Thursday, 7 February 2013

This is why I am a Guide leader‏

There’s been a lot in the news recently about the Girl Guides. Our newly appointed CEO, Julie Bentley, has controversially proclaimed in a press release that Girlguiding UK is “the ultimate feminist organisation”. This has provoked a mixture of reactions, both from Guide leaders themselves, many of whom take it for granted that this is the case (whilst others seem inexplicably repelled by the label, as if it means we’ll be offering a Bra Burner badge any day soon), to the press, some of whom have published some frankly ignorant, lazy and offensive journalism on the subject that made my blood boil rather (this fluff piece from the Torygraph is the main offender, replete with a geeky-looking photo of a Guide that I can guarantee is at least 20 years out of date). And now there’s the promise consultation – the start of a process that may lead to some of the stuff about God and the Queen being taken out of the promise we all make as Guiding members – or at least reworded to make the promise more inclusive for atheists and republicans.

Unfortunately the image of Guiding as a tally-ho, middle class sort of institution is the one that is prevalent – as well as its rep amongst those ignorant of GGUK’s branding, messaging, PR and actual work as a bunch of gimpy God-squadders. The media persists in portraying us as a place where girls are sent to learn to be good housewives and mothers, doing nothing but sew and bake cakes, whilst wearing a pseudo-military get-up and parading around with flags, all of it with a vague implication of hairy-legged lesbianism perpetuated by seedy journos. I also sometimes hear women boast that they were Brownies, but got chucked out of Guides for being too naughty – as if Guiding was about trying to quash their free-spiritedness and individuality. When I wanted to join the Guides as a kid, my mum was worried that I would be indoctrinated into some kind of secty, old-fashioned dogma that would do just that.

As someone who spends an awful lot of time volunteering within Girlguiding, I find it difficult to reconcile these stereotypes with the work I do. Each week before Guides, I feel the burden of responsibility; I don’t want to run a session on domestic violence or challenge the girls to a Ready Steady Cook-a-thon – I can’t be bothered to teach them how to wire a plug because I’ve had a long day in the office and I want to go home and veg out in front of the telly and not think about anyone else’s needs. Then I get there, and experience the enthusiasm and vitality, surreal sense of humour and thoughtfulness of the girls – it cheers and refreshes me, and I remember what it’s all about.

What it’s not about is self-important trumpeting about God or housework or the monarchy. What it is about is getting girls to see that they are not ‘just girls’ – about counteracting the wimpy, simpering girliness that so shocks me when I see it in women of my own generation who think they need men to do DIY and light barbecues and get their Apple products to work. It’s about giving girls and the women they will become the confidence to realise they can do anything if they just put their minds to it – whether that’s getting up a climbing tower, surviving in sheets of unending British rain or becoming prime minister.

To do this, I think real girls need to be encouraged to be who they are, without being embarrassed or retiring about it, or feeling scrutinised or shouted over. That’s why, at least for now, Guides needs to be a girl-only space, without the presence of boys. I don’t believe in single sex schools, but I do believe in Guiding’s philosophy that a boy-free environment is essential to nurture girls and women with guts, and with fire in their bellies and passion in their convictions – girls and women who can use their intelligence to become something amazing.

The thing that motivates me to put in all this free work as a Guide leader is seeing this really happen in my Guides. The Guide age (between 10 and 14) is a crucial time in a woman’s life, and the transformation between a girl’s arrival at Guides fresh out of cute little Brownies to the end of her Guides career is remarkable. Possibly my favourite thing is camp. Camp is actually where we do the more traditional Guidey things (and I love the idea that even traditional within Guiding means feisty, physical outdoorsiness of the type described in How the Girl Guides Won the War) – pitching tents, making fires, grubbing around in the woods and getting thoroughly filthy.

The best thing about camp is that development process in action – seeing girls becoming strong and confident over a week and over the years they take part in camp. To start with, you ask them to bang in a wooden tent peg and they can’t hit it on the head, the peg flops around pathetically in the ground and is completely useless. After a few camps, they’re bashing it assertively on the head like it’s their worst enemy, confidently striding round the tent identifying weak spots where the rain might get in and efficiently dispatching the required peggage with gusto. A novice camper will flap disheartenedly at their groundsheet, unable to grip it or get all their bedding to stay inside it. After a week at camp, they’re wielding their authority over that bedding bundle, rolling an airtight package secured with sturdy rope that would survive a dip in a lake if we ever carried out our threat to test it. New Guides shy away from the wood fires we teach them to cook on; experienced Guides jostle over who gets to feed the fire, knowing instinctively the right balance between control over and respect for the flames.

The point is, they start to realise their strength and ability. They start to realise they can influence the world around them. The girl who flourishes in Guides knows her world is her dominion – she’ll shove her incompetent dad off the barbecue and she won’t let anyone push her around. She’ll assert her place in the world in a way that is confident but compassionate, assertive but sisterly; she’ll be equipped to be the best she can be.

And this is why, in my opinion, Girlguiding IS the ultimate feminist organisation – and this is why I am a Guide leader.


  1. I was put off by your use of the word 'inexplicable' for many of us it is not inexplicable at all The irony is we are both saying the same thing about the growth and development of girls but completely disagree on the use of the word feminism.

    1. Hi Kelloggs Ville! I had a read of your blog and really liked it. The difference is that I don't see feminism as a shouty buzzword or a way of over-politicising things. To me feminism is just a way of life and an outlook. These labels describe what we stand for, even if we don't go around attending rallies and trying to be incendiary. What I've described about girls' development IS feminism, for me. And I think Julie Bentley is right to try to convey this more actively to the media, as I think the prevailing image of Guiding is very old-fashioned, even if WE know that's not the truth.

  2. Thank you. You have reminded me of a fire that has been buried quite deep.

    It is a hard one for me because I do feel girls need productive and balanced non-school time with boys but I think when it comes down to it 10 year old girls won't learn to light fires when more assertive boys are around. This isn't to say all boys are assertive, it's that the ones who are would make it difficult. These boys themselves need space to be assertive, take risks, etc.

    All children are different, have different needs and at the crucial 10-14 age grow at different rates. The boy/girl split is not the only way to create a nurturing environment for individual needs but we have proven it works through the approach you begin to describe here which you learnt from my mum, who learnt from her mum-a Brown Owl-and dad-a Scout Master and which you have developed into a 21st century, international travelling approach!

    I am extremely proud of your achievements, as I know mum would be too. So when's camp?

  3. Becky, I never said thanks for your lovely and thoughtful comment! Your mum was an absolute inspiration to me and I truly believe I wouldn't still be in this game if she hadn't been so great. Almost merits another blog post...

    Uganda lift-off is July 28th!! ARGH!