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Sunday Reflections: What’s a Powder Puff?

Like most of us, I wear a few different hats. In addition to being a teen services librarian, I’m also a Daisy Girl Scout leader, and I love it. I love the enthusiasm of first graders, their pure hearts and bright eyes. I love getting to be the one to introduce them to service projects and nature hikes, to seeing new friendships blossom and old friendships deepen. As a Girl Scout alumni, and a third generation leader, it’s one of the more fulfilling roles I’ve ever held.  As with my librarianship, I am passionate about my opportunity as a leader to advocate for the girls in my troop, and hopefully by extension, for all girls. Unfortunately, I’m struggling with how to advocate for them right now in the face of some institutionalized sexism that’s coming from an unexpected and troubling place.

I heard about the event before I saw the flyer, and I knew immediately that “my girls” – the eight first graders in the Daisy troop I lead – would be all about it. For the first time ever, our local Girl Scout council is hosting a pinewood car race. These girls have been cooped up in the park district rec room all winter and have been itching for a chance to do something. Something cool. Something active. Something that real Girl Scouts do: have an adventure.

For five dollars, you buy a car kit, which consists of a block of wood, two axles, four wheels, and a good luck wish, which you use to craft the fastest little car you can. What’s not to love?! It’s creative, it’s active, it’s hands-on, it hits a bunch of STEAM marks, and at the end there’s a race with winners and there are even those ever-important patches to sew on the back of the girls’ vests. So cool. We can’t … oh wait.

wut?

Seriously. What in the name of Shirley Muldowney is THAT?

Yes, folks. The good old Girls Scouts of the USA is sponsoring a Powder Puff Derby. I can’t tell you how my heart sank to read that. I was floored. I guess I’ve been living in a little bubble because I figured that we were essentially beyond this kind of sexist naming tradition in the women run, girl powered, STEM focused world of Girl Scouting in 2015. The Pinewood Derby is a registered trademark of the Boy Scouts of America, so I understand that the Girl Scouts wouldn’t call their race the same thing – but of all of the phrases to use, why, oh why, is powder puff the one they chose? Since we’re not racing cosmetic products, it’s clearly because this is an activity that the boys usually do, but now the girls can give it a try too. But this secondary naming does nothing to assure girls that they have a place in the race. Powder Puff events were those where it was cute and fun for the girls to swap roles with the boys: the cheerleaders played football, the women raced their planes across the country, and now, the girls build, bling, and race their own wooden cars too.

As I held up the flyer and talked up this event – which I’m really excited about – and my scouts eyes’ opened wide with enthusiasm, one girl raised her hand. “But what’s a powder puff?”

Just to be perfectly clear, my problem is not with the event. It’s not with encouraging girls in this pursuit. It’s not in borrowing from the Boy Scouts wildly popular event. It’s in the name. A name that, as far as I can tell, was coined in this context by humorist Will Rogers as a nickname for the first Women’s National Air Derby.

And as many accounts attest, despite the name, Will Rogers was a great supporter of women in this pursuit, just as the Girl Scouts are today. But still, the name.

Before I could go on about car designs or scheduling or working days, I had to first explain to my girls what a powder puff actually is. These girls are too young for makeup, and as far as they know, a car race is a car race. Girl Scouts have always told them they could do and be anything at all. So I started by telling about the makeup applicator, and then went on to explain the tradition of calling activities that girls do sometimes but boys do all the time… a powder puff activity. And frankly, I didn’t have it in me to go into the part that bothers me the most, that our beloved Girl Scouts think that this is ok.

Powder Puff football is still played on some campuses, and many fondly remember the fun and athleticism of the event. And that high level of competition – whether it’s by the girls in the senior class, or trailblazing aviators, or eight year olds with a block of wood and some sandpaper – is exactly why the name is outdated, diminishing, and just plain wrong. The girls and women involved in these events take it just as seriously as anyone. The aviators competed on a level parallel to the men. The seniors play so ferociously that injuries are sadly not at all uncommon. And if you could have seen the spark in the room at that Daisy Scout meeting, you’d be dead sure that these first graders are in it to win it.

I’ve voiced my concerns directly to my local Scout council, and understand that they’re thinking about changing the name for next year. But that doesn’t seem like enough anymore. The time has come. The name has to change. It took my Daisies about forty seconds to come up with at least ten new possibilities. Words matter. Names matter. Our girls are proud to call themselves Daisies, Girl Scouts, brave, creative, strong, smart, caring, dedicated, and fast. Girl Scouts is the last organization that should be planting the seeds of self doubt that come along with sexist naming traditions.

Comments

  1. That last picture speaks a million words. I teared up a little at it; such fierce beautiful young ladies!

  2. Meredith Alley says:

    Thank you. I’m posting this link to the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northern Indiana FB page. You explain perfectly why I have a problem with the name.

  3. FANTASTIC news! The event is back again this year, and has been renamed as The Turbo Trefoil Derby!

  4. Heli Carlile says:

    Great news that the event has been named! As a girl scout leader, I was also floored to read the name Powder Puff Derby. I’d never heard the term powder puff used for events and had to look it up. The word has 3 definitions: (1) a soft pad for applying powder to the skin; (2) a sport/activity played by women or girls only; and (3) ineffectual. Did you get that last one?! Seriously, I didn’t really have to look up the word to get the connotation… but there it is, right in the dictionary. Absolutely no way on earth I will host an event for my fine young brave girls under that name! Thankfully it seems I don’t have to. Great article, Heather, thank you.

  5. I agree! The name “powder puff” for an event created by an organization that strives to empower young women and girls?!?! It really burns my buttons! Unfortunately, our service unit isn’t quite as incensed as I am, making the excuse that the badges already say “Powder Puff” and they weren’t going to spend any effort in trying to change it. I was wondering how you were able to get the event name changed in your area? Is there a petition or anything that we can send to council to change it in our location?

    • Heather Booth Heather Booth says:

      Amy, our local council didn’t change it the first year, but did for the second year after the girls voiced their opinions that there are better names out there! Since GSUSA prides itself in being a girl led organization, my suggestion is to get your girls involved, talk to them about why it bothers you, encourage them to form their own opinions about the name, and help them brainstorm ways for their voices to be heard. Your Service Unit Manager should be able to point you toward the Council representative in charge of the event. Good luck!

  6. So…what are some of the alt names y’all came up with? My SU has a LARGE Powder Puff Derby annually. The PPD is a tradition here. Last year, 168 registered participants. I have taken over all aspects of the race. I run the computer, Girls and Co-leads run weigh-in & Inspection…before I got here, it was a partnership with BSA. In my opinion, the girls NEED to see us doing the work so they know they can do it as well! The term PPD has always rubbed me the wrong way, but I need something just as evocative and concise to replace it with. Help a G.I.R. L out!

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