Op-Ed: Whose Scouts Are They?

The Boy Scouts of America is dropping the gendered pronoun and allowing girls to be members. The Girl Scouts better adapt fast if it wants to stay relevant.

This is an overwhelmingly positive step forward for the BSA. But that doesn’t mean co-ed Scouting is right for everyone. (H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty)
boy scout

On May 2—two days after I got to tell the story of the Girl Rangers, the first all-female Boy Scout troop from the 1970s—the Boy Scouts of America announced that it will drop the male modifier from its name next year and become, simply, Scouts BSA. Quite predictably, this re-ignited the same tiresome controversy over whether boys and girls belong in the same scout troop. Here's one representative tweet in response to a story we ran after the news:

But co-ed Scouting is already a settled issue. For decades, European Scouts have allowed both boys and girls to be members. The Canadian Boy Scouts changed their name to Scouts Canada in 1976 and embraced full gender-neutral policies 16 years later. In the U.S., senior BSA programs (such as the Explorers) opened their doors to women in 1970, while boys and girls as young as 13 have been unofficially camping with each other as Scouts for nearly 50 years in various local troops. A few months ago, Cub Scouts began welcoming girls ages six to ten as Early Adopters. The newly named Scouts BSA will admit girls 11 to 17 next year.

What often gets lost in the flare-ups over co-ed Scouting is that these groups will still often be divided along gender lines. Local BSA branches will be free to create boy- and girl-only troops. (The national BSA organization has always given its local charters plenty of autonomy to run their groups as the communities see fit.) Soon it will be possible for a whole family to join the Scouts—mom and dad as leaders, son and daughter as members. That works for lots of modern-day families who are trying to squeeze in soccer games, piano lessons, and play practice, and need to streamline their travel and extracurricular activities.

This is an overwhelmingly positive step forward for the BSA. Young women in this country should have the same Scouting opportunities as young men. Not every community has a Girl Scout program with high-adventure opportunities—without access to the Boy Scouts, young women often can’t get formal experience climbing mountains, paddling rivers, riding horses, or the like. Young women should be able to apply to college as an Eagle Scout, as thousands of boys do each year.

Of course, that doesn’t mean co-ed Scouting is right for everyone. It certainly wasn’t what I wanted at age 14 when I and dozens of other girls in Spartanburg, South Carolina, put on our makeshift Boy Scout uniforms and showed up for weekly meetings at the local Episcopal Church as part of the first wave of female Explorer Scouts. We didn’t join for the badges and ceremonies. We joined it for adventure. We stayed for the sisterhood. Had there been boys in my Rangers troop, I never would have joined.

That’s what gives me hope for the Girl Scouts of America, which is rightfully squirming over the BSA’s name change. In response to the BSA announcement, the Girls Scouts fired back with a tweet on May 3: 

 

While the BSA has struggled to define its role in the 21st century—badly stumbling through skirmishes over policies that were hostile toward atheism and homosexuality, and confronting allegations of sexual abuse by troop leaders—the Girl Scouts have had a consistent message. Their program, they say, “is a free space for girls to learn and thrive.”  

There are thousands of girls like me who flourish in an all-female environment. Women’s colleges have been proclaiming the benefits of single-sex programs for decades, and most of their graduates agree. Some young women are more comfortable taking leadership roles without the presence of men.

Ultimately, I’d like to see both organizations thrive—and get along. Yet both are confronted with precipitous declines in membership; each has lost roughly a million members since 2000. Boy Scouts is down to 2.3 million members; Girl Scouts is at 1.8 million. The BSA has made a series of tactical adjustments, including this latest one, to stay relevant in the 21st century. The Girl Scouts will now have to do the same.

As with single-gender colleges, Girl Scouts has a huge challenge ahead of it as more parents take the easy route and enroll their children in one program—Scouts BSA—instead of two separate ones. Roughly 3,000 girls so far have joined the BSA’s Early Adopter Cub Scout program and will officially become BSA members this summer, according to the BSA.

Perhaps the future for Girl Scouts may be found in more focused groups, like my high-adventure Girl Rangers, or the Radical Monarchs of Oakland, California, a Brownie-like social justice troop built on “fierce sisterhood.” Each of those groups have operated outside the Girls Scout model and burned brightly. 

My money’s on Girl Scouts' survival. But really, so long as girls and young women get equal opportunities for adventure, I'm in. 

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