The other day, my middle son pointed out a book in my bookcase. It was my grandmothers old Girl Scout Handbook, from when she was a girl scout back in the 1940’s.
Since my boys are boy scouts, they’re both interested in all things scouting. So I took it off the shelf to show him, and he quickly lost interest. But I didn’t. Instead, I flipped through it, interested to see what the Girl Scouts of the World War 2 era were learning.
And boy, was it fascinating.
This book is a window into the expectations of women in the 40’s, during a time of war. But it was a time of war when children were still children. The book doesn’t talk about victory gardens or blacking out your windows.
Instead, it talks about homemaking, arts and crafts, international friendship, literature and dramatics, music and dancing, nature and “the out-of-doors”.
Here are some of the things I found most striking about the book, and the window it provided into the expectations of women in the 40’s.
Women All Look Forward To Being Homemakers
“You know the business of running a home is about the most important business there is – and one to which every girl looks forward.”1944 Girl Scout Handbook, Page 56
I have to say, from my 2019 female breadwinner perspective, this is an odd assumption to read.
Of course, in the time, it was the profession to which many girls looked forward. But not all. During World War 2, many women went into the workforce to help with the war effort. After the war ended, many of them lost their jobs to men returning from war. They were sent back into the home to care for children and keep house.
But those women often weren’t happy with returning back from productive, meaningful work back to a life of drudgery and caring for men. Many stayed in the workforce or later re-entered it. And of course, many raised daughters who would go on to fight for workplace equality with men.
Women Don’t Understand Money
“All this is called business management, which sounds like an impressive term, but anyone who is old enough to handle any money should be able to understand it. Maybe if more girls did understand they could make what they have go further and stop people from saying that women are unbusinesslike.”1944 Girl Scout Handbook, Page 56
There are a number of assumptions in these two sentences that strike me.
First, there seems to be an assumption that many women waste money. If only they better understood it, the book laments, they could make what they have go further.
Being the 1940’s, these women wouldn’t have been spending their money on smartphone apps and Shopkins. In fact, since this was during the war, I would doubt there were many opportunities to waste money at all. But wise spending had a different meaning altogether back then.
There was no “fast fashion“, no malls, no department stores filled with inexpensive goods from other countries. Food was terribly expensive compared to what it is today – and in fact would have been rationed at this point in history. I don’t know what this book thinks women were wasting money on?
The other assumption here is that people say women are unbusinesslike. Given how many women today run successful businesses, and are successful in corporate careers in the business world, this assumption is laughable. But it would have been the perception of the time.
Certainly, women have always owned businesses. But in the past it would have been very rare, and most girls growing up wouldn’t personally know a female business owner. It also might have been seen as a personal failing of her husband, “allowing” his wife to work like that. After all, he was expected to provide for his wife and family. If she owned a business – what would that say about his abilities?
Inflation Is Real
The “sample troop budget” shows just how real inflation is.
The weekly dues examples from a troop of twenty girls pegs dues at either two or five cents per week.
Yes, I said per week.
One of the sample troop expenses is for community service – things like Christmas stockings, toys or clothing for children, gifts for worthy causes, etc. The cost of such generous community service? Three dollars.
At the end of each badge are a series of reference materials, many of which are books. The costs for these books ranges from thirty five cents up to $2 or $3. There are no seven, ten, or twenty dollar books to be seen.
Think about this. The world and expenses you see around you now aren’t static. Inflation marches costs upwards. This is why those who are elderly and on a fixed income see their standard of living fall over time, even if they buy exactly the same things they always have.
When we think out into the future, and picture ourselves in our sixties, seventies, eighties and beyond, we often forget to factor in inflation. This is why investing, rather than savings, is key to keeping up a standard of living in your later years.
Savings accounts are great for emergencies, but most of them barely keep pace with inflation over time. The only way to outpace inflation is to earn more than the inflation rate.
Women who originally read this book as teens and are still alive today would have seen some periods of huge inflation in their lifetimes. My parents and grandparents have told me of CD’s earning over 10%, and mortgages of 13% being a good deal (?!?) back in the 1980’s. They also might have experienced the ravages of deflation, both during the depression as well as in the late 2000’s.
Looking back at the financial world from the time this book was written, you can clearly see that money has changed a lot over the years.
Homemaking Was A Big Deal
One of the ten “program fields” of girl scouting in this 1944 handbook was homemaking.
Homemaking is an art, a profession, and a business that belongs to every girl and woman in some degree.1944 Girl Scout Handbook, Page 282
What kinds of skills did women learn in the homemaking section of the book? Cooking, of course. There was a lesson in how to pasteurize your own milk. There was a “Housekeeper Badge”, where you could learn about household tasks, planting a window box, and removing stains from napkins.
On the bright side, there was also a “handywoman” badge. But on the not-so-bright side, it mostly involved things like painting, learning to read meters, and mending.
Oh and lets not forget the “Hostess Badge”, where you learned to keep an emergency shelf of food in case someone invites a last minute guest or two to your gathering. You also got to arrange a centerpiece of flowers for the table! Hooray.
Now homemaking didn’t include child minding, but never fear. You learned all about child care in the “health and safety” program.
Life Changes Slowly, But Quickly
My grandmother passed away only four years ago, in 2015. Reading this book helps me better appreciate just how much the world changed from the time she was a child, writing her name carefully in the cover of this book, until the point where she passed away.
Inflation ate at the value of a dollar, increasing the cost of everything to a point that was likely unimaginable in the 1940’s.
The role and expectations of women changed dramatically from when this book was written.
In this book, there was no expectation that women earning badges would go on to use them in the workforce. Instead they would use them in the home, amusing their children, keeping a good house, saving money, and sewing clothes.
I’m sure many years, there was no significant change in her life. But as those years moved into decades, and stretched into a new century, the world changed entirely.
Not only has the world changed significantly since the 1940’s, but the scouts have as well.
I hope you’ll take some time today to think about all the ways money, and the roles of women, have changed over the years. Perhaps you can talk with an older woman and ask what things were like when she was a child. What kind of expectations were there for women? What financial topics was she taught about?
And take some time to appreciate just how slowly, and quickly, the world changes around us. I know that things have changed a lot just since I was a kid