It was the kind of event that would capture the imagination of a little girl. On March 12, the Girl Scouts of the USA celebrated their 75th anniversary with what they call a ``promise circle.'' All over the world they got together in groups, small and large, each at 4 p.m. in her own time zone, and recited the Girl Scout promise. You could picture a kind of benign invisible wave sweeping around the globe. In Boston, the great event was held inside the city's gaunt, modernistic City Hall. ``We're in the middle of it, so we have to keep the chain going,'' remarked spokesman Lisa Clifton as several hundred young ladies, ranging in height from short to very short - some in brown uniforms, some in green uniforms, and some in their own clothes with little touches of green here and there - settled themselves down on a polished brick staircase.
After a run-through just for practice, at 4 p.m. each little girl solemnly stood, raised three pudgy fingers, and said, ``On my honor, I will try, to serve God and my country ...''
Girl Scouting has evolved over the years, always highly respected, still clinging to the same honorable values, shifting in function as needs change, sometimes moving with the prevailing trend, sometimes gently counter to it: ``On the leading edge without being radical,'' as Patriots Trail Council executive director Barbara Donovan puts it.
Values haven't changed, but the constituency has. From a middle-class suburban movement, Girl Scouting has shifted to include all kinds of girls. ``We have communities that we have not traditionally been able to reach,'' says Ms. Donovan. She told of a troop from a poor Boston neighborhood, whose members couldn't afford to buy uniforms. So with Girl Scout pluck and resourcefulness, they simply made their own.
Girl Scout membership peaked in 1969 or so, with 3,900,000 members, at a time when the baby boom had produced a lot of 10-year-olds. The present membership of 2,917,000 (as of the end of 1986) shows a gradual increase over the past few years, according to Girl Scout national president Betty Pilsbury.
``We survived the '60s and '70s without changing our values. And yet it is the parents of the '60s and '70s who are coming to us because they want scouting for their children,'' says Donovan.
One way of coping with changing times is to turn to younger girls. ``After 6th grade, it's not cool to be a Girl Scout. We run into a lot of social problems. One happens to be boys,'' says spokesman Linda Smith, laughing. Two years ago, the Daisy Scouts were created for five-year-olds, and this year, for the first time, Brownies have started working on proficiency badges.
One Brownie troop in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston is working on a fitness badge. It seems a good way to give the girls a feeling of accomplishment while letting off a little after-school steam. ``These girls have tremendous energy, let me tell you,'' says troop leader Donna Bunnell as 13 little six-year-olds, mostly wearing plaid jumpers, ricochet around Our Lady of Lourdes Parish Hall.
As part of the fitness badge, the Brownies do exercises to a tape (throwing in a number of pirouettes that were not a part of the official program) and discuss hygiene procedures such as washing your hair and brushing your teeth.
``And who should you see every year?'' asks Mrs. Bunnell.
``SANTA!'' shrieks a little girl with a long brown braid.
But the correct answer turns out to be ``the dentist.''
The Girl Scouts was founded by Juliette Gordon Low, back in 1912, before women could vote. Then, says scouting historian Pat Ross, parents ``wondered if this was the right thing to do - to go camping in the woods, to wear bloomers with no skirt over them. The girls thought it was a great idea.''
Ms. Ross is curator of the one-room Cedar Hill Museum in Waltham, Mass., where the local scouts maintain a camp. ``We're bursting at the seams,'' she says. The museum contains Girl Scout uniforms from the '20s and bits of memorabilia, plus wonderful old photograph albums showing shiny-faced teen-age girls in full skirts and hats and loose-belted jackets; they looked very ladylike as they took down a tent, or played baseball on somebody's vast Victorian estate.
``In the old handbook there are many badges that surprise people,'' says Ross. ``There's an electrician's badge, a motorist's badge - you had to be a certain age to do it. There is one called businesswoman - typing and bookkeeping.'' A little later, in the '20s, there was an aviation badge; you had to fly a plane 25 feet.
During the two world wars, Girl Scouts helped in the war effort. There was a World War I service pin. ``You had to can 50 jars of jam or jelly. You had to sell 10 war bonds, one per household, which meant you couldn't just hit up your father. And you had to knit two pounds of wool for the Red Cross,'' says Ross. ``In World War II, the older girls were plane spotters. They sat on hillsides and listened for aircraft and identified them. Anything that was not a US plane was promptly reported by telephone. They had these hillsides all over the country; that was before radar, you see.''
Today, girls earn badges with names like ``computer fun.'' And in response to problems facing children today, there is a contemporary issues program: ``Safe and Sound at Home Alone,'' a program developed for latchkey children; ``Tune into Well-Being: say No to Drugs''; and ``Staying Safe,'' dealing with child abuse.
All sorts of programs are offered; the girls decide what they want to cover. Girl Scout troops can vary tremendously. If in the early days one of the great benefits of the program was that it liberated girls from the house and gave them something to do, some of their present-day equivalents have the opposite problem.
``They have very complicated lives; you talk to them about their schedules, it's amazing,'' says Barbara Horan, one of three leaders of a Wellesley, Mass., junior troop (10- to 11-year-olds). She emphasizes that what their kids need is a relaxed place where they can just be themselves. ``You see kids in third grade wearing makeup and high heels,'' she says. ``These kids, they're kids. They just have a chance to be kids.''
``We give them an opportunity to do things that are lost in our culture - picking apples, some of the silly field trips we have, sewing,'' says troop co-leader Helen O'Connor.
Values are an important part of what they teach, however. Co-leader Linda Dillion says that they teach the Girl Scout laws ``in an indirect way.''
``We don't drum them into them,'' adds Ms. O'Connor.
``I think we really try to accept the kids for what they are,'' says Ms. Horan. ``We have broken away from the standard tradition of the Girl Scout uniform, of going through the law. We're just trying to learn how to live a better life, to be fair and honest and helpful.'' She says they emphasize ``talking to each other, learning to help each other out.''
The Wellesley troop is fortunate to have three leaders who can share the kids and give them individual attention. But finding troop leaders can often be difficult in the age of the working mother.
``In the whole of Jamaica Plain, we have 140 children with four leaders, which overburdens the leaders,'' says Linda Smith. ``People don't make commitments. You need adults, and you don't always get them.''
President Pilsbury says that troop leaders are not always the traditional mother-with-a-girl-in-the-troop. Some are married women without children, young unmarried career women, or senior citizens. ``Retirees are a marvelous source of help,'' she says. They've even had husband-and-wife teams: ``We don't seem to be limited in where we go to get good leadership.''
As she speaks, the girls listen to their local librarian give advice on how to be a good baby sitter. Says Horan: ``In a world filled with mistrust, skepticism, and aloofness, we hope to bring girls together with people who are kind, supportive role models ... [to teach them] to communicate well with adults, to see adults as good.''