While dropping off some paperwork last week at the offices of the Greater New York Council of the Boy Scouts of America, my cell phone alerted me to a breaking news story: The Boy Scouts soon would allow girls to join and create a path for them to earn the coveted rank of Eagle.
For a moment I was stunned. Then I texted my friend Gary.
“A great day for our organization,” I typed.
“Wow it is. Thank you,” he replied.
I reached out to Gary before any of my other friends because his 16-year-old daughter, Sydney, has become a face of her gender’s struggle to join the Boy Scouts.
Sydney has been an unofficial member of a lower Manhattan Cub Scout Pack and then Boy Scout Troop since she was 4 years old, participating alongside her brother, Bryan, who eventually become an Eagle Scout. A few years ago, she and her dad started a campaign to allow girls like her to join the Boy Scouts. Sydney wanted to become an Eagle Scout, like her brother, and enjoy the benefits and recognition that come with achieving this honor that only about 5 percent of all scouts earn.
The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is one of only 13 member countries out of the 169 in the World Organization of Scouts Movement not fully co-ed. Most of the other countries that are not co-ed are Muslim-majority countries where women’s rights and freedoms are limited. But starting in 2018, girls will be able to join American Cub Scout packs, which are for kindergarten through fifth grade students. Programs for older girls, including a path to Eagle Scout, are expected to be introduced in 2019.
Like most of the “controversial” issues the BSA has addressed in recent years such as admission of gay and transgender youth, and allowing gay adults to be troop leaders, the ultimate decision to implement any membership changes will be up to the local chartered organizations. As explained in town hall meetings across the nation in the last few months, Cub Scout groups can next year form a girl-only pack, a boy-only pack or a co-ed pack which would broken down into separate boy and girl “dens,” smaller groups that divide the membership by school grade for age-appropriate activities.
According to the BSA, having a program for children of both genders is more convenient and appealing for extremely busy modern families. It will also allow the BSA to expand its base and possibly bolster membership numbers that, at about 2.5 million registered youth under the age of 18, is less half of what it was during its early 1970s peak of 6.5 million.
Not all want a co-ed Boy Scouts
Not everyone is onboard with this decision. Some argue the Boy Scouts is among one of the last organizations boys have for themselves. Allowing in girls would remove a safe space for “boys to be boys,” these people say. However, the way the plan has been explained to scouting parents like me, a single-sex environment would still be a major component of the new co-ed scouts. Boys will still have their space, but soon — so will girls.
Many also point to the Girl Scouts as the organization that girls should joining. The BSA and the Girls Scouts of the United States of America (GSUSA), however, are not related programs even though they share similar values of serving young people and preparing them to be good adults.
While the GSUSA program is rich and fulfilling, it’s not for everyone. Not every girl wants what they offer. Many are looking for the greater emphasis on the outdoors that the BSA focuses more on. Some Girl Scouts do camp and participate in high-adventure activities, but not all do. The GSUSA’s highest youth award is called the Gold Award, and while not as well-known as the Boy Scouts’ Eagle rank, it is just as prestigious and difficult to earn. But many girls want the honor and prestige of earning the Eagle rank.
Since the announcement, the Girl Scouts have made several public statements. Initial ones were very pro-Girl Scout, noting its all-girl membership “creates a free space for girls to learn and thrive.” Then the tone of their statements became more aggressive, attacking the BSA over issues it has had in recent years.
Genders working together from a young age
The Boy Scout program is rich and customizable for any child. They are able to learn life skills and make friendships that last a lifetime in non-competitive environment. There is nothing in scouting any boy has ever done that a girl could not do, and thrive at.
As a scout leader I look forward to the challenges of integrating female participants into our program. Will we have to discourage our boys from making certain kinds of jokes or acting a certain way in front of the girls? Yes, but if we take that kind of inappropriate behavior out of the kids when they are little, won’t that improve their chances of growing into the kind of men we need more of in this country? And in this polarized political climate what better way to build respect among people than to have young boys and girls working together towards the same goal.
A scout has until their 18th birthday to earn 22 merit badges, serve their unit in a leadership role and carry out a major service project, it they want to earn the rank of Eagle. Unfortunately, Sydney may run out of time. But she should take solace in the fact that she is a trailblazer in a girl’s right to achieve both the rank of Eagle and equality.
NOTE: Niel Vuolo is a former Boy Scout and a current Boy Scout leader in Queens, N.Y. His son is a Cub Scout and perhaps next year his daughter will be one, too.