LEARNING TO BE A WOMAN:
LESSONS FROM GIRL SCOUTING AND
HOME ECONOMICS, 1920–1970
Rima D. Apple and Joanne Passet
Increasingly, historians have been studying the importance of such popular culture as film, radio, and music in the lives of adolescents. Crucial but neglected in this creative research has been attention to the role of less dramatic but perhaps more pervasive print messages provided by the American school system and girls' social organizations. Girl Scouting and home economics classes represent typical experiences for girls in twentiethcentury America. Between 1920 and 1970, millions joined Girl Scout troops—some stayed only a year or two, but many others maintained their memberships into adulthood.1 At the same time, American girls often were required to attend home economics classes as a part of their primary and secondary school education. Common as these two parallel experiences were, we know little about them and the messages they conveyed to American girls about domesticity and citizenship.2
Textbooks served as the basic tools for students in home economics classes; in many instances their grades depended on a careful reading of these texts. Similarly, Girl Scout manuals explained the various aspects of Scouting and, most importantly, outlined the specific requirements for acquiring merit badges, the focus of most Girl Scout activities. Scouts would have read them very closely.3 Hence, Girl Scout manuals and home economics textbooks reached millions of impressionable girls. Given the vast numbers who participated in home economics training and the Girl Scouts, analyses of their manuals and textbooks are critical to understanding of the development of twentieth-century American youth culture.