Guiding the Knots of Sisterhood

In a world that favours men, Josie McElvogue finds solace at weekly meetings in a cabin near the woods. This is Josie’s story on the relevance of the Girl Guides – with all its cookies, camps and crafts – as an institution that brings out the best in every girl.

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Josie, at nine years old and ready to canoe her way to the finish line

On a cold, rainy night in 2005, eight-year-old Josie McElvogue made her way with her parents to a small demountable building in Helensburgh. Dressed in a pale-blue, Girl Guides polo shirt, she took her place among a bunch of excited, giggly girls – each of them clutching a sprig of flowers wrapped in a bright ribbon. One by one, the girls stepped up to their Guide Leader to receive a sash, Promise badge and World Guiding badge. Josie carefully recited: “I promise that I will do my best to do my duty to God, to serve my queen and my country and live by the Guide Law.” She had no idea that she had committed to what would become the most fulfilling part of her adolescent life.

Girl Guides Australia was founded in 1910 with a mission to enable girls and young women to grow into confident, self-respecting members of the community. The Guides are well-known for being an inclusive space for girls of all ages, identities and abilities. This institution has over 10 million members worldwide and over 300 000 members in Australia. Programs range from local camping trips to global programs such as the Stop the Violence campaign. Girls as young as five can join the Guides.

“It’s like a cult honestly – but we’re one of the good ones,” Josie says.

Josie’s parents moved from the UK to Helensburgh right after Josie was born. At school, she was always a quiet kid, sitting in the corner with a book. “I was always the smart kid, the nerd person – I felt isolated in school,” she says. She picks at her fingers and adds, “I’m usually only drawn to people who are like me and there were just so few people I felt like I could connect to in school.”

Her parents decided it would be beneficial to take up an activity outside of school. Her options: karate classes or Little Athletics. Scrunching up her nose Josie says: “Little Athletics was an immediate no. That’s where all the ‘cool kids’ went.” She tried karate for a few weeks but did not take to it. A casual mention by a family friend led her to the Girl Guides one Friday afternoon and she never looked back.

Taking a sip of her soy chai latte, Josie exclaims: “People always think Guides are just selling cookies, doing crafts and baking – we’re so much more than that!”

Now nineteen, Josie avidly recalls her best memories in Girl Guides were always ones that were physically challenging and pushed her to try new things. Her favourite was abseiling. “The first time, I was at the top looking down, thinking ‘oh my gosh am I really going to do this??’ I was terrified.”

The young Josie took a deep breath and clutched the rope tightly. She put one foot down, then the other. Soon she was cruising down the rock, a huge grin on her face. “After that I went for another three turns. I was a ten-year-old who just abseiled down a rock, it was mind-blowing.”

The biggest takeaway was being a girl is not a limitation. Josie’s face lights up: “The whole reason this movement started is because the Scouts were created; this was in an era where it was frowned upon for girls to be doing things that were too outdoorsy and getting themselves dirty, but the girls still pushed back saying, ‘no we want to do those same things even if we like crafts and cooking.’”

This push led to an environment, fostered by the Girl Guides, where girls did crafts and cooking but also had the opportunity to go on hikes and camping trips. “As a young girl hearing this, it was like yes, girl power – I can do anything!”

Turns out Josie’s ‘anything’ forms a diverse skill set: from canoeing, pitching tents and cooking over campfires to baking cookies, directing skits and tying knots. “Fun fact: I can now tie seven knots in just fifty seconds,” Josie claims, smug grin on her face.

The icing on the cookie: Josie went through this journey with her mum, Hazel McElvogue, right beside her.  A year after Josie joined the Guides, Hazel decided to become one of the Guide leaders. The previous leaders had retired and if no one stepped up the Helensburgh Guide Unit would’ve been dismantled.

“I thought this commitment was out of my comfort zone, but I had already seen some of the benefits for Josie and I couldn’t let that be the end of the road,” Hazel says. “I stuck around until my two girls, Josie and Lucy, were too old to be part of Girl Guides.”

Following in Hazel’s footsteps, Josie is now a Guide Leader for the Brownies of Helensburgh. Originally, she never planned to be in Guides this long. “I only stuck around because I was trying to earn the Duke of Edinburgh award in Year 11 and this was a good way to check off the volunteering criteria.”

A few months in, Josie realised being a leader was the highlight of her week. Coincidently the Helensburgh Guide Unit was again low on Guide Leaders so her request to join permanently was welcomed with open arms.

It was much easier for Josie to take on this role with Hazel as a role model. “My mum was so helpful: I knew I could go to her for support and advice on developing my own skills as a leader.”

Josie dove straight into her role, running day-walks and encouraging the younger girls to participate in Guide outings. Josie dedicated as much time as she could to Guide activities. “It can be hard for young girls to step out on their own, to find a place in the world and develop self-confidence especially around younger boys; it’s much easier for the girls to navigate through an environment just for them.”

Girl Guides does a lot to show girls their value through implicit messaging. “It’s not like we specifically say, ‘ok this week is about feminism’, rather we have a range of activities that show these girls we are an all-female movement and we can do anything.” The activities encourage teamwork, looking out for one another and being confident in your abilities.

This movement also stimulates inclusivity. Through mini presentations, the Guides are exposed to different cultures around the world. Girls from any background or ability are treated the same. One of the Brownies in Helensburgh is hearing impaired but that doesn’t stop her from participating and engaging with the others.

“Even when she takes out her hearing aids before going canoeing, the other girls will be conscious of that and make sure they speak to her directly,” Josie explains. “It’s wonderful being able to foster a culture of girls understanding each other despite having differences.”

Even the Guide Promise was changed to be more inclusive. The words “do my duty to God” were omitted and replaced with “be true to myself and develop my own beliefs.” Hand over her heart, Josie says: “I’m agnostic, so I’ve embodied all aspects of the promise except for the bit where it mentions relevance to god; this change was so important not only for me but for any other girl that identifies with a different belief.”

When asked about the Brownies she’s leading this year, Josie claps her hands together and chuckles. “I took them to an event yesterday, a year ago they had no clue what canoeing was, but at the event they were winning races and working together as a team, it was amazing; they were running towards me with huge grins, wanting hugs and a high-five,” she says almost falling off her seat.

“I feel so honoured that I was able to be there and make a tangible difference to their lives.”

A pause.

Releasing a long sigh Josie continues: “In the past, we’ve always had a waiting list of girls wanting to join Brownies or move up to Guides, but now there just isn’t,” she croaks. “I currently only have three Brownies.”

There have been efforts for better PR, especially through the local Helensburgh paper but they were without results. Girls just don’t seem as interested anymore. “There is a real concern the Brownie Unit will go out of action, that would be devastating because I know how good it would be for the girls to have this.”

Josie stares at her phone for a moment, then offers a tiny smile and says, “The current Brownie members will still be here for another year. That’s plenty of time to pull new recruits.”

Despite the uncertain future, Josie plans to stick with the Girl Guides of Helensburgh. “I’m going to be at the University of Wollongong for a while, four years left before I finish my double degree, then maybe I’ll get a masters in teaching. I don’t have to think about leaving the Helensburgh Guide District yet.”

At this point, Josie has reached for her phone and is swiping through photos of her adventures with the Guides. “I know it sounds cliché but I do always want to be part of the guiding movement regardless of where that is.”

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