Manitoba History: Book Review: Rhonda L. Hinther, Perogies and Politics: Canada’s Ukrainian Left.

by Anne Morton
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 89, Spring 2019

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Kristine Alexander, Guiding Modern Girls: Girlhood, Empire, and Internationalism in the 1920s and 1930s. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2017, 283 pages. ISBN 978-0-7748-3588-6, $34.95 (paperback)

Kristine Alexander is the Canada Research Chair in Child and Youth Studies at the University of Lethbridge, and Guiding Modern Girls is, as one might expect, an academic book. It is thoroughly researched, closely argued and, for a book that is not long (with the actual text occupying only 200 pages), it contains an amazing amount of information. It is not a history of the Girl Guides as such. Rather, it makes use of the organization’s history as a way to approach the history of 20th century girls, what grown-ups wanted girls to become, and how girls responded to this.

For myself, never having been a Brownie or a Guide, I found it an absorbing introduction to Guiding and to its founder and his wife, Lord and Lady Baden-Powell, the Chief Scout and the Chief Guide. One mark of a good book for me is that it inspires one to learn more about its subject. This one certainly has. The internet is an excellent source of information on Girl Guides today and yesterday; to time-travel via YouTube to the world of this book, search “The Princess Royal at Torquay, 1937.” I was engrossed by Tim Jeal’s 1989 biography of Baden-Powell. It is a sympathetic account of a man whose private and public lives were equally fascinating.

During the Boer War Baden-Powell became a hero throughout the British Empire for his role in the siege of Mafeking. Canadians, including Manitobans, served in the Boer War, and Baden-Powell was a hero to Manitobans as Brown did lightly edit the stories for clarity, occasionally it is difficult to determine the antecedent of third person pronouns, although this is likely a result of the ambiguity of third person pronouns in the Anishinaabe language. As Brown notes, this book is a wonderful companion to Orders of the Dreamed, which she also edited. The two books deal with many of the same topics and demonstrate a cultural continuity that is both geographic and temporal. The essays also reveal a great deal about the kinship structure of several inter-related families along the Berens River. Its readability and contextualizing essays lend it well to classroom use. Cary MillerUniversity of Manitobawell. There is actually a namesake Mafeking in Manitoba. The names bestowed on Winnipeg streets and schools also show how much Baden-Powell’s time was part of our history. For instance, Lord Roberts and Wolseley are named after Commanders-in-Chief under whom Baden-Powell served. There are schools named after Cecil Rhodes and George V. Winnipeg also has a bridge named after Queen Victoria’s daughter Louise and a street called King Edward after her eldest son and successor. The hotel ‘Royal Alexandra,’ after Edward’s queen, is still a fond memory. And, as in so many places throughout what used to be the British Empire, we have our own statue (possibly the world’s coldest) of Victoria herself, the Queen-Empress.

While all this may now seem like too much commemoration of a Victorian heyday which we no longer find wholly admirable, it is important to realize that at the turn of the last century many people in Britain shared our misgivings about the Empire. There were those who questioned the morality of the Boer War. Compton Mackenzie (1883–1972) in his novel Sinister Street (vol. II, p. 11), which was written just before the First World War, has his schoolboy hero, in conversation with his mother, questioning “whether [the Boer War] is a just war, whether we didn’t simply set out on it for brag and money.... I am fed up with the rotten core of everything that looks so fine on the outside.” There were many who worried about the “rotten core” of the Empire. Defeating the Boers was harder work than it should have been, and a dismaying number of men who volunteered to fight were physically and/or mentally unfit to serve. What was to be done? What could be done?

aden-Powell came up with one solution: a way of training boys intended to develop them into men who would be morally sound, physically fit, concerned with the needs of others, and capable of helping in practical ways. For many boys, the Boy Scouts made the process of achieving these ends seem like fun. Scouting seemed like fun to girls too, and some English girls asked Baden-Powell if they too could be Scouts. The answer, not surprisingly, was ‘No’, but in 1909, only one year after the founding of the Boy Scouts, a separate organization was created for the girls. The Guides began as they were to go on—responding to what girls wanted, but in a way that adults deemed best for the girls. It is this tension that Guiding Modern Girls explores.

While the Guides quickly became an international organization, Alexander focuses on three nations—Britain itself, Canada, and India—all of which ‘belonged’ in their different ways to the Empire. After an introductory chapter on the founding of the Guides, there are five chapters, each examining an aspect of Guiding as it was practised and experienced in the three nations. The first is ‘the private sphere,’ as Guides were prepared for their expected future of marriage and motherhood. The next is citizenship, as Guides were prepared for political and social service. The role of the outdoors and camping then has a chapter, followed by one on a perhaps less familiar aspect of Guiding—rallies, drill, and pageants. Finally, there is ‘sisterhood,’ an ideal which had to face the reality of the Empire, in which not all Guides lived, and which those who did experienced in vastly different ways.

Even that brief listing gives a sense of the inherent tensions and contradictions in what Guiding was trying to achieve. Girls were acknowledged as ‘modern’ girls who wanted to be involved in community life, yet at the same time they were trained to be competent housekeepers and child carers. As Alexander points out, it was not uncommon for the women who provided this training to themselves be unmarried and living either alone or with another woman. Another source of tension was caused by differences of class and race. Women of the middle and upper classes worried that working class women did not look after their children or their homes properly, yet did not consider the difficulties such women faced. British women in India were horrified by the custom of child-marriage, which they saw as an example of Indian ‘backwardness.’ In our own country, there were Guide companies for girls in the residential schools. While they provided an opportunity for Indigenous girls to practise traditional skills in handicrafts and ‘camping,’ their intent was to further the goal of assimilation.

Another source of tension was the power imbalance between adults and children. One result of this is that if children do not like to do what adults are asking of them, they often find indirect means of expressing their dislike, such as executing the required task incompetently. Alexander was able to locate some documentation of discontent and disdain, such as the log books kept less than reverentially by Eileen Knapman, a patrol leader in Battersea in the 1920s, and in the diaries kept by Monica Storrs, an Englishwoman who led Guide and Scout troops in the Peace River Country in the 1930s. She was well aware of how funny she and her lessons on housekeeping seemed to the Canadians. [1]

Good history books are never just about the past; they help us reflect on our own times as well. As Alexander reminds us in her final paragraph, the contradictions, tensions, and power imbalances that shaped Guiding in the 1920s and 1930s—conflicts of race, class, and gender—“continue to shape the lives of girls and young women around the world” (p. 203).


1. Alexander used as her source God’s Galloping Girl: The Peace River Diaries of Monica Storrs, 1929–1931, edited by W. L. Morton and Vera Fast and published by UBC Press in 1979.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 25 April 2021