by Krista McCracken
Last week 50 women gathered at a church along the North Shore of Lake Huron to celebrate their shared memories, reminisce over local connections, and reflect on the national Canadian Girls in Training (CGIT) movement. This year marks the 100th anniversary of CGIT. I volunteered during the local anniversary celebration and learned about what CGIT meant for this particular group of women.
The celebration was filled with moments of laughter and the type of storytelling you would expect from a group of close friends – hair catching on fire during a candlelight service, pie being spilt on tea guests, and reflections on lasting bonds of friendship. CGIT was also praised as providing leadership on social issues, providing opportunities for girls to take on leadership roles, and as a place to develop confidence and the ability to speak your mind.
CGIT was established in 1915 by the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the major protestant denominations in Canada as a means of promoting Christian living in girls aged 12-17. The CGIT movement was started by four young Canadian women: Winnifred Thomas, Olive Ziegler, Una Saunders, and Constance Body.
As World War One continued overseas Thomas, Ziegler, Saunders, and Body looked at the lack of leadership roles available to young women at home and the need to provide service opportunities for girls. The four women formed the Canadian Advisory Committee on Co-Operation in Girls’ Work, financed by the YWCA, to study the interests and needs of female youth.
The Committee and CGIT movement was female dominated in its leadership and argued that girls should have opportunities equal to boys to serve their country in wartime and that training opportunities were needed for female self-betterment.
The years 1916-1917 saw the Committee attempting to determine what style of education would be most useful for Canadian girls. The overwhelming majority of existing scholarship on religious youth education was focused on boys and the Committee hoped to design a program that reflected the needs and wants of female youth. The first CGIT program was published in 1917 in a booklet called “Canadian Girls in Training — Suggestions for the Mid-Week Meetings of Sunday School Classes, Clubs, etc., for Teen-age Girls”. The booklet’s popularity greatly contributed to the establishment of the CGIT movement nationwide.
The YWCA financed the CGIT movement for the first five years while it worked to become established on local, provincial, and national levels. By 1920 CGIT groups were being run across Canada and emphasized providing young women with the same opportunities that were available to young men, training girls for humanitarian service, and providing a safe space for personal and religious growth.
CGIT also served as leadership training for many young girls and the movement flourished with local groups being organized. In 1933 there were 40,000 members in 1100 communities across Canada. Retreat weekends, summer camps, leaders’ councils, and conferences sprouted up across the country providing additional leadership and skill building opportunities.
The early years of CGIT saw discussions of working with the Girl Guides of Canada however it was decided that the values of the two groups did not align. CGIT disliked the emphasis Girl Guides placed on the accumulation of badges and competition. Rather CGIT maintained that activities relating to physical, intellectual, religious, and service development should be undertaken for their own enjoyment and value. A Girl’s Standard issued by the CGIT provided guidelines for girls to measure themselves by and after 1920 the CGIT Purpose summed up the goals set by the organization:
As a Canadian Girl in Training
Under the leadership of Jesus
It is my purpose to
And thus, with His help,
Become the girl God would have me be.
Alongside these religious and service goals CGIT groups promoted higher education and leadership skills for women. Some have reflected on CGIT as a ‘seedbed’ for the feminist movement with many CGIT members going on to pursue leadership positions locally and nationally.
In the 1930s the CGIT broke ground with its inclusion of sex education and its use of The Mastery of Sex by Leslie D. Weatherhead to provide appropriate sex education. This education was often framed around the need to provide guidance for future wives and mothers. However this emphasis on family life was frequently paired with sessions on vocations, talks from professional women, and the promotion of post-secondary education.
Provincially and nationally the women involved in the National Girls Work Board (which oversaw the CGIT) and CGIT committees were all university graduates. CGIT meetings also emphasized providing girls with experience in running meetings, balancing accounts, and leading organizations. CGIT provided opportunities for female youth that were not available elsewhere.[i]
CGIT did not aim to radically change female roles in Canadian society. Rather it aimed to promote female influence in already accepted female spheres. It placed considerable emphasis on the role of women in Christian education, the home, and the community. CGIT provided spaces for women to engage in self-discovery, intellectual pursuits, and community leadership roles.[ii]
Membership declined nationwide following World War II but continued to thrive in numerous small communities. The community anniversary I participated in was one of those regions where CGIT continued to thrive through the 1950s and 1960s. After 1947 the movement was under the direction of the Department of Christian Education, Canadian Council of Churches. In 1976 the organization became an independent ecumenical body and is now supported by Canadian Baptist Ministries, Presbyterian Church in Canada and the United Church of Canada.
This year the CGIT program celebrates its 100th anniversary. Today there are only approximately 2,000 CGIT members in select communities in Canada. Membership has dropped drastically and CGIT is no longer a household name. The decline in membership can unsurprisingly be linked to the decline in mainstream church membership. Parents and youth are looking outside of the church for extracurricular activities, and leadership opportunities for young women can be found in a diverse range of organizations today.
But for those who participated in CGIT during its prime the CGIT Purpose still holds meaning. The CGIT name harkens recollections of strengthening leadership skills and providing a safe space for young women. It played a crucial role the lives of many Canadian women and the mosaic of memories and experiences associated with CGIT are worth reflecting on. CGIT impacted personal lives, communities, and Canadian perspectives on women and leadership.
Krista McCracken is an Archives Supervisor at the Wishart A. Library and Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre at Algoma University. She is a co-editor at Activehistory.ca. Special thanks to the women of Zion United Church for their inspiration and their dedication to organizing a local CGIT 100th anniversary celebration.
[i] Prang, Margaret. “‘The Girl God Would Have Me Be’: The Canadian Girls In Training, 1915-1939.” Canadian Historical Review 66.2 (1985): 154-184. America: History and Life with Full Text. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.
[ii] Marr, M. Lucille. “Church Teen Clubs, Feminized Organizations? Tuxis Boys, Trail Rangers, and Canadian Girls in Training, 1919-1939.” Historical Studies in Education/Revue d’histoire de l’éducation 3, no. 2 (1991): 249-267.