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What can the Girl Guides do when teenagers are more interested in screaming at boy bands than in swearing allegiance to God and the Queen?

Jennie Bristow reports on the identity crisis afflicting another of Britain's imperial institutions

Guiding principles

Jenny, a Year Nine pupil at Varndean Secondary School in Brighton, lasted six months in the Girl Guides. 'All the Brownies went straight to Guides', she explains, 'but I didn't feel comfortable in the atmosphere. I thought it would be more fun, but everything was so serious--lots of religious stuff and too many team games'.

Her friend Bronwen, 14, agrees. 'I liked things like camping and the games, and the new uniform wasn't too bad, but I'm not religious and it put me off. Some of my friends still go because they like the company, but none of them are into the religious side of it.'

Would the Guides' recent attempts to transform their image make any difference? They both shook their heads. 'It's been like that too long', said Jenny. 'People have other things to do', Bronwen added.

Jenny and Bronwen are typical of the problem facing the Guide Association in recent years--that for whatever reason, fewer and fewer girls want to turn themselves into Girl Guides. The organisation which grew steadily from its inception in 1910, doubling its membership between 1940 and 1980, has found its numbers dwindling at an alarming rate over the past 15 years. From a peak of 858 601 uniformed members in 1980, in 1995 the numbers were down to just under 700 000--below 1970 levels.

The Guide Association is acutely aware of this problem, and has taken measures to stem the decline. In 1987, desperate to boost the numbers of recruits, the Guide Association created a new category of 'Rainbow Guides' for girls aged between four and six. The only effect was to lower the average age of its membership. The combination of a stable Brownie intake and a rapidly growing Rainbow membership has resulted in a membership base of which 57 per cent is under 10 years of age, 27 per cent is between 11 and 14, and a measly three per cent between 15 and 18.

Vision statement

The fact that the Guide Association is becoming increasingly dependent on primary school children is a bitter irony for the movement which dropped the word 'Girl' from its title in 1994, to 'reflect the fact that more than 76 000 members were over 18 years old' (Background Journalist Notes). What the figures reveal is that the Guide Association is now less a youth organisation than a playgroup: while it plays an invaluable role for busy parents seeking to offload their offspring for a few hours of free childcare, keeping the interest of girls who are old enough to start thinking for themselves is increasingly difficult.

When the Guide Association produced a 'Vision Statement' in response to the membership crisis, it concluded that there was a desperate need 'to make Guiding fresh, attractive and available to everyone who wants it and take down any barriers which prevent us from fulfilling that purpose' (1992). The association is now in the middle of a full-scale policy review, aiming to transform itself into an organisation more appropriate for the times. And it is finding that the big 'barriers' to its growth are the core principles of the Guide movement itself.

As every good ex-Brownie knows, the Scout and Guide movements were babies of the British Empire, when Britannia ruled the waves and the whole world was a potential enemy. Robert Baden-Powell, a major-general in the British army, returned a hero from the Boer War and set himself the task of turning shabby British youth into warriors. The publication of his Scouting for Boys in 1908, which aimed to teach various army skills in the form of games, formed the basis of the Boy Scouts. When Baden-Powell realised that girls wanted to join in too, he gave them their own movement, named after a reserve regiment called the Guides with whom he had fought in India.

The original philosophy of the Girl Guides oozed the Empire spirit of the times in everything from its uniform to the role it saw for women. The first ever Guide handbook, entitled How Girls Can Help to Build the Empire, combined tips on wartime scouting tactics with training for womanhood. So on page 235 of the 450-page manual, Guide leaders are instructed to tell their girls that 'in a colony women have to be and are real helpmates to men. They not only take an intelligent interest in men's pursuits, but often cut out and make clothes for them, make the bread, churn the butter, salt the meat, cure the bacon, brew the beer, and teach the native "boy" how to cook, and to wash the family linen'.

The structure and the philosophy of the Guide movement has always been grounded in these traditional and military origins. Guides are organised into patrols of six, which elect and then obey their own leader and second-in-command. Salutes, slogans and army songs such as 'Taps' form the best-known aspect of Guiding rituals. Before joining the organisation, girls have had to make a promise of loyalty to God, the Queen and the country, and swear to obey 'Guide Laws' dictating how they behave.

The early Guide Laws reflected the kind of values ingrained in the original Guiding movement. 'A Guide's duty is to be useful and to help others', 'A Guide obeys orders', and 'A Guide smiles and sings under all difficulties' are just three of Baden-Powell's own 'ten commandments', designed to develop girls into competent, upstanding young women able to serve their men and their country without grumbling (Tomorrow's Guide, 1966, p14).


Apart from some minor changes in language and uniform, the Guides has remained pretty much wedded to its original values throughout most of this century. Towards the 1970s, the Association took a few steps to update the uniform, handbook and to place less emphasis on the more overtly militaristic. For example, in 1968 the names 'Guide Leader' and 'Assistant Guide Leader' replaced the tradition of calling women who ran Guide units by the names of 'Captain' and 'Lieutenant'. The report of the working party set up to reform the Association explained that 'we believe that the time has come to drop the terms Captain and Lieutenant which, when used in conjunction with each other, have a military sound' (Tomorrow's Guide, 1966, p21).

