In early October, the Boy Scouts of America announced a decision to admit girls into the ranks of scouting, and allow them to pursue the rank of Eagle Scout. The Eagle Scout rank is the highest award in Boy Scouts of America. The problem is, that most people completely missed the point of the change, and the response was surprisingly mixed.
My own Scouting Background
I don’t normally spend a lot of time here talking about my personal opinions or beliefs from a political or social perspective. Historical? Certainly. But I recognize how polarized and hyper-sensitive everyone is, so I tend to avoid topics that may have a possible political interpretation. After much thought, I determined that if anyone attaches some political or social opinions to my thoughts here, that is essentially their problem. My goal here to to really help others by explaining from the perspective of a former scout and parent what I see and why I believe the Boy Scouts of America did the right thing.
I need a moment to set the personal stage here a bit. I was a Webelos Scout. I bailed in my teenage years to pursue a high school tennis career. Doing so was one of the worst mistakes of my life. I was only an average tennis player, and injuries put an end to any chance of making a long-term go of it. Subsequently, I missed out on the pursuits and rewards of a scouting career, and my own opportunity to attain Eagle.
I enrolled my ton as a Tiger Cub at age 6, and just recently, he earned the rank of Eagle Scout. Unless you have gone through it, or been a parent or close loved one of someone who has made that journey, you cannot possibly imagine the commitment needed to reach the pinnacle of Boy Scouting. Fewer than 7 in a 100 ever achieve the rank of Eagle Scout (some reports put is as low as 1 in 4). By doing so, a young man shows commitment to self, community, excellent moral character and dedication to a way of life that is embodied by the Scout Law.
Girls: Nothing new in Scouting
My son became a Boy Scout in 2011 after 5 years in Cub Scouts. Beginning that summer, and every summer since, he attended a week of summer camp. It was a way to get into the outdoors, learn new skills, interact with others, and do so in a safe and well-managed environment. Each and every year, there were several counselors who were girls, most in the late teens. Many of them were Venture Scouts.
I attended camp with my son each year, either in part of staying the entire time. The interactions between the boys and the female counselors always seemed to be respectful and constructive, and if anything, brought a new level of positive interaction to the camp environment. The most important part of my example here is that it was completely normal. For the boys, it became a part of the camp and scouting experience.
Venturing became a program in the 1930s, but became co-ed in 1969. The additional program of Sea Scouting, which is an off-shoot of the original Venturing program, is also co-ed. These programs have been around for nearly 50 years. Mothers have been involved for even longer than that, as den mothers or merit badge counselors. The bottom-line is that co-ed scouting for the Boy Scouts of America is nothing new.
Girls in Scouting: The Response
What blew me away was the response, and not the positive ones. I’ll get to the response from Girl Scouts of America in a moment. What threw me was the response from many in media, particularly some former Eagle Scouts. This article from Russel Patten is an example of the ridiculousness of the response. This quote from Patten, following his brief explanation about his own history, simply blew me away:
I now see I was lucky to have been a Boy Scout at that time instead of today. Those experiences would not have been the same had the BSA not been so strict on its membership policies. It is important for boys and young men to grow together free from the distraction of girls.
I believe that while Patten has this as his own personal belief, he fails to mention anything about the history of Venturing or Sea Scouting anywhere in his article. The other thing that I think was missed…why would the BSA, which has a long history of one of the greatest youth development programs of our time, want to be exclusionary at this time in our history?
I am a big fan of tradition, but as a historian, I also understand that as we evolve from a societal perspective, so too must our view of the world. I am not saying that we should go back and persecute genders or races for the past because our world view may have shifted. What I am suggesting is that looking ahead, the past constraints on gender separation must evolve within organization structures, because societal evolution will make such perspectives obsolete.
And now for the position from the Girl Scouts of America. Lisa Margosian, Chief Customer Officer for the Girl Scouts of the USA said this:
“There will be some girls who make that choice, but the reality is we, for 105 years, have really focused on serving girls and their emotional, psychological, and developmental needs,” she said. “We’ll be sorry for those girls because they will miss out on the best experience, and that’s just a shame.”
There may be different opinions within the GSUSA or some parents of Girl Scouts, but this is an official within the organization. The question for Ms. Margosian is this…with the BSA opting to allow girls into their program and allowing them to choose which experience is a better fit for their needs, who is she to decide which experience is the best for individual girls?
They are still two distinctly different programs. Isn’t the decision about which program is best for a young person up to them and their parents? It certainly does not rate sympathy for an experience lost. If Lisa was truly interested in allowing girls to explore great experiences, why is she against allowing them to have choices? Is it out of fear that the GSUSA program will not be successful when pitted against the BSA?
