Girl Scouts anniversary: Nearly a third of California congresswomen were Girl Scouts

Girl Scouts 1987

Barry Thumma/AP

In this March 12, 1987 file photo, Brownie Girl Scout Kristy Miller, 7, from Glen Burnie, Md., recites the Pledge of Allegiance during ceremonies commemorating the 75th year of the Girl Scouts in Washington. First lady Nancy Reagan is at second left.

One hundred years ago today, Juliette Low gathered 18 girls together in Savannah, Ga. for the very first Girl Scout meeting. Today, more than 50 million American women spent part of their childhood camping and singing and selling cookies. So it may not surprise you to learn nearly one in three California congressional women were also Girl Scouts.

Democratic Rep. Linda Sanchez of Lakewood was a Brownie. So was Palo Alto Rep. Anna Eshoo. She says she still has her beanie. Anaheim Democrat Loretta Sanchez says she was a Brownie, a Cadette, and even a Senior Girl Scout. None of that surprises Republican Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack. "I was a Girl Scout," she says. "Wasn’t almost everyone when we were little?"

It sure seems that way if you talk to congresswomen from California. Long Beach Democrat Laura Richardson was also a Girl Scout. "For our generations," she says, "that was the first real activity you could do besides sports. I was one of the first girls to play with the boys, you know when I went to school. But other than that, we as girls, we didn’t have activities that girls could participate in."

Girl Scouting certainly provided the activities. Bono Mack says she participated in parades. Loretta Sanchez loved the Girl Scout Jamborees. And then there was the camping. Democrat Lois Capps of Santa Barbara says her camping was just in the backyard. But Bono Mack recalled going to Singing Pines. Richardson remembered her first camping trip to Camp Whittle. Linda Sanchez even remembered the camping song. "I know that they used to sing 'Day is done, Gone the sun' at dusk every evening." She says she learned a little bit about the environment and ecology on those camping trips "and how to be safe if you ever get lost in the woods."

Anna Eshoo says scouting taught "very practical, wonderful things." Like how to sell cookies. The young Loretta Sanchez figured out a system: show up with boxes in hand where people had cash. "I would stand out in front of the bank on Friday afternoons when people were cashing their paychecks." This was in the days before ATM’s when people made weekly trips to the bank. "I would wait for them to come out of the bank, and then I would be sitting there selling them the cookies. So I would always sell a lot of cookies."

Much of the learning came from earning merit badges. Eshoo claims she still has her badges. "I’ve kept them all these years."

Loretta Sanchez had a sash full of badges: "I had a knitting badge, I had a sewing badge, a cooking badge, I had a government badge, a printing badge, a make fire badge,

Bono Mack remembers her skating badge. And first aid. "I mean, that’s a big one." She says the process of earning a badge, "where you devote yourself to a project and you stick it through until you get the reward. It’s a good way I think of teaching people set a goal and achieve it."

Those badges were both a source of envy and inspiration for Linda Sanchez. Both her older sisters were Girl Scouts. Their sashes were heavy with merit badges and "I used to run my fingers over the multiple badges and dream of a day when I would complete my badges. It was really a powerful incentive and motivator for me to kind of follow in their footsteps, which is sort of ironic because I followed one of my sisters here to Congress."

And that’s the question: Did Girl Scouting help these women get to Washington? Democrat Lois Capps was a Brownie just after World War II, when women in positions of power were rare. She says scouting’s mission of empowering women continues today.

"It’s first of all recognizing that you have a voice and that you have some gifts, whatever they are, they’re very different. And you look around this little circle of people and you learn how to trust one another, you develop some things that not every family structure can give," Capps said.

Rep. Laura Richardson says scouting gave her a start. "Just imagine you know the first time when we stood up and introduced ourselves. Those were good skills we could use later on as now we’re here in Congress."

Rep. Linda Sanchez says even Thin Mints have their purpose.

"Definitely the Girl Scout cookie operation is a fundraising operation without equal so who knows, maybe those skills translate into running for public office, too."

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