Charlotte Forrester, 18, says she was proud to learn “cooking and camping” as a child at Brownies. But as a teenage Guide, she now campaigns for sex education lessons in school, among other issues.
So have the Guides – founded in 1910 – grown up?
“We do aim to change with the times,” says Charlotte, from Stafford, who’s now in the Guides’ Senior Section for 14 to 25-year-olds.
“As Guides, we need to demand better because women deserve better.”
She remembers learning to pitch tents and learn “God Save The Queen” as an eight-year-old Brownie, but has more recently carried pickets with other Guides at a women’s rally in London.
“We were in a public space representing Guides, showing we’re passionate about issues that matter to young women and girls,” she says.
Charlotte is one of 18 Guides known as advocates, who have been chosen to represent the organisation to MPs, the media and local Guiding groups.
They campaign on issues like online bullying, body confidence and gender stereotyping. The issues are based on the findings of a survey of 1,500 girls and young women carried out every year.
The next issue on the agenda? The media’s focus on what women politicians wear.
“Something that was heartbreaking was when I spoke to 12-year-old Guides about the upcoming general election,” Charlotte says.
“What they had seen in the media were stories about the prime minister’s legs or her clothes.”
Charlotte says a newspaper front page highlighting the legs of Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon was “disheartening” and says the media should make a pledge to focus on policies instead.
A guide to Guides
- Girl Guiding covers Rainbows (age five to seven), Brownies (age seven to 10), Guides (age 10 to 14) and the Senior Section (age 14 to 25)
- Guides meet weekly at a local meeting-place known as a unit, at an evening or weekend, with hundreds of units across the country
- Many units may also go away on holiday, overnight sleepovers or camping trips
- Members can earn badges for new skills including learning an exercise, having an adventure or for learning facts
- Guides wear a uniform of a blue polo shirt with red sleeves, a blue skirt or trousers and an optional neckerchief
It may be 107 years old, but half a million girls and young women in the UK are Guides, which the organisation says is an all-time high.
Demand has left many girls on waiting lists to join local groups, echoing concerns recently voiced by the Scout Association.
But the organisation also says it is on the verge of “the biggest investment in girls’ futures” outside of school.
It has invited members of the public to come up with new badges, with DIY, Circus Skills, Grow Your Own, Voting and App Design among the proposals.
The revamp is spearheaded by Girl Guiding boss Julie Bentley. She joined in 2012 after heading the Family Planning Association, and has called the Guides the “ultimate feminist organisation”.
Guide Elena Veris-Reynolds, 17, who joined her local unit in Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire aged seven, agrees that the group has “always been progressive”.
“Guiding’s always been girl-led – even in the 1910s they had badges for Air Mechanics,” she says.
“An all-girl group may sound old-fashioned, but I value it as a confident space where I can relax, away from a high-pressure environment like school.”
But there is still a traditional side. Guides can earn badges for cooking and learning the national anthem.
Charlotte says that the history and traditional side to Guides is “still important”.
“When you join you learn the history of Girl Guiding and it makes you feel part of something much bigger,” she says.
“Your traditional cooking and camping are actually really useful and aren’t taught in an outdated way.”
Elli Moody, Girlguiding’s head of advocacy, says its young members are now “incredibly powerful” in tackling social issues.
“When I was a Brownie and a Guide we weren’t out campaigning,” says Elli, 38, who joined her local unit in Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire as a girl. “Things have changed”.
In 2013, Guides grabbed headlines by urging the Sun newspaper to scrap printing photographs of topless women on Page 3.
More recently, Elli says Guides “directly contributed” to a recent decision to make sex and relationships education compulsory in all schools in England by consulting MPs.
Guides also gave evidence at a separate inquiry into sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools, an issue MPs concluded was on a “shocking scale”.
“These successes are because of girls speaking out and being really brave,” she says.
But are Guides really feminist?
Elli says this “may not be the right term” for everybody, but adds: “However you interpret ‘feminism’, we offer girls and young women a space where they can be themselves.”
After all, the movement began after a group of girls turned up to a Boy Scout jamboree in 1909 – and demanded to “do the same thing as the boys”.