But if you take some time to dig through the boxes of old badges, the uniforms, the photographs, the hats and the hundreds of carefully bound issues of the GB newsletters, a story begins to unfold – the story of young women who, for 130 years, have participated in an organisation that has offered them significant and empowering opportunities– starting years before women in the UK even had a vote.
2023 marks 130 years since Girls’ Brigade began. They have existed in tandem with the women’s equality and empowerment movements of the 1900s and they continue to equip young girls to grow in confidence to change their communities.
So, what’s changed since the beginning of the organisation – for its members and for girls’ rights? Take a walk through the archives to find out…
1893 – In a time when women didn’t have the vote and they had to fight for their right to formal education, an organisation began for girls. Girls’ Brigade started as a regular PE session during Sunday School in Ireland, but soon became a formally recognised girls-only group – the first of its kind.
1902 – Before the Scouts or the Guides began, Girls’ Brigade groups were being established across the UK. These Christian groups offered a place for girls to meet outside of church and encouraged self-reliance and responsibility as a woman.
1919 – The Parliament Act 1918 was passed, allowing women to be elected to parliament for the first time. This January 1919 issue of The Life Brigade Chronicle reminds the young women of the importance of the milestone and the responsibility they have moving forward.
1940 – A meeting of the Girls’ Brigade was cancelled one evening after their city became the landing place for thousands of soldiers from Dunkirk. One of the chief items on the agenda that evening was to figure out how to care for and host the refugees who were expected to arrive, so rather than meet a notice went up, “Meeting cancelled. Please come and help feed 850 hungry heroes.”
1950s – Young girls work towards earning badges in hundreds of areas including first aid, PE, skipping, knitting, music, map reading and cooking
1966 – A recognisable fixture of the local community, Girls’ Brigade members along with their leaders become close-knit groups, building friendships and learning new skills. Some groups had a youth marching band.
1976 – The Girls’ Brigade continued to reach out into the community wherever possible. Fundraising initiatives like a bring and buy sale and coffee morning in Leigh-on-Sea raised money for the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen.
1970s – The Girls’ Brigade network became even bigger. Girls had the opportunity to join with their peers to try a whole wealth of new things. New awards like public speaking, accident prevention, hosting, camping, travelling, international friendship and DIY reflected the new opportunities that women had to change and improve their communities across the country and across the world.
1993 – Girls’ Brigade celebrates its 100th anniversary – the organisation has now expanded globally into Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe and the Pacific.
A vast network of past members shared their favourite things about being a part of the organisation and find that it’s not changed too much – one group leader from West Sussex, Margaret Taylor shares, “It’s always been a safe place for all girls where they can be themselves and can be encouraged in their potential. We’ve consistently had a place for girls to grow and enjoy themselves and in the process become an important part of the community.”
One thing that does change is the uniforms! Girls’ Brigade members no longer wear the hats, tunics, pinafores or blazers instead uniting in presentation colourful polo shirts.
2009 – New programme materials were launched to include topics such as ‘’Our Feelings’, ‘Inner Beauty’, ‘World Need’ and ‘Be the Change’ to reflect topics relevant to the world young people are living in today.
Today – There are 6,000 young people and over 2,300 volunteers in Girls’ Brigade England and Wales. Over 130 years, the organisation has been championing young girls to grow and learn and prepare them for life ahead. Now, the opportunities for girls are boundless – but unlike the uniforms, this hasn’t changed: having a group of peers and leaders cheering you on is one of the most significant ways women can be empowered today.
Girls today can make life choices that women 130 years ago couldn’t have made. Girls are growing up in a world that is changing fast, but organisations focused on female empowerment and opportunity have played an important role throughout history in shaping the women of today.