Erikka Askeland: Guiding principles of feminism for girls

A girl guide badge.
A girl guide badge.
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THERE is a new girl in town. This week, Girlguiding UK hired a new chief executive, Julie Bentley, who said that the organisation for young women is the “ultimate feminist organisation”.

That is not quite how I remember it. I donned the requisite brown uniform of the Brownies group the first moment I could. I was inducted into the coterie in a ceremony in the school gym which I seem to remember involved leaping over a wooden toadstool. And while my recollection of the affair is a bit dim, there was no mention of ultra-feminism – albeit we were an elite cadre with spiffy knotted scarves and boys at the time did present a clear and present danger of transmitting cooties.

Were we feminists? Perhaps we were, although it was hard to tell as we competed for badges that demonstrated our ability to sew or to serve tea and cakes. But I do recall rejecting the race to get more badges on my sash, even as I graduated to the blue Girl Guide uniform.

The trick was to go for the easy ones that didn’t require a great deal of effort. Camping? Sure, why not! But I already knew that some of them just weren’t going to happen. Home skills? Whatever – with emphasis on the second syllable and accompanied by a roll of the eyes, a handy phrase which I’m sure I picked up from the more useful and interesting among my fellow guides.

Of course, the biggest effort we made was in fundraising. In Canada, the Girl Guides have hit upon a real moneymaker by selling boxes of biscuits. Inside the box, there is a row of chocolate biscuits and another of vanilla. But the sale of them – only available once a year and only from your local guide pack – is usually a frenzy, as teenagers with the munchies and grandmas alike awaited our knock on the door. We were minted, which I suppose is an important lesson for young women for, as any fule kno, women in the UK earn 15 per cent less on average than men despite 40 years of equal pay legislation. Except of course we handed all the cash to Brown Owl.

Many young women these days seem to think the concept of feminism is bad or at least outdated, which is why Bentley’s comments raised eyebrows. But it could be that we need to drill young women, now more than ever, to stand up for themselves and consider their value.

When I was a girl it was my heart’s desire to be a veterinarian. Or Wonder Woman. Sure, what she wore was probably skimpy in a way that wasn’t completely wholesome for a seven-year-old, but she could deflect bullets with her wrist bands and owned an invisible jet. Whereas now it seems more girls reckon on leaking a sex tape on to the internet and marrying a footballer for fame and fortune.

A recent campaign advert made by thickos at the European Commission to try to persuade girls to study science was badly misjudged. The video, which you can see on YouTube, transformed a lab into a fashion runway that women wearing safety goggles used to sashay by a man in a lab coat. The “Science: It’s a Girl Thing!” video was rightly accused of being condescending.

I wanted to be James Herriot, not take after some vague idea of “women in science”. And while it wasn’t the Girl Guides that necessarily helped me in my dream to become a veterinarian, they were about practicality.

Even the movement’s founder, Agnes Baden-Powell – sister of Scouts creator Robert Baden-Powell – got it in the neck from the girls. Originally they wanted to call the seven- to ten-year-olds “Rosebuds” until the girls started making retching sounds and getting annoyed. Instead, the impish Brownies were born.

Of course, I didn’t become a vet in the end. As with my interest in Girl Guides, my innocent fantasies of sticking my arms up to my elbows into the unmentionable parts of a horse fell prey to the horrors of high school. Moving to a new school made it very clear that Girl Guides were beyond the pale, and that Wham! records and hoping that the boys crashed my birthday party was the new big thing.

But the friends I ended up with – some of whom had been Guides too – knew the benefits of sticking together. We had been fishing at least once and knew how to tie knots. Most of us even decided to become feminists. If not scientists.