 77-year-old murals painted directly on the plaster walls, everything Dahlem did had to be freestanding, including the 5-foot-wide trefoil-shaped TV screen at the center of the hall. Not one case or replica or blinking Girl Scout logo touched the walls.
“We’ve turned out to be the centennial company,” Dahlem said proudly, “We did the Coca-Cola centennial and the State of Oklahoma centennial. We did the Boy Scouts 100th anniversary.”
“How was that?”
“It was in a field in Virginia.”
“Was it different working with the Boy Scouts versus the Girl Scouts?”
“Can you elaborate on how?”
“Well,” he emitted a good-natured laugh, “are you going to print it? No, it’s that the Girl Scouts are so passionate about their mission. You’ll be in a meeting and start to talk about specific exhibition details and it grows into a discussion about empowering young women. And here all I wanted was the title of the songs.”
A visitor to the exhibit could flip through Daisy Low’s diary on an iPad (framed to look like a vintage book) and examine uniforms past. He or she could study old flag signals and not warm themselves by a virtual fire. There were scannable codes that enabled the scanner to join the alumnae association, volunteer or donate to the Girl Scouts as well as instructions for an iPhone app that sent girls on an educational eye-spy scavenger hunt around the fairgrounds.
The Texas Girl Scouts are a force to be reckoned with — and they have Texas-size donors backing them up. Models of Camp Whispering Cedars and Camp Bette Perot were placed in huge Plexiglas boxes as part of the exhibit. For the centennial, Camp Whispering Cedars received a million-dollar grant from the privately owned Rees-Jones Foundation, a Christian nonprofit started by a former Eagle Scout and his wife, a former Brownie. Mr. Rees-Jones is a major GOP donor and the 276th richest person in the world according to a March 2013 Forbes magazine calculation. (He’s the 84th richest person in America, according to that Forbes list.) As for the second Plexiglas box, Ross Perot gave the land for Camp Bette Perot to the Girl Scouts in 1968 and it now spans 1,400 acres, including a 70-horse equestrian program. As a centennial gift, Perot donated $1.2 million to refurbish the camp.
I was peering down at little plastic lakes when the growling sound coming from my abdomen hit a public volume. I looked at the time. I squeezed past a gaggle of volunteers and exited the fairgrounds for the first of several trips into Dallas proper, trying my luck at sustenance. As a person who does not eat meat, I found my only lunch options at the 2012 Texas State Fair were deep-fried guacamole balls and a sleeve of Tagalongs.
* * *
The next morning I returned to the Hall of State to interview Colleen Walker, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas, but I arrived too early. It was pouring out and the massive parking lot was almost empty. Outside the building, a stand advertised “Jumbo Corn Dogs and Texas Sized Turkey Legs!” It was open for business but, to the credit of the human race, no one was queuing up for dogs and legs at 8:30 a.m. Instead a young woman, her fanny pack covered in a clear poncho, pushed water around the concrete with a broom as soft rock played on the fair’s speakers. I drank sugary iced tea underneath Big Tex, a 52-foot-high, 60-year-old cowboy statue and fair icon, which would be engulfed in flames two weeks later (electrical fire of the jaw).
When I sloshed into the Hall of State, Walker was waiting for me. She is trim and energetic, a former buyer for Neiman Marcus and mother of two. She has rain-impervious hair and she greeted me with the smile that helped her win Miss Colorado 1991. Here, I thought, is a woman who’s familiar with “Troop Beverly Hills.” More often than not she responded to my questions with “I think that’s an important question” before continuing on. Residual pageant mannerisms aside, Colleen Walker was the single most Girl Scouty Girl Scout of them all.
“If you’re within the Girl Scouts movement, you’re sunk, you’re sold, your blood turns green. But if you’re not, you don’t quite understand the power of it. We knew this exhibit needed to capture the imagination of the masses.”
Like Lidia Soto-Harmon, Walker began planning for her centennial contribution years ago. After attending a Reba McEntire concert in the newly revamped 100,000-capacity Dallas Cowboys stadium, she was “swept up by the scale of it” but ultimately dismissed the idea.
“Because it’s too big?”
“Because it’s not enough! It would be a one hit wonder.”
The Hall of State, on the other hand, could be occupied by the Girl Scouts for the 24-day duration of the fair. I wondered if this was competitive as well. Who wouldn’t want to rent Cinderella’s castle? Walker’s smile broadened.