However, the Association itself admits that the alterations made today need to go way beyond simple modernisations of language and image, and involve a total reinvention of the key principles of Guiding. The Guide Association has begun to realise that everything about the movement, from its image to the values on which the movement is based, runs contrary to the spirit of our changed times.

In its Vision Statement, the Guide Association seeks to emphasise that it is still more than just a recreational club for toddlers. Within the framework of the Promise and the Guide Law, Guiding aims to provide a unique 'environment of fun, friendship and adventure underpinned by spiritual and moral values'. However, the question is what are the 'moral values' that can be seen as relevant today?

The three absolute principles on which membership of the Guides has always been based--loyalty to God, the Queen and the country--have formed the backbone of the organisation. The Guide Promise, to which all new recruits have to agree, was supposed to make girls feel part of something higher than themselves, and maintain the Empire spirit of the past. Yet today, all three of these institutions are held up for question. At a time when Church of England vicars openly question the established notion of 'one God', the monarchy finds itself riddled with scandal and divorce, and old-fashioned British nationalism is held up as an evil afflicting football fans and fascists, any movement remaining tied to these institutions is hardly likely to attract teenagers in droves.

The fact that the institutions to which Guiding is closely tied are so discredited is not a problem that the Guide Association can solve through internal reform. Just as the original movement was a product of wartime Britain and reflected the values and ideas of the time, today's Guides are a reflection of the new values of the 1990s. As the Guide Association attempts to reorient itself around the values of today, the results can be as amusing as watching your elderly aunts dance to disco music.

Zen Buddhism

In 1993, recognising the need to adapt itself to the new, the Guide Association modified its promise to take into account the reaction against established religion. The old oath to 'do my duty to God' was replaced by the more subtle promise 'to love my God' which, as a brief read of the new Guide Handbook reveals, is designed to accommodate everyone from humanist to atheist to Zen Buddhist. The Handbook takes a page to explain painstakingly that while some people are religious, 'others don't feel as if they belong to any religion, but they do believe in God, and they try to do what they think God would like them to do'. At the end of this section, new recruits are asked 'how can you show you respect the religious beliefs of others?', and are invited to find out about their own faith and all the other ones.

The problems faced by the Guide Association in justifying why girls should believe in God is magnified in its equally clumsy attempts to explain the importance of the monarchy and nationhood. When it comes to 'serving the Queen', the girls are told to feel sorry for her, because 'it can't be very nice to be watched everywhere you go, even on holiday!'; and patriotism is reduced to the idea that 'we can find out about our own country, its history and customs, so we can tell other people about it'. What was once a simple oath, summed up in three words, now takes three tortuous pages of the handbook to explain.

The obvious lack of conviction in its traditional principles has not stopped the Guide Association from attempting to instil a certain set of values within the movement. When I asked Denise King, head of Guiding Services at the Guide Association HQ, what she considered to be the main aim of the Guides today, she told me that 'it is the same as it always has been: to provide girls and young women with the opportunity to be all that they as individuals can be'. The only difference today, she said, is that 'the complexity of social changes' means that the values promoted have to differ quite fundamentally from those of the past.

A couple of examples illustrate just how different the values of today are seen to be. While the Guides are rooted in militarism and war, the Guide Association now focuses its work around the theme of 'peace'. Where the early Guide movement placed great emphasis on self-discipline and the notion that 'A Guide smiles and sings under all difficulties', and the Guide Law reaffirmed this message until the end of the 1980s, the 1990s Guide Law has ditched any commitment to self-control. Instead, the Handbook encourages girls to 'explain your feelings to yourself' and to talk to other people about their problems.

Even the new uniform, which was revamped in 1990 by designer Jeff Banks, is more than a cosmetic change to attract fashion-conscious teenagers. As Denise King explained, the transition from woggles and stiff leather belts to t-shirts and jogging bottoms was more a reflection of the fact that kids today object to uniform full stop. 'We don't even call it uniform any more, but Guide Wear', she said. 'We think that what the girls wear should reflect the fact that they are all individuals and need to express themselves in their own way.'

Today's Guide Association looks more like a touchy-feely women's group than the military training programme it once was. By attempting to reorient itself around the 1990s values of multiculturalism, individualism and self-obsession, the Guide Association hopes to give itself 'a clear vision for its future which is not solely based on yesterday's ideas' (Vision Statement). This is supposed to be a vision based on some clear principles which, while they may make Baden-Powell turn in his grave, are deemed more relevant to the youth of today.


The problem is that the Guide Association simply is not relevant today as anything more than a recreational activity. In the past, the fact that the girls saw themselves as part of a movement aimed at building the Empire and defending the flag meant that the values of the movement had some meaning. Today, the fact that the Guides advertises itself as 'a game for life', and cannot justify its own beliefs to 10-year olds in fewer than five pages of text, means that it is very difficult to see why any girl should want to do anything more than play.

My sister Anna, aged 19, who has been a Guider for the past two years, summed up the problem well. For her, the biggest problem is the lack of commitment among the girls. She used the example of a unit activity in which each Guide patrol was making a flag to use on the forthcoming International Camp at Kibblestone, near Stoke-on-Trent. 'One patrol made a lovely flag and then ruined it by writing "Boyzone" and names of other pop groups on it', she complained. 'This just shows that some girls don't understand what it means to be part of the movement.'

Do you blame them?

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 93, September 1996



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