Imperial Fantasy or Internationalist Achievement: The Boy Scouts and Girl Guides in the Early Twentieth Century

AHA Session 73
Saturday, January 3, 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Lenox Ballroom (Sheraton New York, Second Floor)
Susan Thorne, Duke University
Tammy Proctor, Utah State University

Session Abstract

It serves as a right of passage for children around the world, and today includes affiliates in more than 150 countries. From Bhutan to Luxembourg to Madagascar, Scouting offers an experience that crosses immense geographical boundaries, while still connecting to the particular culture and society of each of its many locales. Yet the Scouts has not always embraced this inclusive ethos. In the years of its founding, General Robert Baden-Powell envisioned the Scouts as a method for promoting the health and masculinity of British boys. By 1909, it was joined by the Girl Guides, founded by Baden-Powell’s sister Agnes, which would likewise promote an active, particularly British femininity. While Scouting became increasingly connected to prominent imperial and military figures in its early years, the violence and destruction of the First World War transformed the way that the Scouts and Guides would come to promote childhood camaraderie. Only after the war did the Scouts and Guides begin emphasizing internationalism and cooperation rather than British imperial vigor and supremacy. In turn, the interwar years served as a period of the Guides’ and Scouts’ most significant growth, not only within Britain and its empire, but also around the world. What exactly that turning point meant, however, and how Scouting came to be reinterpreted during and following the war bears further examination. The papers presented here offer a comparative approach to the varied establishments of Scouting and Guiding across both time and place. Together they address questions about the changing nature of Scouting in the years surrounding the First World War, and additionally ask what made Scouting appealing in each context. What kind of shared identity has it promoted? And how has it continuously offered young people something personally significant and relevant? John Mitcham (Samford University) addresses the early history of the British Boy Scouts and the racial and imperial identity associated with their promotion under Baden-Powell in Britain and in the white settler colonies of South Africa, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia. Annalise DeVries (University of Alabama) examines the history of the Girl Guides in Egypt, as the country’s early troops were founded during the war, with some forming as explicitly British and others out of an intersection of girls from varied confessional, national, and ethnic backgrounds. Erin Corber (Indiana University, Bloomington) investigates the formation of France’s Jewish Scouting movement in the interwar period, addressing its connection not only to the Western European experience of the war, but also the wave of Jewish immigrants who arrived from Eastern Europe following the Russian Revolution. As we continue to reconsider the impact of the First World War a century on, an examination of its impact on Scouting opens up a larger discussion about changing ideas of childhood, militarization, and health and wellness in the early-twentieth century.

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