Simulating Patriarchy: Problematizing The Girl Guides


By Jodie Knapp 

This post gives a feminist attention to the institution of the Girl Guides and further explores the wider impact that this has on shaping a woman’s outlook on acceptable female behaviour in society. Geographers are interested in how ‘simulations’ train our bodies for future roles (Cartes and Torres 2013). Children are a target demographic for such simulations. Play is how children are introduced to social roles, and are subtly enrolled in existing ‘grown-up’ power-relations (Woodyer 2012). With the use of costumes, props, toys, and imagination, a child can simulate their role as a police officer, a doctor, a soldier (Macdonald 2008). Such immersive simulations should be examined for the power, control, and inequalities they foster and perpetuate.

A Feminist Lens on Child’s Play

Feminist and queer theorists have demonstrated that gender norms are socially-constructed ideas that are performed and reproduced. Hence, the behaviours of masculinity and femininity we associate with particular bodies are fictional ideas, rooted in cultural values (McGlinchey 2017). Feminist geopolitics recalibrates its scale of analysis to examine the ‘everyday’ routines of power, not just the big political events that garner huge attention. By examining the ‘uneventful’ parts of our life, we can better appreciate how power crops up in unexpected places.

Play is situated in this notion of ‘the everyday’. By focusing on children’s play, one can tease out how feelings, experiences, and practices accumulate to become control (Dodds, Kuus, and Sharp 2013). If really pressed, many of us can reflect on groups and clubs we joined as children that used play and games as learning tools to foster values in us. These groups – these children’s institutions – can be examined with a feminist lens. Analysis of children’s institutions can tease out how patterns of behaviour in play and games are exercises of power; simulating the future inequalities that will exist when children are adults (Bilo and Mountz 2015).

The Girl Guiding Movement

Founded in 1910, the creation of the Girl Guides in Great Britain was a direct response to the request of young girls who wanted to join the Boy Scout movement, founded two years earlier. Over the last century, the organisation has changed drastically. Initially the movement provided an incredible outlet for social action during the troubling times of the First and Second World War, offering young girls opportunities to develop vital life skills, make friends, and support their community. In recent years the organisation has seen the introduction of several new badges and the adaption of The Promise given by members to reflect modern culture. Despite advancements, many women who are alive today will have previously experienced and been affected by the troubling aspects of the Girl Guides.

The network comprises of four separate groups, defined by age categories: Rainbows (ages 5-7), Brownies (7-10), Guides (10-14) and Rangers (15-18).

The Promise that every Guide makes is embedded in the ethos of the Girl Guides. All members are encouraged to make the following promise: “I promise that I’ll do my best, to be true to myself and develop my beliefs, to serve the Queen and my community, to help other people and to keep the (Brownie) Guide Law.

Following on from this, the Brownie Law (“The Brownie Guide thinks of others before herself and does a good turn every day”) is as follows:

  1. A Guide is honest, reliable and can be trusted.
  2. A Guide is helpful and uses her time and abilities wisely.
  3. A Guide faces challenges and learns from her experiences.
  4. A Guide is a good friend, and a sister to all Guides.
  5. A Guide is positive and polite.
  6. A Guide respects all living things and takes care of the world around her.

The very process of repeating these mantras serves to indoctrinate young minds into subservience. There is no requirement to encourage girls to be positive, polite or helpful,for example. Internal desire ought to drive these actions, not the compulsion to meet a social expectation of a ‘well-behaved’ lady.

Rewarding Simulated Behaviour

Badges are a ceremonial part of the Girl Guides. The feeling of achievement when your sash is full of accolades and pins is special. It also signifies the hard work that you have put in, as well as creating some competition between your peers. To be awarded a badge, you must complete certain tasks and demonstrate your capabilities. In the example of the hostess badge, I can personally remember having to serve tea and biscuits to parents and other guests at events. The purpose of putting a seven-year-old through that process is to simulate the future role a girl is expected to lead as a polite and helpful housewife. This form of contrived play introduces young girls to the patriarchal values about how they should conduct themselves.

Scouts also award badges to members. However, there is a marked distinction between the types of badges and more widely, the activities that Scouts take part in compared to Girl Guides. The Scout movement aims to support young people in their physical, mental and spiritual development, with a strong focus on the outdoors and survival skills. Conversely, there is more of an emphasis within the Girl Guides on feminine badges and activities, This can be seen even with the introduction of modern badges, such as “Glamorama” and “Passion 4 Fashion”. The popularity of the Scouts compared to the Girl Guides further supports the argument that the Scouts is a more relevant, inclusive organisation aimed at supporting the development of children.

The combination of earning badges and following the Guide law are both techniques to foster obedience and docility. There are many useful badges to be earned, and one cannot discount the fact that skills are developed in the process. This duality can be quite conflicting. From personal experience, it is fun learning a craft, however the values instilled then have continued to punish my inner-thoughts, compelling me to be polite and respectful at all times, constantly questioning whether I am conducting myself with decorum.

‘Passion 4 Fashion’ and ‘Hosting’ Badges (Source).

Overturning Docility  

As women have continued to find and raise their voices and challenge their predefined role in the world, one cannot help but find the organisation is now redundant. The value of ‘compliance’ for young girls is an archaic notion. The Guides participated in silencing women and denying them agency.

Despite all Scout groups allowing girls to join in 2007, and an affiliation with the Scouting Association, the Girl Guides continues to exist and perpetuate some gender expectation. The Girl Guides compel young women to band together in order to establish a tight-knit community, but it is always set up within the frame of the male universe. This paradoxical situation means that women belong in their own sphere, continuously challenged by the masculine world surrounding them; “Docility is matched by refusal, refusal is matched by an acceptance” (Wood and Lodge 2013: p102). This in turn infantilizes the female attitude, to one in which they can only dream of achievements, but not live those out in actuality.

The gender segregation of Guides and Scouts reinforced patriarchy in the 20th century. The notions of ‘feminine behaviour’ encouraged domesticity, and denied girls of a chance for practical, or outdoor, crafts, which were reserved instead for boys. Meriting girls for their servitude is fundamentally wrong, it denies them of agency and reinforces the power held over them by the Patriarchy.

A Promise of Patriarchy

Despite the progress made, the problems presented are still current issues. Generations of women alive today have had patriarchal values embedded within their psyche. Older men and women might perceive this as normal and will expect younger generations to conform to their notions of acceptable behaviour, but now is the time to recognise the imbalances between genders. Furthermore, the Girl Guiding community stretches across 145 countries, each with their own cultures and ways of functioning. Today it is estimated that there are over half a million Girl Guides, however, it would be difficult to ensure that every group follows the same guidelines. To this day, there are still Guide organisations today who maintain the tradition of badges and ‘feminine’ activities.

Patriarchal simulations foster the inequalities between genders still prevalent today. The Girl Guides are but an example of issues arising from patriarchal control. The Guides have been taken as a focus of our discussion on the routines of power, but our discussion exists within the vast network of imbalances and everyday power play. Simulations enrol our bodies in playing out the future. We must question such simulations further, and discern who gains power when we rehearse and embody a power-holders vision for the future.




Jodie Knapp is an EPSRC-funded PhD student in Cybersecurity. Jodie studied Mathematics at King’s College London, and keeps an interest in Cryptography, as well as ideas around the geopolitical landscape of Cybersecurity.

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