Girls in Scouting: How did we get Here

On the 1st of February, girls all over the nation celebrated in different ways their inauguration into the Scouts-BSA program. My daughter, Kyrie, represented her troop in our Council, and it was a special night.

My daughter receiving the charter certificate for 560 Troop for Girls at the Kick-off event

The other day, I read an excellent essay written by an Eagle Scout with two young sisters. With permission from the author, Austin Nedrow, I’m sharing his words.

Scouting: How Did We Get Here?

In 1907 the word “Scout” was associated with masculinity. What was a “Scout?” A Scout was a young male warrior who was sent forward to understand the enemy’s location. This man would live in the wilderness and be prepared to survive on his own. Even in our own “American” culture the word Scout conjures images of a young native brave, alone and facing the elements of nature. This word for centuries assumed a masculine role in society. When Lord Baden-Powell created the Scouting program in Britain, he used the image of the “Scout” as a backdrop to teach youth to be confident adults and leaders through service and adventure.

Baden-Powell’s father died when he was three years old. He was raised by his single mother: a strong woman and a positive role model, his mother instilled some progressive ideas in her children. Baden-Powell wanted to create a development program that would welcome all youth: girls and boys. In his era, Baden-Powell’s ideas were well ahead of their time. Our society in the early 1900s had well established gender roles that defined what a man and woman could or could not do.

Faced with overwhelming cultural pressure against the idea that all youth could learn these skills within the same organization, Baden-Powell encouraged women close to him, including his wife, to create a similar organization oriented towards girls. They called this program the Girl Guides. In the early 1900s, what did women do? They were helpers, they guided children and sometimes the men in their lives, but they were never given the opportunity to be leaders or scouts. Because the populous refused to look at young women as “Scouts,” this new program initially built upon the “guiding” image of women to build their program supporting girls. I now honestly wonder what Sacajawea, a 17-year-old with a baby in her papoose, leading Lewis and Clark across the vast wilderness, might have thought about that intentional terminology slight.

These progressive-thinking Brits soon found other countries taking up the ideas to support and develop their youth. As the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides developed globally, leaders in other countries added their thoughts and ideas to the program, especially within the United States. When William Boyce introduced the Boy Scouts of America, Juliette Low challenged the idea of calling the girls program “Guides.” She wanted to establish greater equality between the boy and girl programs, and insisted on calling the American version of the Girl Guides – The Girl SCOUTS of America. Her ideas took Baden-Powell’s forward thinking to a new level of progressive thought.

Over the past 100 years, the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides have become the most successful youth development programs in the world. The Girl Scouts of the USA uniquely use the word “Scout” and maintain an identity separate from the BSA program. Many countries now maintain integrated coeducational national Scouting organizations, not separate gender programs – so how did the United States fall behind the rest of the world? Over the decades, the Girl Scouts of the USA modified their mission. The US female youth development arm of this global peace movement reduced the emphasis on wilderness skills and refocused on civil rights, equality and the entrepreneurial skills necessary for women to compete in a man’s world. By doing so, the GSUSA made a great impact and many significant changes to the perspectives of boys and girls within our American culture. Ironically, the effort to make women more equal actually contributed to the growing chasm between these two American programs.

As this division of focus between the female and male programs grew, many girls sought the benefits of the outdoor Scouting program focused on leadership development. In the 1980s and 1990s, this debate changed the fabric of Scouting across much of the world. Boy Scout programs throughout Europe began allowing girls into their ranks and integrated their gender differences. The US Scouting programs debated allowing girls into Boy Scouts around this time. They even attempted to discuss integration of the two programs, but ultimately succumbed to the adage that “Boy Scouts is for Boys and Girl Scouts is for Girls.” They did allow one subtle change and began to allow young women into the high adventure Explorer program – not as well recognized by many Americans, and therefore did not receive the same scrutiny and opposition. By the late 1990s, The US Scouting program allowed girls age 14-20 to participate in Explorers, Venture Scouts and Sea Scouts – but maintained fierce opposition to girls in the iconic Cub Scout [1st – 5th grade] and Boy Scout [age 11-17] Programs, which lead to the coveted Eagle Scout rank.

