This post reviews Susan A. Miller,Growing Girls: The Natural Origins of Girls’ Organizations in America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2007)
Miller, a lecturer in the history department at the University of Pennsylvania, here writes a detailed and fascinating account of organizations created in the early 20th century to help girls maintain continuity with the frontier past even as they prepared them for the modern future–organizations like Camp Fire Girls, Girl Scouts, Girl Pioneers, and many more.
I wanted to review this book because it juxtaposes so well with the discussion of the patriarchy movement to which I’ve devoted the last three posts. Quiverfull families are clearly nostalgic for pioneer days and see modernity as problemmatic. In many ways they are like the late 19th and early 20th century Americans who created these wilderness organizations for girls. But whereas the Patriarchs are trying to deal with the perceived crisis of modern womanhood by resurrecting pre-modern family life, turn-of-the 20th-century Americans with similar mindsets invented summer camp in the woods.
Why camping in the woods? Well, for boys the rationale was that civilization had turned them all into wusses, lacking virility and manliness. A good summer in the woods would be just the thing to rekindle the savage life-force in 20th century city boys.
For girls the rationale was similar. Modern life has turned girls into preening, self-indulgent, petty people, preoccupied by romance novels, theatrical entertainments, make-up and clothes. A return to the camp-fire would re-awaken in them the primitive domestic nature of the female, closely connected to the production and preparation of food, clothing, and shelter.
This was the view of the Camp Fire Girls, the first and, until 1930, largest of these organizations. But other organizations had different motives for bringing girls out into nature. Rather than exposing girls to campfires so as to remind them of, in the words of Camp Fire Girls founder Charlotte Gulick, “that first grand division of labor which arose when man went forth while women guarded the fire of the household,” other organizations, especially the Girl Scouts, stressed the “can-do spirit of early settlers,” helping modern city girls develop the same omni-competence, resourcefulness, and valor that nostalgic memory attributed to pioneer women in the past. (p.5) Girl Scout leaders reminded girls that frontier settlers didn’t have the time or luxury to ask whether a task was appropriately men’s or women’s work. Work had to get done, and everyone pitched in. Gendered labor divisions were themselves products of modern society.
Miller notes a darker side to this movement. The early decades of the 20th century marked the nadir of race relations in the United States. The mythic status given to the pioneer settlers was part of a larger set of cultural views among middle class white Protestants that demonized recent immigrants, Catholics, blacks, Jews, and so on. The real America was the Anglo Protestant one, reflected in the original settling of the nation. This spirit, as Kathryn Joyce’s Quiverfull book documents, remains a powerful draw for some Americans today, perhaps best illustrated in Joyce’s vivid depiction of Doug Philips’ Vision Forum’s celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement.
There is a final connection between the camping movement of the early 20th century and the Quiverfull movement today. Leaders of both had disdain for the vast American middle, for the ordinary parents who were too quick to accept the givens of modern life. Both movement’s leaders set themselves up as experts who know better. Their authoritative pronouncements appealed at once to their own expertise even as they rejected the modern context that made expertise normative. They were experts telling people not to trust the experts but to return (or at least to send your children to camp so they can return) to an older way of life.
In her final chapter Miller describes how by the 1930s many Americans no longer fetishized the wilderness as the source of all health and goodness. Psychological categories of personality development and socialization were fast becoming normative, a trend that would only increase in the 1940s and 50s (though Miller doesn’t go there). Many of the historic camp organizations faded, and those that remained, especially the Girl Scouts, adapted themselves to a less rustic mindset and embraced more therapeutic values. Said differently, the wilderness movement was co-opted by the very forces it was originally founded to resist. Whether the same fate awaits the Quiverfull movement remains to be seen.