Lessons On Women & Money From The 1944 Girl Scout Handbook

Lessons On Women & Money From The 1944 Girl Scout Handbook

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.

Today the Girl Scout website talks about leadership development. About how girl scouts will change the world. There’s even a section on there about Girl Scouts and STEM.

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

5 thoughts on “Lessons On Women & Money From The 1944 Girl Scout Handbook”

  1. Wow has that changed! I was a girl scout from Brownies to Senior and got my Gold Award. GSUSA taught me so much about myself and the world. I would not be who I am today without it. I did all sorts of badges and community service… but none involved arranging flowers or cleaning napkins!

  2. Thanks for sharing this! As a former Girl Scout and US History teacher, I love the discussion of norms for women in the 1940s.

    My grandmother grew up during this decade and I can’t help but think of the ways she was discouraged from her goals. She married young and had kids, but eventually went college when her kids grew up. I knew her as a bank representative (her profession later in life), but her life may have been completely different if she had different opportunities growing up.

  3. This was a fun read as a Lifetime Member of Girl Scouts. Interesting to see how the lessons have evolved through the years. My favorite activities were the auto maintenance badge and all the science badges.

    I don’t know if my Grandma was a Girl Scout, but she was college educated and my Aunt described her as an original feminist. She made sure all of her children, even my dad, knew how to keep up the house. There were no ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ chores in her home.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Abigail @ipickuppennies.net

    Sheesh that’s a lot of condescending BS in there. Though inre: food prices, automats were becoming a thing, I believe, which did offer cheaper vending options. But they weren’t wildly popular I suppose. So definitely not a way the average woman was “wasting” money. I think the stereotypes were women spending money on clothing and makeup, the same generalities that exist now.

    And as for CD rates, as late as 2001 I was able to get a 6% CD rate. Haven’t seen anything like that in the intervening years. Sigh.

  5. Thomas A Waffle

    I like to read old books and magazines and have read through a stash of women’s magazines from the 1910s where there is a lot of discussion about the “new” style of housekeeping. They’re referring to the movement in the middle/upper classes away from domestic help and the woman of the home doing more of those duties herself and as there was also some war time mixed in there you see talk of making things go farther and cutting costs. I think a lot of the thought around making money go farther was less about “wasting” it on things like shopping for clothes and accessories and more about making the food and clothing budgets more efficient.

    It is a condescending comment about women being seen as unbusinesslike and yet most home management costs were managed by women, food, furnishings, ice, utilities, clothing but those things weren’t and still aren’t considered on the same “level” as business which then just wraps up in the discussion about unseen work by women.

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