Stealing from the (Girl Scout) Cookie Jar

Boy Scouts is eager for new members, but single-sex scouting is imperative for girl development

Illustrator: Tessa Portuese

When the news broke on Oct. 11 that the Boy Scouts of America would begin to allow girls into its primary Cub Scouts program, and eventually allow entrance into the older Eagle Scout track, it was enough to stop any former Girl Scout in her tracks. The history of BSA has been pockmarked by controversy, antiquated ideals of racism and homophobia, and has not been too keen on female participation. BSA claims that the sudden interest in a coed institution is attributed to a desire to make scouting “gender neutral,” and to consolidate various programs for busy families. A history of friction with Girl Scouts of the United States of America suggests this sudden policy change is simply a grab for increased membership.

Boy Scouts hit peak enrollment in the 1970s and have seen tapering interest since. Having lost 500,000 members and volunteers in the past five years alone, it seems these exclusionary actions are catching up with it. What amends have been made have been brought about after lots of executive foot-dragging; the organization wants to keep its traditional image, but desperately needs increased membership. These facts make it difficult to see BSA’s new open-gender policy as anything other than an attempt to draw future potential scouts away from GSUSA.

When Robert Baden-Powell formed the Boy Scouts, he noticed that girls were eager to be a part of the first Scout rally in 1909. Frustrated and concerned that letting girls join would inhibit organizational growth and detract from the “manliness” of scouting, he barred girls from joining, instead creating the Girl Guides as an alternative for female youths. Juliette Gordon Low held the first meeting of the Girl Guides in the United States in 1912, and spearheaded many of the changes that laid the foundation for what GSUSA is today. In 1915, Girl Guides changed its name to Girl Scouts, and were subsequently sued by Boy Scouts for “sissifying” the name. The Girl Scouts were berated by BSA to focus on domesticity instead of athletics and survival skills, which Low emphasized. From the beginning, that Girl Scouts sought equality of access and opportunity for young girls, while the Boys Scouts advocated for separation of gender.

Throughout their histories, GSUSA and BSA have taken different approaches to diversity and inclusion in their organizations. Girl Scouts took an early stand on racial segregation, pushing troop integration in the 1950s, while full integration of all Boy Scout troops was not achieved until 1974. While the Girl Scouts have always been non-sectarian, Boy Scouts remains a Christian organization, specifically with ties to the Church of Latter-day Saints, often called the Mormon Church. The GSUSA constitution never prohibited lesbian or transgender members, and the organization made sure to openly welcome LGBTQ scouts in 2011, while the BSA constitution articulated a ban on “open and avowed homosexuals” from being scouts until 2013, and from holding leadership positions until 2015. Transgender scouts were not allowed until January of this year.

From the beginning, that Girl Scouts sought equality of access and opportunity for young girls, while the Boys Scouts advocated for separation of gender.

Those who did not participate in scouting in their youth may not understand the importance, but separation of gender in these organizations is paramount to developing leadership and character in young girls. Girls are eligible to participate in Girl Scouts from the time they start kindergarten until they graduate high school. Girls Scouts focuses on instilling in girls courage, confidence, and character, and fosters leadership and independence in an all-female setting. It encourages experiences and exposure to STEM, outdoor and wilderness literacy, and entrepreneurship. Older scouts pass on valuable knowledge to younger scouts, and younger scouts look up to and are led by older scouts. The kind of character development that sprouts from this kind of female-to-female mentorship is unparalleled. Girls come out of their shells, voice their opinions, and learn to become problem-solvers. This kind of nurturing environment would not be possible for girls in coed scouting. In a society that is still heavily patriarchal, and that teaches boys to be boisterous and girls to be polite, girls who enroll in BSA’s new program will not have the same access to valuable character-building as their GSUSA counterparts. Girls need a place where they learn they can be loud, get dirty, and voice their opinions without fear of rejection or pressure to be submissive. They won’t be able to find that in a troop comprised mostly of males.

When the Boy Scouts announced that it was opening its troops to girls, Girl Scouts rebuked the move. “Instead of addressing systemic issues of continuing sexual assault, financial mismanagement and deficient programming, BSA’s senior management wants to add an accelerant to the house fire by recruiting girls,” stated the leadership of GSUSA. Nothing could be more accurate; recruiting more members will not solve the inherent issues of the organization that are causing scouts to leave in the first place. BSA should be uprooting its issues instead of taking another organization down with it. Girl Scouts is already suffering from its own declining enrollment, due in part to American Heritage Girls, a Christian alternative formed in 1995 by families who deemed GSUSA “too liberal.”

The empowerment of young girls is still vital, and it needs a strong and prominent organization such as Girl Scouts to lead those endeavors. Wanting single-sex scouting is not sexist; in fact, it lets girls see themselves as leaders and contributors, right alongside boys. That is the future that Girl Scouts hopes for. So, if a girl in a bright green vest with a wagon full of cookies comes knocking on your door this February, you better be buying a box.