The Boy Scouts of America may have just invented a new merit badge — for poaching. In a letter acquired by Buzzfeed, the Girl Scouts of the USA accuse BSA of “surreptitiously testing the appeal of a girls’ offering to millennial parents.” They also charge the Boys with spreading “disparaging and untrue remarks” about the Girl Scout program in what they say amounts to a hostile takeover attempt, all in an effort to boost the Boy Scouts’ lagging membership numbers.
The legitimacy of the letter, sent to Boy Scout president Randall Stephenson and the BSA board by Kathy Hopinkah Hannan, GSUSA’s national president, has been confirmed by a GSUSA spokesperson to Buzzfeed. In it, Hannan warns the Boy Scouts that recruiting girls is reckless and would upend a paradigm between two cooperative organizations that has worked perfectly well for 100 years. Hannan also expresses disappointment in the BSA’s lack of transparency and refusal to discuss the matter.
“Through various means we have learned that BSA is very seriously considering opening their programs to girls and we have made repeated efforts to engage with them and talk about the implications,” the Girl Scout spokesperson told Buzzfeed. “It’s a potentially dangerous and bad idea.” The spokesperson went on to explain that their research backs up that single-gender environments are the best way for girls to learn scout skills.
BSA has admitted the accusations are at least partially true — that they are considering girl members and are simply catering to the families they serve: “Based on numerous requests from families, the Boy Scouts has been exploring the benefits of bringing Scouting to every member of the family — boys and girls,” BSA spokesperson Effie Delimarkos said in a statement, Buzzfeed reported. “No decisions have been made.”
However, BSA claims it did try to talk to GSUSA for months, in an effort to “identify potential areas of opportunities for alignment in the future,” Delimarkos said. “We are disheartened to see the Girl Scouts pull away from the possibility of cooperation to help address the needs of today’s busy families.”
Though it’s unclear what the BSA programs for girls might look like, the GSUSA letter indicates it’s both “inherently dishonest to claim to be a single gender organization while simultaneously endeavoring upon a coed model,” and shortsighted to imagine “that running a program specifically tailored to boys can simply be translated to girls,” Buzzfeed reported. But is it really all that shortsighted?
One issue is the GSUSA’s claim that girls learn better in the absence of boys. Some experts argue that girls and boys both benefit from single-sex education settings without the other; others argue that separating girls and boys in educational settings merely reinforces gender stereotypes.
Another issue is the fundamental differences between Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts programs, which are part of why the Boy Scouts would have an interested pool of girls to recruit from in the first place—i.e., those who aren’t interested in what the Girl Scouts have to offer.
While the Boy Scouts were long criticized for refusing to allow gay scouts or trans children (they’ve since relaxed both stances), the Girl Scouts have been more progressive in accepting trans kids. The GSA, however, has been accused of creating softer programs for girls that shortchange them on real-world skill-building.
One study from 2011 found that programs for girls involve more art than those for boys, and less science. The girls also participate in more communal activities — 30 percent of the badge work is in a group setting, compared to under 20 percent of boys’ programs. That same year, a spokesperson told NPR they realize they haven’t “done the best job possible in getting the word out there what Girl Scouts really is,” and the piece noted that many girls still think of the Girl Scouts as “girly.” The organization insisted to NPR that they offer skills like changing a fuse and unclogging a toilet. They’ve since added 23 merit badges focused on STEM programs, as well more outdoor activities.
But the perception and reality that Boy Scouts are better than Girl Scouts persists. Some girls, particularly those who don’t want to sell cookies, try Girl Scouts and report back that camping trips were merely sleeping on the floor and watching a movie, not rafting and tents. “I was very disappointed because the Boy Scouts are definitely in the woods, fishing, doing all the cool stuff, and we were stuck microwaving marshmallows,” Kayla Arbuckle, now 17, told Women’s News of her decision to drop out after a month at age 10.
Attempts by girls to join the Boy Scouts go back to the 1970s, and the issue emerged again in November of 2015, when five California girls aged 10 to 13 told a panel of Boy Scouts leaders they wanted in, telling them they would “rather be camping and tying knots instead of selling cookies,” The New York Times reported.
The girls named themselves the Unicorns and asked to be formally accepted. The girls bought Boy Scout style uniform and participated in the Boy Scouts Learning for Life course for building skills that boys and girls are invited to attend. Some of them had given the Girl Scouts a shot, but found it wanting in the faster-paced activities the Boy Scouts offered — “rest time and whispering instead of playing tag and lighting fires,” one Unicorn put it.
The Unicorns competed in a scouting camp contest called camporee — open to Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts — and placed second. “We can do the same things boys can — proven from camporee,” one Unicorn named Ella told The Times. “There’s no really ‘girl things’ or ‘boy things.’” After that, girls were banned from the competition, and the Scouts told the Unicorns they weren’t welcome. Parents of Boy Scouts interviewed at The Times made it clear they didn’t want girls sleeping in their sons’ tents. Scout leader Randy Huffman, 56, told them:
Maybe their approach should have been to go to the Girl Scouts and say: Instead of painting our nails and clipping our — whatever they do — to do archery and do climbing. Going through that process.
Then there’s Sydney Ireland of Manhattan, a teenage girl campaigning to be included as a Boy Scout. Ireland has already unofficially been a member of her brother’s troop but can’t start the process to become an Eagle Scout because she’s a girl, The Washington Post reported.
The Eagle Scout is the highest possible rank in Boy Scouts and requires 21 merit badges — among the 13 required are cooking, camping, first aid, personal fitness, family life, and swimming, hiking, or cycling. The Girl Scouts’ highest rank is the largely unknown Gold Award—I polled the MEL office to ask if anyone knew what the highest rank was; no one did—which requires completing two journeys and an 80-hour community project.
Hemant Mehta at Patheos argues that if the Boy Scouts have the best leadership training for kids out there — half of all astronauts were Eagle Scouts; 16.3 percent of West Point cadets, 18 U.S. Governors, 191 members of Congress, and so on — why shouldn’t girls be part of it? Girls are already allowed in four Boy Scout programs — STEM, Exploring (a career focused program), Venturing, and Sea Scouting. Mehta writes:
Is there really a reason for the Boy Scouts to segregate by gender when it comes to teaching skills like leadership and service and character development? That might have gone without question more than a century ago when the BSA began, but we’ve come a long way since then. And if the Boy Scouts are slowly becoming more inclusive, what’s the argument for excluding a large segment of the population that wants to be involved in the work they do? (The Girls Scouts, it should be noted, is a separate organization that focuses on different areas. It’s not like they’re under the same umbrella. That’s why the simplistic rebuttal of “Let girls join Girl Scouts” doesn’t make much sense.)
Of course, the Boy Scouts don’t have to admit girls. Currently both organizations are exempt from Title IX requirements to address gender diversity. And for their part, BSA insists its attempt to recruit girls is not about boosting numbers, but catering to families.
But the BSA is losing numbers. According to The Washington Post, it has lost about a third of its membership since 2000, and is down to about 2 million members currently. The Girl Scouts, too, have lost about a million members since 2003, from 3.8 million members that year to 2.8 million in 2014.
It’s unclear why the Girl Scouts can’t refocus their badgework on more competitive skills that are commensurate with Boy Scouts — though defenders of Girl Scouts claim there’s a lot more camping than the press reports, not to mention more diverse messages about social activism. Or why the two organizations couldn’t, say, find a way to discuss integrating, as scout programs in Canada, South Africa, and Australia already have.
That would mean burying the hatchet and considering what’s actually best for kids. That seems unlikely, but it could earn both organizations a new, forward-thinking merit badge in cooperation: progress.