The One Huge Lesson the Girl Scouts Can Teach the Boy Scouts


Days before the executive board of the Boy Scouts of America plans to meet to consider ratifying a proposal that would lift the group's controversial ban on gay, lesbian and bisexual adult leaders, the century-old youth organization is still playing catch-up to its younger, more popular counterpart: the Girl Scouts of the United States of America.

Although the groups might appear superficially similar — khaki uniforms, merit badges, jamborees — the differences in how the two organizations have tackled changing views on minorities, women and the true meaning of community service are vast.

As the Boy Scouts have struggled for relevance amid declining membership and mounting criticism, the Girl Scouts have deftly maneuvered around many of the same obstacles and greeted controversy with the confident smile of a Brownie who just sold ten boxes of Samoas outside of a marijuana dispensary. But the lesson Girl Scouts can teach their brother scouts isn't about cookies or good public relations.

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That lesson? Being a Boy Scout means accepting all boys as scouts. For nearly as long as the Boy Scouts have existed, the group has struggled to accommodate the largest number of scouts possible without alienating the private, frequently religious groups that sponsor the majority of troops (more than 71% of troops are chartered to religious organizations, with the lion's share falling under the umbrella of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). This issue has troubled the organization for years, leading to a collapse in membership (which has dropped by nearly a third in the past 15 years) and skepticism about scouting's place in the 21st century.

The most visible membership controversy over the past two decades has largely centered around the organization's refusal to include openly gay scouts. The Boy Scouts took that policy all the way to the Supreme Court in 2000, which ruled in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale that, as a private organization, the Boy Scouts could exclude anyone it wished — including gay and bisexual scouts — under the First Amendment right to freedom of association. It took 14 years for the organization to finally repeal that policy, although its ban on gay troop leaders still stands (at least, until July 27).

Zach Wahls, co-founder of Scouts for Equality, a nonprofit group that aims to reform restrictions on scouting membership, said it is scouting's strong connection to religious chartering organizations that has made change so difficult. "The Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts are structured very differently," Wahls told Mic. "If you belong to a Girl Scout unit, that unit is a legally owned and operated entity of Girl Scouts, Incorporated. If you belong to a Boy Scout unit, that unit is a legally owned and operated entity of a different nonprofit organization that charters and sponsors the unit."

Because of that organizational difference, the Girl Scouts "can really exert unilateral control over their units because they own and operate all of their units. The Boy Scouts, on the other hand, could not operate their program without those charter organizations," which will still be able to set their own criteria for leadership positions if the ban on gay troop leaders is ratified. "Churches have a huge amount of power within the Boy Scouts of America that simply doesn't exist for the Girl Scouts."

"Churches have a huge amount of power within the Boy Scouts of America that simply doesn't exist for the Girl Scouts."

But even if the scouting organization's ban on gay troop leaders finally falls, the Boy Scouts will continue to bar other minority groups from joining. According to the group's "Declaration of Religious Principle," part of the bylaws of the organization, "no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God." For atheist or agnostic scouts, this means either paying lip service to a deity they don't believe in, or leaving scouting altogether. (Wahls says that a repeal of that ban is "several years down the road.")

The group's refusal to modernize its membership policies has given rise to the perception that the Boy Scouts are too square for modern young men. According to independent polling firm Rasmussen Reports, the percentage of Americans who view the Boy Scouts of America "very favorably" dropped by 19% from 2012 to 2014, a dip in approval that Rasmussen's managing editor blamed on "the gay issue." This drop in public support has been paired with plummeting membership: In 1999, at its modern peak, the Boy Scouts claimed 3,392,144 members, ranging from Cub Scouts and Webelos to Boy Scouts; by 2014, that membership had fallen to 2,307,874.

"I can't tell you how many parents I've spoken with who say, 'I'm an Eagle Scout, but I don't feel comfortable enrolling my son because of the ban,'" said Wahls. "When you engage in discrimination, that's a very destructive message, and it has no place in scouting."