“We were vying with seven other organizations but I’m a Girl Scout and I have my MBA from Harvard Business School. We went in with a business proposal and AT&T as our presenting sponsor. I told them I could bring a very lovely clientele in, that we would embrace all fairgoers … I was going to get the building.”
I begin to see why Dahlem had his work cut out for him and it wasn’t just because of some old murals. Walker is the living, breathing embodiment for every Girl Scout principle. She used the Miss America scholarship to fund her engineering degree, believes in “a girl’s whole self,” and rescued a litter of puppies and their mother while hiking just weeks before we met. She was born a STEM and ToGetHerThere advocate before those initiatives existed. She believes in the same principles as Lindsey and Soto-Harmon but she delivers them in Texan.
“The only way we can grow as a country is if we get more women into leadership ranks. It’s not an option now. It’s not a social issue. It’s not a nice thing to have. It was a fairness issue when we needed the right to vote and when we needed equal pay for equal work. It’s not a fairness issue when you need economic sustainability. It’s a business imperative to have diversity in general but most importantly of gender. Really, it comes down to money. If you follow the money, honey, you will find the change.”
The only time Walker’s tone changed key is when I brought up Morris’ letter. Her smile faded and I found myself looking into the stony face of a mom who could out-spreadsheet Suze Orman.
“You need to be very careful when you start attacking little girls. After he made those comments, there were girls who went door-to-door selling their cookies and suddenly they get slammed with ‘I can’t support you — you’re in bed with Planned Parenthood!’ Can you imagine? Let me tell you something: A little girl doesn’t even know what that is.”
* * *
The final event of the day was a ceremonial unpacking of a 25-year-old time capsule in the Hall of State’s auditorium. This, as it turned out, entailed three generations of Girl Scouts sorting through calendars, directories and safety manuals, holding them up briefly before wistfully reading aloud from their contents — imagine spending an hour watching strangers in the distance huddle over the view screen of a digital camera and describe what they’re seeing.
I decided to pass the time before this extravaganza by downloading the much-buzzed-about Girl Scouts State Fair iPhone app. This was an educational riddle-based game stocked with general Girl Scouts trivia as well as fair-specific trivia. For my “Level of Difficulty,” I selected “Brownie.” The screen flashed green, welcomed me and offered up a clue about ducks. This was the first in a series that led me around the fairgrounds one more time before heading home.
It was still drizzling. Thinking I could outsmart the app, I cut through the neighboring building, a large one-level space divided by retail stalls. One could conceivably walk in with nothing and walk out with a Salad Master, a steam mop, a Miracle Blade 3: Perfection Series and multiple iterations of fudge. I pulled over by a stand offering custom-made wooden signs bearing kids’ name. The sample names on display were Annalise, Bayleigh, Laramie, Caden, MacKenzie, Kyndlle and Cherie. The app immediately knew what I’d done (not very Girl Scouty of me to cheat), and encouraged me to go back outside.
Once I passed through the exit door, a bubble of congratulations popped up on my phone. I looked up. Before me was a cage filled with fuzzy fowl, warmed by an incubator bulb. A toddler boy hung from the fence by his pinkies.
“Do you know what happens to these chicks?” His mother crouched down and tried to capture his attention. “They grow into ducks. Isn’t that exciting?”
“I’m bored,” the boy said, kicking off his pants and mooning the rain.
Me too, I thought. I put the phone back in my pocket and pulled my jacket hood tight as I headed toward the capsule-unveiling. Yes, I felt lame for petering out at the Brownie level for the second time in my life. But it had been four months since D.C. and I had officially overdosed on helpful factoids, good-natured pep and girl power.
As I shuffled back into the Hall of State with a cluster of scouts, I wondered, as Connie Lindsey did, what Daisy Low would actually make of all this. Surely she would be as pleased by these intricate celebrations as she would be unsurprised by the latest batch of base conservative accusations. But would she find the celebrations themselves purposeful? Between Rock the Mall and the Texas State Fair, I had read Stacy Cordery’s biography, “Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts.” As a child, Low wrote about the burdens of fitting in, both in her diary and in letters. Beyond her numerous illnesses, she felt pressure to find meaning in the day-to-day business of being a woman. Her frustration at the lack of opportunities for girls was palpable. “Society is very hallow,” she once wrote, “it’s very unsatisfactory and a very shaky nail on which to hang one’s happiness.” A century later, this personal sentiment has morphed into the public purpose of the Girl Scouts. It is the essence of why they have not merely survived but flourished. Because they have figured out the answer to Daisy’s riddle — become the nail.