The Boy Scouts of America has often been the subject of controversy. As Americans became more tolerant of what the Boy Scouts referred to as “avowed homosexuals,” the country’s foremost youth organization kept them out — as members until 2014, and leaders until 2015. Earlier this year, when President Trump delivered a highly political and at times nonsensical speech to the Boy Scouts, the organization made headlines for supposedly not disavowing it. The BSA is frequently at odds with a liberal agenda.
So it was a surprise when the BSA announced something downright feminist earlier this week: Girls could be Boy Scouts too.
“The historic decision comes after years of receiving requests from families and girls,” reads the press release. The Boy Scouts researched — talking to members, leaders, parents and girls — “to understand how to offer families an important additional choice in meeting the character development needs of all their children.”
I must admit that, as a parent of a girl, 8, who eschews most traditionally feminine things (and another girl who is 5), this is encouraging, even enticing. Who wouldn’t want their daughters to be all the things embodied in the Boy Scout law — “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent”? (As an atheist, I could skip the reverent part, but the clean part would be amazing.)
It’s also encouraging to see an organization synonymous with conservative values become more tolerant and accepting, no matter how long overdue that shift has been. Even if it seems to have taken it 45 years to get aligned with the message of the iconic ’70s kids’ record that I was reared on, Free to Be… You and Me — that boys and girls need not be defined or limited by their gender. (Earlier this year, the Boy Scouts even announced it would let in transgender boys.)
But not all women are thrilled, especially not the Girl Scouts of America, which claims the move is not about progressiveness but that most American of values: money, as membership in both the BSA and GSA is way down. The GSA also accuses the Boy Scouts of pivoting to avoid yet more scandals.
“Instead of addressing systemic issues of continuing sexual assault, financial mismanagement and deficient programming,” the Girl Scouts told ABC News, “BSA’s senior management wants to add an accelerant to the house fire by recruiting girls.” To some, this is just another example of males overtaking what has historically been a female space.
I asked my 8-year-old what she thought, and if she wanted to join the Boy Scouts. She said, “Maybe.” Then I asked if she wanted to join the Girl Scouts and she said, “Maybe.” Then she said she’d join Girl Scouts if her best friend did too — and then she said, “I don’t want to join anything.”
I never joined Girl Scouts as a kid, partly because we couldn’t afford the uniform, but partly because what it stood for was unappealing. Though its law overlaps with the Boy Scouts’ — a Girl Scout should be “honest and fair, friendly and helpful, considerate and caring, courageous and strong, and responsible for what I say and do” — that message always seemed to be wrapped up in a box of Thin Mints.
Also: They wore skirts. And the Girl Scouts — at least in the public elementary school I went to in Georgia, at the time when I asked my mom about joining — seemed like a different strain of human being: prettier, richer, and more Christian, since I was from a long line of atheist Jews. Or at least that was the perspective in my family. (“While we are a secular organization, Girl Scouts has always encouraged girls to take spiritual journeys via their faiths’ religious recognitions,” the GS website notes, adding that it also has had a “100-year relationship” with the Catholic Church.)
And perhaps all of this — particularly the feeling that the historic homophobia would be hard to shake, along with what appears to be the Boy Scouts’ anti-atheist stance — is why I’m still unlikely to let my own daughters go.
As much as I love the idea of them earning badges in wilderness survival, welding, snow sports, mammal study, plumbing and fire safety, for me an important part of building character is embracing our differences. I love the notion that Scouts should Be Prepared for Life, as is their motto.
But part of being prepared is learning to navigate the landscape of America, to embrace its original promise of diversity and inclusion. I’m not going to refrain from feeling encouraged about this step forward, to chalk it all up to the organization’s instinct for self-protection, to greed and fear. It’s a great step, but the BSA still has far to go.
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