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The Girl Scouts, meanwhile, embody a mission of diversity and inclusion. The organization has made it their mission to have membership reflect the diversity of young women across the globe. Time and again, the Girl Scouts have taken decisive action to address many of the controversies that have plagued the Boy Scouts, dispatching in weeks issues that have trailed the Boy Scouts for decades. In 1993, the Girl Scouts voted to allow young scouts to substitute the word "God" in the Girl Scout Promise with a phrase of their own choice, for example, and the organization describes itself as secular.

The Girl Scouts have even extended this spirit of inclusion to gender-nonconforming scouts. Earlier this month, the Girl Scouts of Western Washington were offered a $100,000 donation — so long as the money didn't go towards supporting transgender scouts. Pitted between a much-needed donation and a tacit requirement to discriminate, the group returned the check to its donor, and raised more than $300,000 through a crowdfunding campaign.

This tradition of inclusion stretches back decades: In the 1940s, Girl Scout troops were organized for young women of Japanese descent who had been forced into internment camps during World War II; in the 1950s, the organization's push for nationwide racial integration of Girl Scout troops led Martin Luther King Jr. to dub the organization "a force for desegregation." (In comparison, some Boy Scout troops remained segregated into the mid-1970s.) The Girl Scouts have enshrined this spirit into its mission. In the organization's statement of purpose, "What We Stand For," the Girl Scouts explicitly reject discrimination of any kind and deem religious affiliation "a private matter for girls and their families to address."

The group's inclusiveness has broadened its appeal and staved off the same membership attrition currently troubling its counterpart; there are currently half a million more active Girl Scouts than Boy Scouts in the United States, and 59 million American women lay claim to having participated in scouting at some point in their lives.

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Taking a page from the Girl Scouts' manual will make the Boy Scouts more inclusive — and could save the organization's future. Although some of the group's falling membership can be pinned on a wider range of activities for young people and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, part of the blame can be laid at the Boy Scouts' decision to cling to antiquated notions of manhood. Millennials, who are vastly more accepting of homosexuality than their parents and much more skeptical of religion, have a hard time seeing themselves fitting into an organization with litmus tests for sexual orientation and faith in a higher power.

But the differences between the groups extend beyond the matter of inclusion. In a journal article comparing the content in handbooks issued by the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts, University of Maryland researcher Kathleen E. Denny wrote, "The girls' handbook conveys messages about approaching activities with autonomous and critical thinking, whereas the boys' handbook facilitates intellectual passivity through a reliance on organizational scripts." According to Denny, the "intellectual passivity" facilitated by the the Boy Scout manual does a disservice to young men, and makes scouting even less appealing for modern boys.

Part of the blame can be laid at the Boy Scouts' decision to cling to antiquated notions of manhood. Millennials, who are vastly more accepting of homosexuality than their parents and much more skeptical of religion, have a hard time seeing themselves fitting into an organization with litmus tests for sexual orientation and faith in a higher power.

Even religious, heterosexual boys who don't have qualms about membership limitations are harmed by those limitations. A broad consensus of behavioral and social psychologists has concluded that excluding people from groups because of perceived differences limits creative thinking and leads to poorer decision-making.

Wahls, however, sees hope in the fact that the push for change has come from within the scouting movement. "The fact that it's not just public pressure, but public pressure by Boy Scouts," Wahls told Mic, is cause for major celebration. "We have made a case for ending this policy because of the values that scouting taught us, not despite the values that scouting taught us," values like "the importance of being helpful, of being kind, loyal."

If Wahls and his organization are successful in pushing the Boy Scouts to accept nontraditional members, the value of acceptance may just be added into the list of honorifics in the Scout Law. "With this policy change," Wahls said, "you're going to see a lot of those families re-enroll, or enroll for the first time, their sons in scouting." Until then, expect the Girl Scouts to continue surging ahead of its "big brother" organization in popularity and membership.