Scout's Honor: Ethnography of Girl Scout Gender Ideals and Practices in Contemporary American Society

Amanda L. Johnson, The College of Wooster


The purpose of this Independent Study thesis is to explore the ways in which the Girl Scouts of the United States of America has responded to changing gender ideologies and changes in the social positioning of women in contemporary society. A historical review of women's history in conjunction with a literature review of Scouting illustrates the embedded nature of gender ideals and practices. Drawing on symbolic anthropology, the theories of organizational culture, feminist anthropology, and the discourse concerning single-sex institutions, I view GSUSA as a complex organization that symbolizes the struggle over contemporary definitions of gender equality. In order to gain a holistic understanding of Scouting culture and the organization's communication, I conducted interviews with key personnel and collected documents from the National Headquarters in New York and the Heritage Trails Regional Girl Scout Council in Mansfield, Ohio. I used the ethnographic method of participant observation with Brownie Troop 83 in Wooster, Ohio. To explore the variable nature of troops, I interviewed several Brownie leaders from the Wooster area. From this data, one can see that National has a clear progressive framework in mind, stressing themes like science, math, physical fitness, and business acumen. However, this ideology clashes with a GSUSA history deeply rooted in domesticity and tradition. Thus, the regional Council is provided with a conflicting agenda, reinterprets GSUSA goals, and in many instances ends up reinforcing traditional gender practices. In turn, local leaders experience a lack of clarity within GSUSA and carefully balance their own values with those of larger society. This fragmentation and diversity symbolizes the difficulties associated with "top-down" change. As we move into the 21st century, organizations steeped in tradition may benefit from "horizontal" policy making that evaluates definitions of equality while acknowledging contemporary gender ideals.


© Copyright 1999 Amanda L. Johnson