The History and Implications of Boy Scouts of America’s Decision to Include Girls

Olivia Hagan

On October 11th, the Boy Scouts of America announced that as of 2018 girls will be allowed to join Cub Scouts and, starting in 2019, work to earn the highest rank of Eagle Scout. This decision will have significant repercussions for both the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and is meeting with mixed reactions across the nation.

The Boy Scouts’ leadership cites its desire to bring the values of scouting to more youths and to accommodate families who have both male and female children as the reasons for the change. However, some see a less altruistic motive behind it.

According to critics of the decision, inviting girls to join is chiefly a ploy to increase membership. Boy Scouts has seen a steady decline in enrollment over the past few decades due in large part to ongoing controversy surrounding the organization, including its history of sexual abuse allegations as well as backlash against policies that barred gay and transgender people from joining and leading troops. The organization has since overturned many of these policies, although some have also attributed its change of heart to financial difficulties and suffering public image. According to Girl Scouts’ leadership, only 10% of boys are involved in Boy Scouts in the United States, but including girls and LGBTQ youth would expand its market for recruiting. While there is no doubt Boy Scouts is making social progress with these modifications to its programs, the underlying motive remains the subject of debate.

Some also raise the concern that simply opening the doors to girls without adjusting the program in some way does not account for girls’ specific needs and strengths, so it could hurt the girls who join while also undermining its fellow youth organization, the Girl Scouts. A similar situation occurred when Boys and Girls Clubs of America, which was originally just Boys Clubs of America, began accepting girls in 1990, as there was already an equivalent for girls at the time, Girls Clubs of America. In the legal battle that ensued when Boys Clubs of America changed its name, Girls Clubs of America argued that boys and girls have different needs that could be better addressed separately, but was ultimately forced to change its name to Girls, Inc. and is lesser-known now. Many opponents of Boy Scouts’ decision don’t want the focus taken off of girls, as Girl Scouts claims to be the “girl leadership expert.”

However, there remain fundamental differences between the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts besides just those created by the single-gender environment. Despite their common goal of developing leadership qualities, the activities each emphasizes reflect the antiquated gender roles that defined it during its founding years. At their inception over a century ago, Boy Scouts focused on outdoors-based skills, while Girl Scouts focused on more domestic skills, in accordance with the gender roles of the time. Despite efforts made to update the curriculums, particularly by Girl Scouts, traces of these stereotypes remain. A 2011 study of the usual scouting activities for each gender concluded that Girl Scouts are generally steered away from science while Boy Scouts are generally steered away from arts and crafts. Even though girls and boys are different, all children benefit from learning a full range of skills, not just the ones assigned to their gender in antiquity.

Girl Scouts has not been without its share of public disputes either. In 2014, the organization came under fire from parents for its $2 million partnership with Mattel, the toy company that manufactures Barbie dolls. The deal allows girls to earn a Barbie patch relating to the investigation of career choices–based on images on a website of the doll wearing impractical renditions of the attire associated with each particular job that are geared more towards fashion than utility, such as a racecar driver in high heels. Girl Scouts and Mattel insist that the program empowers girls by sending them the message “that they can do anything,” but those who oppose the partnership, many of whom support Girl Scouts and its mission, say it promotes objectification of women and is a harmful marketing strategy that has no place being targeted at children through Girl Scouts. There is more progress to be made before the gap between Girl Scouts’ altruistic ideal and its practices has been completely closed.

People remain divided on the issue of whether the Boy Scouts’ decision to start accepting girls is a positive or negative one, but either way, it has irreversibly stirred up the scouting world. This October, Girl Scouts announced that it plans to offer 23 new badges relating to science, technology, engineering, and math, to expand the learning experience it offers for girls. The decision is also causing people to call greater attention to the ethical problems that exist within the Boy Scouts. Even with the problems it may lead to, this development holds the potential to unearth the defects in both organizations, gifting us the long-awaited opportunity to fix them and make scouting better for all kids.