The Girl Scouts of the USA has reached a milestone. After more than a century, and a history which included racially segregated troops in its early years, the organization has appointed its first Black CEO.
Former ExxonMobil lawyer Judith Batty now serves as interim CEO of the youth leadership organization. She follows Sylvia Acevedo, who served as CEO of GSUSA since 2016 before stepping down in August.
Batty, a former Girl Scout, started off in the organization as a Brownie with her local Nassau County Council in New York. She continued scouting over the years, before later going on to serve two terms on the National Board. Prior to GSUSA, Batty served as both a corporate executive and senior legal counsel for ExxonMobil, where she was the first woman and first Black General Counsel of the ExxonMobil affiliate in Japan.
Batty — who’s mother was also a Girl Scout — says her top priority as interim CEO is “to ensure a smooth transition.” Since taking the helm on Monday, Batty has been carrying out her plan of “working with, learning from, and listening to all of the members” of the GSUSA Movement.
The Girl Scouts: “A force of desegregation”
The Girl Scouts of the USA was originally founded as a movement for all girls in 1912 by Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low, but girls of color were left out – particularly African-American girls.
“… It is safe to say that in 1912, a time of virulent racism, neither Daisy nor those who authorized the constitution considered African American girls to be part of the ‘all,’” states history professor Stacy A. Cordery at Iowa State University wrote in her book, “Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of Girl Scouts.”
Segregation was pervasive throughout the United States following Jim Crow laws and the “separate but equal” legal doctrine adopted in 1883 after the overturning of the Civil Rights Act of 1875.
During this time, Low let the local communities decide whether it would be acceptable to register troops composed of African-American scouts. Although fearing that White girls in the South would resign if Black girls were allowed to join, Low believed “[w]e are bound in the end to admit them,” Cordery wrote. Low’s main concern was the detrimental effect that integrated troops of African-American girl scouts would have on membership. She feared “rapid and widespread resignations or defections” of White girl scouts “to the Camp Fire Girls,” a competing, all-white organization, Cordery wrote.
Nonetheless, the first African-American girl members were a part of the third US troop formed in 1913 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, predating the first officially recognized all-African-American Girl Scout troop in 1917, according to the GSUSA official blog. Although the third US troop in 1913 included African-American girls, troops remained largely segregated by race in the South for decades. The first officially registered all-African-American Girl Scout troop in the South was formed in 1942 in Nashville, Tennessee, by Josephine Holloway, one of the first African American Girl Scout troop leaders, the official blog cites.
But African American girls struggled to organize, because resources were usually scarce in Black communities, especially in the South.
While earning her PhD in history at Rutgers, Miya Carey in 2017 documented Black Girl Scouts’ early struggles to integrate with White troops and the national organization.
“It wasn’t just relegated to the South. Local racial regulations often shaped Black girls abilities to participate as Girl Scouts,” said Carey, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at Binghamton University in New York.
The desegregation of the Girl Scouts began in the 1950s, intensified by national efforts onset by the Civil Rights movement throughout the United States. Martin Luther King, Jr., would go on to describe the Girl Scouts as “a force of desegregation” in 1956. Later, in 1975, Gloria Dean Randle Scott would became the first Black national president of GSUSA. Since the desegregation of GSUSA in the 1950s, the likes of Mae Jemison, Condolezza Rice, Venus and Serena Williams and Mariah Carey have joined the ranks of notable Black women alumnae of the 108-year-old organization.
The Girl Scouts have 2.5 million members, consisting of 1.7 million girl members and 750,000 adult members working primarily as volunteers, according to the GSUSA website. As of September 2017, scout membership consisted of 13.1% African American, nearly 17% Hispanic, 5.5% Asian and 71% White, according to membership data cited in the GSUSA 2017 Annual Report.
“While we are proud of our progress, I am committed to engaging the Movement in difficult discussions about race in an effort to make the Girl Scouts an actively anti-racist organization,” Batty said. “In addition, I will work to drive our technology forward so that we can meet our girls where they are and deliver programming directly to them on the platforms they use. And finally, I am committed to ensuring our Movement has the resources it needs to overcome disruptions caused by the pandemic.”