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Girl Scouts: 100 Years Of Blazing New Trails

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It's hard to imagine Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Lucille Ball as part of the same club. But they were all, at one time, Girl Scouts. Founded 100 years ago in Savannah, Ga., the Girl Scouts now count 3.2 million members.

Girl Scout cookies have become as much of an American tradition as apple pie. A gaggle of Girl Scouts at a busy intersection in Brookline, Mass. collects cash for cookies.

"They are really, really good," the troop collectively assures a prospective buyer.

"Seeing cookies come out is a great sign of spring," says 45-year-old customer Bill Hartman. "It's a warm feeling and I guess that makes people smile."

Generations of girls grew up in those green uniforms, making memories with cookies, crafts and campfires.

"While they learned to build fire together, they couldn't help but learn about getting along with each other," says the narrator in a 1950s Girl Scout film showing girls in long skirts and white gloves learning about the wilderness. "They seemed to like being on their own."

But not everyone approved. "I wanted to be a Girl Scout, and my mother wouldn't let me," 57-year-old Linda Papatopali says. "She didn't want me to go camping. To her, that wasn't femininity."

Today, Girl Scouts are still all about blazing new trails. But the frontier has changed. As the badges on their vests show, this is not your grandmother's Girl Scouts.

Eleven-year-old Elizabeth Huebner has earned far more badges for science than for sewing. And she'll get math badges for everything from counting money to managing credit and financing college. The Girl Scouts say they're continuing an old tradition of being nontraditional.

At a meeting of Troop 65343, two Brownies show off the collage they made about the Girl Scouts founder, Juliette Gordon Low, who was trailblazing just by getting girls out from their isolation at home.

"This is the first troop, and this is Juliette as young woman," the girls read from their collage.

At a time when American women still couldn't even vote, Low was offering girls badges for aviation and inviting them to play basketball in their bloomers. And, the girls note, Low was unhappily married, and would have divorced her philandering husband if he hadn't died first.

Showing a bit of the same verve as their founder, these Brownies have titled one picture, "Low and her bum husband," which makes them giggle. Being honest is, after all, part of the Girl Scout law. It's one thing that's changed very little in the past century.

"On my honor, I will try, to serve God and my country," the girls recite. "And to live by the Girl Scout law." And then the Girl Scout motto: "Be prepared."

Back out at the cookie table, the sun is close to setting, and the tough get going.

"You can be prepared for anything," says one of the young sellers. "But this is exhausting and my hands are frozen."

It is no coincidence, Girl Scouts say, that the vast majority of women who end up CEOs, or, for that matter, congresswomen or astronauts, started out as Girl Scouts. But enrollment has declined since the 1980s. A modernizing makeover and new focus on minority and immigrant communities have helped some. Today, there are troops in far-flung rural areas, troops in housing projects, and troops for girls with parents in prison. As a spokesperson put it, "If you are a girl, we want you."

Last year, when a transgender 7-year-old joined a Colorado troop, some assailed the Girl Scouts as radical and called for a cookie boycott. But there's no cookie boycott at this intersection. By dinnertime, they're still unwilling to quit. They put on music, and 11-year-old Elizabeth starts dancing. Within minutes, the cookies are sold out.

These girls really have learned to believe they can do anything.

"If we are still alive we'll do another story for the 200th anniversary," one of them offers.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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