As we suffer through what has officially been dubbed the most partisan era in the history of American politics (next to the Civil War, perhaps?), it seems there is little left that Americans can agree on. Even contraception, which used to be the fallback issue of consensus among those sick at yelling at each other over abortion, has tied if not surpassed that issue in partisan squabbling. So is there anything left that people of different political stripes can actually find common ground on? Maybe just one: cookies.
Republican or Democrat, Independent or Libertarian, anyone of any political persuasion who considers him or herself a cookie aficionado holds a special affection for this time of year. Some may call it the dawn of spring, but those of us with a sweet tooth call it Girl Scout cookie time. Throughout the halls of Congress, you will find Republicans and Democrats alike sneaking a Thin Mint or two, or diving into a box of Samoas (my personal favorites). But what you may not know is just how many of those members of Congress used to sell cookies themselves.
When it comes to cultivating female leaders, not a single college, university, sorority, or religious organization can come close to the alumnae of the Girl Scouts. The organization, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this month, counts 70 percent of female members of Congress, all female astronauts, and every single female Secretary of State to date as former Girl Scouts. In an interview, Congresswoman Donna Edwards said, "Every skill that I use in the United States Congress right now I know that I learned that through my experience in Girl Scouts." Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison echoed that sentiment: "The Girl Scouts taught me the importance of honesty, fairness and respect for others. I gained confidence and learned skills I value even today," she said in a statement. When asked if she thinks she would have ever become one of the few women to head a television network had she not spent years as a Girl Scout, BET Chairwoman Debra Lee said simply, "No. Girl Scouts were very important in my life."
But bipartisan support hasn't stopped some from trying to politicize the century-old organization that many of us consider as all-American as apple pie, or perhaps cookies. Local elected official Bob Morris recently accused Girl Scouts of being a "radicalized organization" that "sexualizes" girls and functions as a tool of Planned Parenthood. Though he later apologized for some of his rhetoric, if he has strong feelings about ensuring that fewer young girls find themselves in need of the services of organizations like Planned Parenthood at an early age, might I suggest that Rep. Morris buy some Girl Scout cookies? Lots of them. The reason? Because Girl Scouts probably plays an even greater role in teen sex and pregnancy prevention than your run-of-the-mill high school sex ed course.
I've long been frustrated with how tone-deaf both sides of the sex-ed debate sound. On one side you have conservatives with their heads in the sand, proclaiming that "abstinence" is an effective educational program for preventing teen pregnancy. (It's not.) On the other side you have progressives proclaiming that comprehensive sex ed is the most effective method for preventing teen pregnancy. (Well, it's certainly better than abstinence-only, but that's not saying much.) What both sides of the argument rarely acknowledge is that either approach fails on its own, with their effectiveness being determined in large part by the support network young people already have in place. That includes parents, teachers, and peers.
According to the findings of multiple studies (which you can view here), the greatest predictors of which teens will engage in risky sexual behavior remain family life and the peers they associate with. Another predictor? Goals. If a teen has a goal -- to become a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, or perhaps a member of Congress -- he or she is statistically more likely to make "safer" choices.
In other words, it's not enough to say, "Don't have sex, because you could get pregnant," or, "Use a condom, because it greatly decreases your chances of getting pregnant." The connection has to be made between, "Use a condom because it greatly decreases your chances of getting pregnant, and if you want to go law school, that's a lot harder to do if you have a child before you're ready." While I want to be very clear for the sake of Rep. Morris and his cohorts that this is not the messaging of Girl Scouts, it's worth noting that the mission of the organization is to instill pride, purpose, leadership skills, and goals in girls so that they grow up to become proud, purposeful women -- women more likely to make healthy choices so that they achieve their long-term goals, whether those goals take them to the Halls of Congress or all the way to space, or even just to cyberspace (shout out to my fellow former Brownie troopers!).
So if you really care about the health of girls and seeing girls make healthy choices, buy some Girl Scout cookies. You never know. You may just end up purchasing a box from your future member of Congress or your future president.
Click here to see a list of famous Girl Scouts, and to see my interviews with members of Congress about how the Girl Scouts shaped their lives and careers. Please feel free to share your own memories of how Girl Scouts shaped your life in the comments section.