Selling Feminism One Box at a Time

The serious business of Girl Scout cookies

Illustration by Jason Stout / Thinkstock

A friend of mine recently landed a job with a Girl Scouts regional council. When she announced this happy news on social media, she was flooded with congratulatory comments to the tune of "Woooooooo! Girl Scout cookies!!!!" as though the walls of her cubicle or the office building itself were made from Trefoil shortbread bricks.

Girl Scout cookies are arguably the most misunderstood foodstuff in American culture. Not only are they really the only thing that people associate with Girl Scouts, as evidenced on my friend's Facebook wall last summer. They are also icons, and icons often become scapegoats, both in the culture at large and in the perception of the work they're meant to do in a girl's life. And that's a damn shame.

In their near-century of existence, Girl Scout cookies have encapsulated American identity, from patriotism to gender roles. Cookie sales began in 1917, when a troop in Oklahoma baked cookies and sold them as part of a service project. A few years later, a troop leader in Chicago came up with a sugar cookie recipe that was distributed to troops nationwide; from there, thousands of troops used this recipe in organized fundraising bake sales well into the Thirties. In 1936, the National Council made the move to standardized, commercially produced cookies, gradually adding new varieties over the decades, the most recent additions being last year's gluten-free Toffee-tastics.

In her master's thesis, "The Baking of a Cultural Icon," journalist Jennifer Graue of the San Jose Mercury News examines Girl Scout cookies as part of the fabric of American cultural identity. "They've become a non-food because they're so symbolic," she says. Marxist scholars call the process by which a product stands in for an idea "reification," and it's part of how capitalism turns people and social relationships into things.

Think of how you can buy a box of cookies and have them sent to American troops stationed overseas. The uniquely American connotation of Girl Scout cookies serves to turn that box of snacks into a gesture of patriotic symbolism.

What's more, "whether we physically consume [Girl Scout cookies], most Americans are familiar with them via consumption of mass media," says Graue, citing an episode of Friends that centered on Ross attempting to sell cookies on behalf of a scout whom he'd accidentally injured. In fact, these wee treats are so ingrained in our cultural consciousness that when Laura Sawicki added "Girl Scout cookies" to the lunchtime dessert menu at Launderette, the pastry chef's (incredibly delicious) riff on Samoas was instantly recognizable.

As a reified symbol of American-ness – one that generates hundreds of millions of dollars in sales every year – Girl Scout cookies are often, as Graue says, "used as symbolic chess pieces in games of personal politics." Among the most immediate criticisms of Girl Scout cookies is that they are junk food and undermine the progressive nature of Girl Scouting; many troops opt not to participate in cookie sales because they run counter to the Girl Scouts' emphasis on healthy living.

But the "junk food" accusation is a red herring. We all have free will, no one is forcing anyone to eat the cookies, and, as Lynelle McKay, CEO of Girl Scouts of Central Texas, says, "If someone prefers not to indulge, they can still support our girls by purchasing a box to be donated to our Helping Heroes: first responders and our servicemen and women." Ultimately, Girl Scout cookie sales serve to advance the mission of the organization – launching confident, community-minded young women into adulthood – while also providing a major source of funding to help achieve that mission.

This longstanding tradition of selling cookies serves to underwrite the operations of regional Girl Scout councils (so, in Austin, that is the Girl Scouts of Central Texas, which serves troops from San Angelo to College Station and Waco to Lockhart). Programming money goes toward maintaining and operating summer camps, including the Girl Scout cabin at Zilker Park, and Camps Kachina and Texlake in Belton and Spicewood; STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, including access to 3-D printers and robotics classes; and serving girls who aren't easily reached via elementary schools and the like. For example, the GSCTX recently facilitated the formation of a troop of girls in long-term care at Dell Children's Hospital. Because the Girl Scouts is self-funded, cookie sales are essential to the infrastructure of the organization. Each scout selling cookies sets a goal for how many boxes she wants to sell; each troop does the same. The troop also decides together how they want to use the funds that they raise through product sales; individual troops use their 40 cents per box sold to pay for campouts, badges, supplies, and service projects, as well as choosing a charitable organization to donate a percentage of their sales to.

While individual girls can't earn money from cookie sales, they can earn "Cookie Dough," which they can then apply to everything from special patches (minimum of 25-50 boxes sold, depending on the patch) to summer camp tuition (1,000+ boxes) to a trip to Disney World (3,500+ boxes).

Fundraising goals aside, there are five important skills girls should develop through cookie sales: people skills, money management, business ethics, decision making, and goal setting. "It's important to sell the parents on cookie sales – parents don't understand that it's about more than just paying for the troop activities," says Carolyn Beck, a troop leader in the Walnut Creek/Delco-Symon service unit, which comprises troops from East and Northeast Austin. "The purpose of Girl Scouts is to develop these girls into young women who can go out into the workplace and be successful, and do that through good, positive experiences and launch them into their communities."

Mariah Ramon, a longtime troop leader, mom of two Girl Scouts, and one of my scouting mentors, says, "I have seen how cookie selling, and Girl Scouts overall, has benefited my daughter specifically in helping to build her confidence. It [has] helped her to blossom into a confident salesperson who loves to work at cookie booths and enjoys engaging with each potential customer."

The work that a girl – and it's a lot of work both for the girl and her parents, from canvassing in neighborhoods to spending hours shivering outside, flogging cookies at booths outside of grocery stores and taco joints – does via cookie sales lays the foundation and provides the scaffolding for future projects like the Gold Award, the highest honor a Girl Scout can achieve. She uses those goal-setting, planning, and people skills to identify an issue or problem in her community, research it, assemble a team, create a plan, and execute it on her own. Gold Award recipients have organized musical instrument donation drives for music classes in public schools, created cyber cafes in retirement homes so that residents could stay connected to their families, and offered a series of food allergy awareness workshops in schools and summer camps. The Gold Award can help women earn college scholarships and even enter the military one rank higher.

And that's where some valid issues with selling Girl Scout cookies arise: It takes a lot of time and effort to sell hundreds or thousands of boxes of cookies, and younger scouts need support from their parents. And not every scout's parents work in offices where selling cookies is welcome, or have leisure time on the weekend to work booths, or have cars to get them there. And, according to Beck, it's the girls who can't afford summer camp who have the hardest time selling enough boxes to earn a free week at camp. "It takes a lot of support, and if they don't get it from home, hopefully the troop leaders can provide it."

Community support is also imperative. I'm already seeing people looking for cookies on Facebook, eager to start stocking up on Thin Mints.

This year will be my daughter's first year selling cookies with her Daisy troop. I'm excited about ushering my girl into the world of selling cookies, and not only because it means that for six weeks I'll have unfettered access to my beloved Samoas. Now I realize how powerful Girl Scout cookies can be in my daughter's personal growth.

If only all girls were so lucky.

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