Until 2017, the United States continued to resist the global movement to allow girls into the Boy Scouting program. Ironically, those same gender biases that Baden-Powell and Juliette Low sought to destroy created a divide in our American thoughts about Scouting. Juliette Low sought EQUALITY between girls and boys when she substituted “Scouts” for “Guides.” Baden-Powell himself wanted a program for ALL youth, but our Victorian era ideas of gender bias reinforced by that same simple naming convention [Scout] was pressing against the global peace movement’s ideas about how to best develop our youth.

Shortly after the new millennium, the Boy Scouts of America began to reassess its gender policy. They began to walk back strong opposition to gender identity and sexual preferences accepting many of the ideas already embraced by other global branches of this same youth development movement. By 2017, the BSA finally challenged the last remaining gender bias precluding young women from earning the Eagle rank. The BSA asked why so many were leaving the program and found that families simply didn’t have time to support sons in Boy Scouts and daughters in Girl Scouts, especially single-parent families just like young Baden-Powell’s family over a century ago. Families wanted a program that would enable them to teach the same skills to all children, enabling a value based youth leadership development program that embraced equality – EXACTLY the mission the programs founders sought over 100 years earlier. Scouting had come full circle. Our society is more tolerant now than it was 100 year ago. If Baden-Powell and Juliette Low lived in today’s society, their progressive thinking would no doubt support this change.

Last week, my sisters and many other young women around our country celebrated the opening of Scouts BSA, allowing creation of female Troops where girls can seek the Eagle rank. As I read the articles and watched the news clips following their bridging ceremony, there was overwhelming media support for this change. Comments on social media are mostly positive and supportive of these girls, but many oppose it too. Many of these Scouters themselves, continue to comment about “Boy Scouts is for boys and Girl Scouts is for girls.” I remarked to my father that “Scout” is a neutral word, why can’t we just embrace it and stop putting gender in front of the word? He encouraged me to review the history of the word “Scout” and see if my perception was generational and if history supported my perception. How did we get here, he asked? So I researched.

Now I understand how we got to our current place in history, but to those who oppose this change I ask: Did you really do your homework? You totally missed the point of this youth development journey. The Boy Scouts of America is part of a global peace movement focused on developing youth as strong leaders and citizens. Even the Girl Guide/Scout evolution in focus was done to seek greater equality between men and women, building a kinder world for everyone.

Which adjective in the Scout Law exclusively describes a man? Trustworthy? Loyal? Helpful? Friendly? Courteous? Kind? Obedient? Cheerful? Thrifty? Brave? Clean? Reverent? Can’t each of these words describe a woman? To the Girl Scouts I ask, how is your mission unique to girls? Was Juliette Low seeking to make only women stronger? The root of her mission and the Girl Scout program itself is specifically defined to develop equality, is it not?

Currently, the Girl Scouts are suing the Boy Scouts over the use of the term “Scout.” Ironically the plaintiff [The Girl Scouts of the United States of America] originally took the word “Scout” from the Boy Scouts to create a more level playing field. The Boy Scouts of America has finally opened themselves to the global scouting movement allowing females into the outdoor classroom of leadership and wilderness skills creating the very equality Scouting sought over 100 years ago. The Girl Scouts have a wonderful entrepreneurial program for youth. The Boy Scouts have a great leadership program centered in the outdoor classroom. We are so much closer to the original dream of Scouting’s founders, but yet we are in a quagmire of controversy. Why? Mostly because adults don’t understand the history and only see things from their own perspective, which is mired in the very gender perceptions Scouting teaches you to erase. Step back and look at the program’s purpose over the longer run. Join hands and sing a joyful song of selfless service to others. Isn’t that the Scouting Way? Those who protest the recent changes really missed the point. You’re not helping the program’s mission – you’re actually undermining the objective Scouting sought to resolve. These girls are enthusiastic and full or Scout Spirit. Don’t scoff. Celebrate their inclusion and find ways to work together to mold today’s youth into tomorrow’s leaders.