The Camp Fire Girls


The Camp Fire Girls

Gender, Race, and American Girlhood, 1910–1980

Jennifer Helgren

Expanding Frontiers: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Series

372 pages
17 photographs, 3 illustrations, index


December 2022


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December 2022


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December 2022


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About the Book

As the twentieth century dawned, progressive educators established a national organization for adolescent girls to combat what they believed to be a crisis of girls’ education. A corollary to the Boy Scouts of America, founded just a few years earlier, the Camp Fire Girls became America’s first and, for two decades, most popular girls’ organization. Based on Protestant middle-class ideals—a regulatory model that reinforced hygiene, habit formation, hard work, and the idea that women related to the nation through service—the Camp Fire Girls invented new concepts of American girlhood by inviting disabled girls, Black girls, immigrants, and Native Americans to join. Though this often meant a false sense of cultural universality, in the girls’ own hands membership was often profoundly empowering and provided marginalized girls spaces to explore the meaning of their own cultures in relation to changes taking place in twentieth-century America.

Through the lens of the Camp Fire Girls, Jennifer Helgren traces the changing meanings of girls’ citizenship in the cultural context of the twentieth century. Drawing on girls’ scrapbooks, photographs, letters, and oral history interviews, in addition to adult voices in organization publications and speeches, The Camp Fire Girls explores critical intersections of gender, race, class, nation, and disability.

Author Bio

Jennifer Helgren is a professor of history at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. She is the author of American Girls and Global Responsibility: A New Relation to the World during the Early Cold War.


"Helgren's book provides an excellent model for study of youth organizations over time."—Elizabeth Tucker, Journal of Folkore Research Reviews

"The Camp Fire Girls is truly a pleasure to read. From excellent analysis to captivating writing, Helgren's addition to the scholarship on youth organizations, girlhood, and outdoor education and programming is invaluable. Accessible to both the academy and the general population, The Camp Fire Girls is a fantastic piece of scholarship that succeeds in a multitude of ways and is a significant contribution to the field."—Montana Chandler, H-Environment

“Jennifer Helgren provides a rich narrative about the Camp Fire Girls, a chapter of twentieth-century American youth culture that has been largely overlooked by historians. This is an important study of an organization that often found itself betwixt and between—empowering diverse modern girlhoods while promoting eclectically conservative visions of feminism.”—Susan A. Miller, author of Growing Girls: The Natural Origins of Girls’ Organizations in America

“A fascinating book that grapples with the construction of American girlhood during the twentieth century. Captivating and multilayered. . . . The book is a model for how to write an organizational history that tells a far larger and more important story than that of a single organization.”—Sara Fieldston, author of Raising the World: Child Welfare in the American Century

“By resisting the impulse to regard girls’ organizations as mere tools of gender indoctrination or middle-class indulgences, Jennifer Helgren’s examination of Camp Fire Girls makes a compelling case for the importance of revisiting a so-called familiar or known topic. Its meticulous research and stellar use of archives will serve as an example for undergraduates, graduate students, and her colleagues about what is possible in the history of childhood and youth. Helgren’s book will buttress the exciting array of new works in the history of girls and girlhood in the United States.”—Marcia Chatelain, author of South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: The Camp Fire Girls Confront a Crisis in American Girlhood
1. “Preparing for Sex Equality”: Gender Ideals and the Founding Years
2. “Wohelo Maidens” and “Gypsy Trails”: Racial Mimicry and Camp Fire’s Picturesque Girl Citizen
3. “All Prejudices Seem to Disappear”: Race, Class, and Immigration in the Camp Fire Girls
4. “There Are Lots of Other Camp Fire Things We Can Do”: Disability, Disease, and Inclusion in the Camp Fire Girls
5. “Worship God”: The Camp Fire Girls, Antifascism, and Religion in the 1940s and 1950s
6. Being a “Homemaker—Plus”: Gender and the Spiritual Values of the Home
7. "Prejudices May Be Prevented": Race, Tolerance, and Democracy in the 1940s and 1950s
8. “The War on Poverty Is Being Waged by Camp Fire Girls”: The Metropolitan Critical Areas Project
9. “It’s a New Day”: Camp Fire’s Reckoning and Restructuring in the 1970s
Epilogue: An All-Gender Organization for the Twenty-First Century

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