I would hope Ms. Margosian would have more faith in her program than that. In my household, my daughter was a Girl Scout, and I felt the program was fine for what she needed. She did not stay in long, and I don’t think the Boy Scouting program would have been the right fit for her. She left Girl Scouts to pursue her other interests, and I never viewed her decision to pursue a different path as a shame. In other words, I find the characterization by Ms. Margosian to be unfair, as it is my belief that parents and their children are the best authorities on which program is best for them.
Susan Miller, an assistant professor childhood studies at Rutgers University said this:
“It’s hard for me to believe it’s a philosophical change.” Rather, she said, “it’s kind of an attempt at a hostile takeover.”
I have long held that the BSA and GSUSA should consider a more collaborative relationship. At no time has the BSA said they wanted to eliminate Girl Scouts. What they have said is that they wanted to present a choice to young women who wished to take advantage of a distinctly different experience, more suited to what they may need. The BSA has also said that this will make it easier for families who have boys and girls, and provide them an opportunity to participate in the same program as a family unit.
Eagle Scouting a Threat to Girl Scouts?
This interview in the Atlantic with Tammy Proctor, a professor at Utah State University and the author of Scouting for Girls: A Century of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, provided some interesting insights. I am not surprised by some of the information she shared about Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts and the feud over the past century or so. Here is an interesting statement by Proctor:
In the U.S. case, it looks like a turf war because the Girl Scouts are adamantly not participating. This is about the Boy Scouts allowing girls in. I think the Boy Scouts are under pressure because they’re losing members. They’re under pressure to do something new and look for new members in a broader way.
This is contrary to what is taking place in other countries, particularly in Europe, where there tends to be more closely aligned collaboration between the two organizations. I believe both organizations are hurting for membership, and while that may be a motivating factor, I think Proctor and others are still missing the point.
Is the offer of allowing girls to become Eagle Scouts a threat to Girl Scouts? Yes. But not for the political reasons underlying everyone’s objections. Take the politics out of it for just one moment, and let’s look at it programmatically. Being completely honest with yourself, how many of you actually know what the highest rank in Girl Scouts is?
Being honest myself, I had no idea. The kicker is that my daughter was a Girl Scout. It’s called the Gold Award, and looks pretty impressive. But it also is not a rank. It is an award, which is different. I believe the reason the Eagle Scout Rank is a threat is that it has a different persona…it is a lifetime rank. “Once an Eagle Scout, Always an Eagle Scout.”
The rank of Eagle Scout is more famous, has better worldwide recognition, and a wider range of alumni (over 2 million). But more importantly, it is a multi-year culmination of effort, energy, and dedication that is capped off with a service project. While the Gold Award is an exceptional recognition for a project to one’s community, it has not earned the same level of prestige or recognition. I believe that part of the reason for that is the fact that only about half as many girls have earned Gold Awards compared to Boy Scouts who have earned the Eagle Rank.
I am by no means denigrating the value of the Gold Award for Girl Scouts. Quite the contrary. I believe the award has been hampered by competition from other activities, as well as a clear distinction from that of Eagle…the Eagle Scout Rank is just that…a rank. And it is something that can be completed as early as age 13 or 14, although the average age is 17. (NOTE: Although earning Eagle at age 15 or younger is possible, it is extremely challenging. The youngest earned the rank at age 11.) The GSUSA rank structure is somewhat more restrictive, and the award cannot be earned until a girl is in high school.
The Girls as Boy Scout Eagles
I have a couple of remaining thoughts on this. First, the BSA and GSUSA should have merged 40 years ago, when competition for family attention began to increase substantially, and the erosion of traditional family structures became more evident. They are both exceptional programs with so much to offer. There was opportunity to work together and think in larger terms about collaborative youth development instead of entrenching into one position or another.
Second, the issues the BSA has had in recent years with abuse concerns, transgender and homosexuality issues may have been prevented. Including more engaged mothers in the program may have led to a greater balance, and could also have led to less opportunities for challenges with some of the recent social issues. Furthermore, a co-ed opportunity would have led to far less political or religious concerns regarding transgender or sexuality issues (although I will always maintain that sexuality should have no place in either program; it’s about youth development into leaders not about sex.)
Lastly, organizations must evolve to survive. Those that do not will shrivel and die. Simply look at organizations such as Kiwanis, Rotary, Lions etc. Fraternal organizations have failed to adapt, and are dying slow and painful deaths. The BSA has taken a step to not only be somewhat progressive, but to evolve in the face of a changing social environment. Giving young girls the same opportunity to achieve what my son has is one of the highest compliments that can be paid to the program. It is that good, that complete and that compelling, that even girls want to do it.
It is high time to remember that these programs, while unfortunate competitors instead of collaborators, should be working towards the common vision for helping our youth to maintain a good moral compass and a dedication to community, family and self. That is what is so important about what these great organization do. I am hopeful that in the future, they will learn to put aside their philosophical differences and find opportunities to support each other in meaningful ways.