Column: Girl Scouts, feminism and backlash

Unidentified Girl Scouts react in different ways to water bubbling in a vacuum chamber during the Girl Scouts Rock @NASA event, Friday, June 8, 2012, at NASA Headquarters in Washington. (Paul E. Alers/NASA/Creative Commons)

As a feminist and a Catholic, there are many times I find my positions and identity bluntly called into question. What has been most egregious, however, is the recent statement by Archbishop Robert J. Carlson discouraging Catholics, when approached by Girl Scouts, from buying cookies during this highly anticipated cookie season, saying they “must act in accord with their conscience”. 

In a letter to local Catholic leaders, followers (515,000 of which live within his archdiocese), and members of the Girl Scout community, Archbishop Carlson called for the separation of the Catholic Church from the organization. While the Girl Scouts are a secular group, many troops meet on parish property (which under the Archbishop should no longer be allowed), and over 4,000 girls in the greater St. Louis area are members of troops based in Catholic schools and parishes, according to a statement by the Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri chapter. 

The Archbishop has claimed that the Girl Scouts are moving in a direction in conflict with Catholic values, citing specifically how the organization “highlight[s] and promote[s] role models in conflict with Catholic values, such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan” as well as partners with groups such Amnesty International, a prominent human rights organization, and supports sex education. Additionally, it alluded to the Girl Scouts’ acceptance of transgender youth.

He then poses the question, “We must stop and ask ourselves: is Girl Scouts concerned with the total well-being of our young women?” 

This is not the first time that religious and pro-life organizations have vocally opposed the Girl Scouts, notably last year when they honored Congresswoman Barbara Lee, a Democrat, a woman of color and former Girl Scout, who along with her strong history of advocating for the poor, is pro-choice.

Although the national organization has no official ties to Planned Parenthood, local councils may choose to partner with them for educational events, which in Waco, Texas resulted in a cookie boycott back in 2004 – which, unsurprisingly, was extremely unsuccessful, and actually caused the troop to see record sales.

However, the Archbishop’s letter is the first time that church leaders have proposed stringent measures, such as the disallowing of meetings or troops in Catholic schools and parishes, affecting thousands of girls in the Eastern Missouri area. 

The dismissal of the organization, with over 100 years’ history of young girls’ empowerment and community service, is both disheartening as a former Girl Scout and for its fundamental distortion of the Catholic faith’s principles of compassion and inclusion – as well as the direction Pope Francis has continued to vigorously push the Church in these past few years. 

It, most importantly, begs the question: how, in 2016, the empowerment of young girls, through service, friendship building, and the celebration of individuality, can possibly be made controversial?  

An Op-ed recently published in the New York Times, “Why do we teach girls it is cute to be scared?” talks about how girls are discouraged from risk-taking behavior when they are young, and how it contributes to the confidence and leadership gap in older women. It caused me to reflect upon my experiences as a girl and how it impacted who I am today. 

The Girl Scouts were undeniably formative in this for me, through the business of cookie sales, my community Bronze Award project and going outside my comfort zone, trying new activities I never would have attempted otherwise (notably, the Trumbull Girl Scouts’ first-ever Pinewood Derby, a mini-car racing event typically done by the Boy Scouts, in which my Dad and I placed third). 

I can still remember being in elementary school and my mom, who was proudly my troop leader, driving me around my neighborhood to knock on doors and sell cookies. Nervous, I would beg for my mom to come up and out of the car with me. She declined, and after the first few houses I realized it wasn’t that bad after all, and that I could handle it on my own.   

I cannot imagine the effect on my confidence and emotional well-being, at the age of 8 or 9, of having one of my neighbors refuse to buy cookies on the premise that their Catholic conscience disallowed them from supporting a “subversive” organization – an organization I found so positive and supportive.

As Pope Francis has said, “Let the church always be a place of mercy and hope, where everyone is welcome, loved, and forgiven.” As such, in good “Catholic conscience,” I will certainly continue to welcome any Girl Scout selling cookies on my family’s front porch this year.


Marissa Piccolo is associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marissa.piccolo@uconn.edu. She tweets @marissapiccolo.