In recent weeks, Girl Scouts USA has found itself increasingly under fire from ultra-conservative groups, whose attacks are based on the fiction that Girl Scouts are allied with Planned Parenthood.

I joined Girl Scouts as a Daisy Scout in 1984 – the year, in fact, that Daisies were introduced. I stayed in Girl Scouts until I graduated high school, earning my Gold Award – the Girl Scout equivalent of the Boy Scouts’ Eagle Award – in my senior year.  Since then I have volunteered on and off, as time has allowed.   Obviously, Girl Scouts has been a huge part of my life.  Given that history, I wanted to offer an insider’s perspective on Girl Scouts.  Let’s try to get past the crazy rhetoric and smear-campaigning going on right now and see what Girl Scouts truly means to those girls whose lives it has shaped.

Here’s what it means to me: empowerment.  It may sound like a corny advertising campaign, but really, Girl Scouts taught me to believe in myself, and helped foster the confidence and abilities I have now.  There are three elements of my scouting experience that contributed to this.  They are: exposure to new things, the teaching of self-sufficiency, the availability of leadership opportunities.  Now, let’s be clear.  I don’t work for Girl Scouts.  I’m not even a member at the moment.  My own girls are too young to join and frankly I’m too busy to do much.  I do not know if these three elements are part of the stated mission of Girl Scouts.  What I do know is that they were a big part of my own experience.

First, Girl Scouts exposed me to a number of new things.  On the most basic level, you are frequently thrown in with girls you don’t know to do things – at camp, in workshops, Thinking Day, even when joining a troop.  It is expected that you will work with these strangers, and therefore, you do.  I was never popular in school – I was WAY too nerdy for that – but even in the years when school was difficult for me, Girl Scouts was there for me.  I could always look forward to going to day camp or a workshop to earn a badge, even if I wouldn’t know the other girls there.  More important, the knowledge that I could work with strangers, given the right situation, gave me the confidence to work with strangers in situations that weren’t as socially safe.  I was never popular, but the confidence I gained in Girl Scouts to work with others even when they weren’t my friends allowed me to negotiate high school – and even more telling, middle school – with confidence.  Further, from the very beginning, Brownie Girl Scouts earned Try-Its, badges designed, as the name implies, to let them try new things.  I earned badges like there was no tomorrow.  I earned Try-Its in i math, science, technology, music, theater, career exploration… everything.  As a junior I ran out of room on my vest for badges.  Of course, a girl could choose to not earn badges – no problem there.  But badges, try-its, and interest projects (badges for Cadets and Seniors) gave an opportunity to earn awards, work on something with your friends, go to workshops, and all kinds of things that kids love.  And through this, I was exposed to things I never would have been.  Not only did I earn the badges for music and reading  – things that were already a huge part of my life – but I branched out to do things my troop wanted to do that I wouldn’t have otherwise.  I learned about dance.  By earning my Car Care badge, I learned to take care of a car – this is the only reason I know how to change my oil and have any idea what a dip stick is.  Girl Scouts taught me to eat healthy food far more effectively than health class.  Girl Scouts gave me a safe place to experience sports – as you may have guessed, I am NOT sporty, and school sports was an embarrassment.

Second, Girl Scouts taught me self-sufficiency.  A long-standing tenet of Girl Scouts is camping.  Now, there are plenty of troops that don’t camp, and that’s fine.  But I camped all the way from brownies to seniors.  My senior troop camped every single month, except December, when we had our annual sleep-over in a church basement.  Through camping, I learned to start fires.  I don’t want to brag, but I was kind of the fire master.  I could start a fire with batteries and steel wool, and I knew how to make a log cabin or an A-frame, lay it with tinder and kindling, and start the fire with one match.  Okay, I take that back.  I do want to brag.  That was awesome.  I learned first aid.  I could set up a campsite by myself, including washing station and clothesline.  I learned to cook over a campfire.  How many girl scouts know how to make pineapple upsidedown cake using a tinfoil-wrapped box oven and cleaned out tuna cans?  (Answer: a darn lot).  For our annual camping competition, Reach for the Peak, my troop always picked a theme for our competition dinner, and our dinners went way beyond camp stew and s’mores (although, yum).  Now, for most of us, camping skills don’t really apply in every day life.  But the confidence that we gained through learning these things – the confidence that comes from knowing that you CAN take care of yourself in the wilderness – that stays with you.

Finally, Girl Scouts provided me with all kinds of leadership opportunities.  I was president of my troop in Juniors and in Seniors (I think my troop sisters in Seniors will agree that the angsty teenage me was better suited to being the power behind the throne).  As president, even in elementary school, I had to organize meetings and run them.  In middle school I organized a “Windows Into Cadets” workshop for juniors who would be Cadets next year.  I helped lead daycamps.  I made decisions weekly – at every meeting – about what we would do as a troop.  And as a senior, I earned by Gold Award – the Girl Scout equivalent to the Eagle Award.  After being in a horrible car accident myself, I planned, researched, wrote, and presented a lesson plan to every single tenth grade health class in my school district about the importance of wearing seat belts.  Girl Scouts gave me the confidence I needed to be a leader as a youth, and that in turn has given me the confidence I need to succeed as an adult.

Now, of course these opportunities are not limited to scouts.  But Girl Scouts consistently confronted me with these opportunities throughout my childhood, and that made it difficult to ignore them.

So what does Girl Scouts mean to me?  Empowerment.  Pure and simple, Girl Scouts means turning today’s girls into tomorrow’s leaders.  And this is a good thing.  An organization that promotes self-esteem and teaches girls to be strong, confident citizens of our country and our world, an organization that teaches girls to succeed in life and give back to society, should be above any political partisanship.  It should be entirely immune from attack.  Who could deny the benefits of such an organization?  Girl Scouts means strong girls.  Girl Scouts means successful strong women.  This should not be a threat; it should not make anyone nervous.  I cannot wait for my own girls to join.