The Trouble With Girls in Boy Scouts

In the six months since Boy Scouts of America announced they would allow young women to join their ranks, the Girl Scouts of the USA have become some of its fiercest critics. Does the BSA have what it takes to serve its newest members?

Photo: AP Images for Boy Scouts of America

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When Boy Scouts of America announced in October that it would start allowing girls to join its programs, it seemed that one of the last doors closed to them in the outdoors was about to open. But six months later, as the organization draws flak from Girl Scouts, the future of young women in the BSA is still murky.

Cub Scout packs still don’t have to let girls join: the decision is up to individual packs’ leaders. (For now, girls are only allowed to join Cub Scouts; the BSA plans to open the upper ranks of Boy Scouts to girls ages 11 through 17 next year.) Even in co-ed packs, all dens (the sub-units of the group that do most of their activities together) will remain single-gender.

Still, says BSA spokesperson Effie Delimarkos, that’s where the differences end. Both boys and girls will be held to the same standards, earning pins and merit badges the same way and going on the same troop and pack campouts. In February 2019, the organization plans to start a program to allow teenage girls to earn the rank of Eagle Scout.

“This hybrid model builds on the benefit of a single-gender program while also providing character and leadership opportunities for both boys and girls,” Delimarkos said.

The Girl Scouts of the USA, however, aren’t having it. Fiercely proud of their all-girl traditions and spaces, Girl Scouts don’t see Boy Scouts as competition, but a watered-down alternative.

“BSA isn’t really doing much to appeal to the interests and needs of girls, and has not demonstrated any interest in serving their specific needs,” said Andrea Bastiani Archibald, family engagement officer for Girl Scouts of the USA. “Additionally, they will be keeping the organizational name, Boy Scouts of America, and therein asking girls who join to give up part of their identity.”

Even with Cub Scout dens remaining single-gender, Girl Scouts leaders are not confident the Boy Scouts will be able to offer adequate programming for girls. According to Archibald, BSA has made no public statement that indicates that they intend to alter their programming in any way to serve girls.

Girl Scouts, on the other hand, have been practicing their female-led programming for 106 years, said Bastiani Archibald, adding that co-ed spaces tend to pit girls against each other rather than teaching them to support and trust their peers.

With most schools and many extracurricular programs now co-ed, Girl Scouts of the USA is one of the few single-gender organizations available to young women. That, Girl Scouts of the USA maintains, puts the group in a unique position to change girls’ lives for the better. A study commissioned by the group found that members were more likely to have a stronger sense of self, positive values, healthy tendencies, and an interest in STEM learning when compared to non-member girls and boys.

The Girl Scouts have been addressing their shortcomings, too. While adults who made their way through the GSUSA program as kids might remember onerous safety rules (as former BACKPACKER editor Rachel Zurer wrote, she wasn’t even allowed to toast s’mores as a Brownie), the organization has worked to broaden its adventure program, loosening some restrictions on scouts, partnering with The North Face to create multiple new outdoor-themed merit badges, and improving training of adult volunteers.

“We want to change society and we know that girls are the best opportunity for doing so,” she said. ”A girl’s best opportunity to get engaged, to develop those leadership skills and, of course, the lasting relationships and friendships, is through Girl Scouts.”

But while integrating scouts of all genders under a single organization is controversial in the United States, it’s widely accepted elsewhere. Of the 169 countries with scout groups governed by the World Organization of the Scout Movement—which includes the Boy Scouts of America—just 13 prohibit girls from joining, including Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Swaziland, Barbados, and Papua New Guinea. (Girl Scouts of the USA is part of a different organization, The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, which counts 10 million girls and young women in 150 countries.)

Scouts Canada has been co-ed since 1993. Assistant National Youth Commissioner Kaitlyn Patterson says that Canadian scouts are held to the same accountability standards regardless of gender when it comes to earning awards and badges.

“That’s one thing I take away from this organization — that as a girl, I didn’t want to be seen as different,” she said. “I wanted to be able to accomplish the same goals as my peers.”

She understands why the Girl Scouts organization aims to attract and retain girls, but said she also sees the benefits of participating in an equitable, co-ed space at an early age. From the outside looking in, she said doesn’t see an easy solution.

So could the United States see the day when Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts merge into one organization? For now, the Boy Scouts say probably not. The Girl Scouts say no way.