It was a seemingly minor typo, in a brief posting on an emailing list for Boy Scouts in Northern Virginia. But to the Girl Scouts, it was a red flag.
A Boy Scout volunteer from a United Methodist Church in Woodbridge, Va., was inviting young men and women to an upcoming information session, part of a nationwide recruiting push as the Boy Scouts prepares to include older girls for the first time next February.
The church, Scoutmaster Lee Hutchins wrote, would be chartering “one of our Girl Scouts BSA Troops.”
Girl Scouts BSA?
The label caught the eye of one Girl Scout volunteer, who forwarded it to Kathryn Benison, director of membership for the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital. Benison was alarmed, she said. Would parents think the event was affiliated with the Girl Scouts? Would they assume the two groups had merged? The council decided Benison should go to the event, to “nicely set the record straight.”
It wouldn’t be the first time. In recent months, the Girl Scouts in the D.C. region have sent representatives, in uniform, to sit in on dozens of recruitment events hosted by Cub Scout and Boy Scout troops.
Last month, the Girl Scouts filed a lawsuit against the Boy Scouts for allegedly infringing on its trademark, sowing confusion and creating unfair competition. The battle between the youth programs echoes a divide that has been playing out across many arenas of American life amid the #MeToo movement, raising fresh questions about what it means to be male or female in 2018.
The Boy Scouts’ plan — which includes rebranding its namesake program as Scouts BSA — was at first praised by many as an important stride toward inclusivity. But not long after, the president of the Girl Scouts of the United States of America fired off a letter to the Boy Scouts of America that accused the male organization of waging a “covert campaign to recruit girls,” one that would “result in fundamentally undercutting” the Girl Scouts.
The dispute is now playing out across the country, with Girl Scout leaders going on the offensive to shepherd their organization into a new era of competition. At the center of that battle is the question of whether girls will get more “adventure” if they join the Boy Scouts, or whether the high value being placed on outdoor sports and survival skills is just another reflection of a male-dominated society that has little to do with teaching girls to be strong, confident leaders.
But Lidia Soto-Harmon, chief executive of the Girl Scouts Council of the Nation’s Capital, said it’s still important to combat the “stereotype out there that Girl Scouts don’t do high adventure.”
“We need to be present to make sure that that’s not the story that is told about us, because that’s not true,” she said.
Hutchins, the scoutmaster in Woodbridge, Va., said the move by the Boy Scouts isn’t about undercutting the Girl Scouts. It’s about giving teen girls an equal opportunity to rise in the ranks of a program that is fundamentally different, he said.
“This isn’t about poaching the Girl Scouts,” Hutchins said. “I would be very surprised if the same girl would want to be part of both programs.”
Even as the Boy Scouts have become more inclusive, ending its ban on openly gay and transgender Scouts, the youth program has struggled with declining membership. In 2017, the Boy Scouts reported a total of about 2.28 million youth members, down 5.6 percent from 2.42 million in 2014.
Then, in May, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which teaches that homosexuality is wrong, announced it would be cutting all ties to the Boy Scouts. The Mormons had been the group’s largest participant, making up nearly 20 percent of all its youth members.
“It feels to me that they are in a fight for their survival,” Soto-Harmon said, “and girls seemed like the logical step.”
But the Girl Scouts has been struggling, too, with its membership falling about 12 percent in the past three years to 1.76 million youth members in 2017.
Meanwhile, the Boy Scouts’ move to include girls has started paying off. More than 66,000 girls nationwide have already joined the Cub Scouts since it began accepting younger girls earlier this year, according to a Boy Scouts of America spokeswoman.
In its lawsuit, the Girl Scouts accuse the Boy Scouts of unfair recruitment tactics. By changing its brand identity from Boy Scouts to simply “Scouts,” the organization will “marginalize” the Girl Scouts by sending a message that its services “are not true or official ‘Scouting’ programs, but niche services,” according to the suit.
Local Girl Scout leaders also complain that implicit in the Boy Scouts’ recruitment promises of high outdoor adventure is the suggestion that their program lacks access to those activities.
Soto-Harmon points out that the Girl Scouts Council of the Nation’s Capital, the largest council in the country, owns eight camping facilities in the area, spanning more than a thousand acres of land, where girls can practice archery, canoeing, kayaking, climbing and more.
Yet the extent to which girls take advantage of all of those outdoor opportunities depends a lot on the troop, leaders admit. The Council is working on recruiting more fathers and college students as volunteers in the hopes that they might be more motivated to lead girls on camping trips and teach them survival skills.
On the other hand, Girl Scouts officials said they are not out to transform themselves into a girls’ version of the Boy Scouts, which is more hierarchical and has different priorities.
Boy Scouts must earn merit badges to move up in rank, and many of them focus on outdoor and survival skills. Girl Scouts can choose cafeteria-style from a large menu of badges, but members are grouped by age, not rank, and it’s possible to move through the program without earning a lot of outdoor badges.
“Instead of focusing on past notions of ‘outdoorsmanship,’ ” the organization tries to help girls develop leadership skills in a way that suits them — for example learning to advocate for environmental protection, Girl Scouts Vice President Jennifer Allebach said in an email to The Washington Post.
But leaders said the competition with the Boy Scouts is challenging them to make sure prospective members understand that the Girl Scouts is about more than just cookies sales and STEM programming. “We are aware we need to do a better job of marketing our opportunities for older girls,” Soto-Harmon said.
Benison had planned on attending the Scouts BSA recruitment meeting in Woodbridge, Va., to do just that. But when she asked the troop’s scoutmaster if she could be there, he politely said no.
“I’m not looking for that drama,” Hutchins, the scoutmaster, said later. “Having the young ladies here get involved with a bunch of adults arguing over things that adults like to argue over, that’s not what this was about.”
At the meeting on a Tuesday night at Old Bridge United Methodist Church, only half a dozen prospective Scouts BSA families showed up — despite the fact that Hutchins had distributed about 3,000 fliers at schools in the area.
But a smattering of girls in Scouting uniforms sat with the Boy Scouts in the back pews of the sparsely filled church. They were members of Venturing, a co-ed Boy Scouts of America program that has included girls for two decades but doesn’t provide the same opportunity to earn merit badges and advance in rank as the Scouts BSA program.
Carl Curling, a charter organization representative, helped open the meeting. “I want to make sure everyone understands that we’re discussing the BSA program,” Curling said. “We are affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America. We are not affiliated with the Girl Scouts of America.”
Then, Hutchins broke down the basics of the program: The girls will have the same advancement requirements as the boys but will have their own separate unit, he said. Sometimes, the troops will do the same programs, but “obviously we’re not going to camp together,” he said.
Boy Scout leaders say they chose to keep the genders separate in part based on research on the benefits of single-gender education, but also to ensure that both girls and boys can reach leadership positions within the troops since many Boy Scouts will have had a big head start.
Hutchins promised that girls in his troop would spend lots of time outside, and he ticked off a list of activities they’d learn to do: Hike in the wilderness, shoot a rifle, climb a mountain, scuba dive, throw a hatchet, explore a cave, and more.
“This is what the program’s all about,” Hutchins said, motioning to a PowerPoint slide with the Boy Scout mission. “The mission of the Boy Scouts of America is to prepare young men . . . excuse me, young people. . . .”
“Ah man,” he said, pausing over his mistake. “. . . to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Law.”
At one point, a group of the current Boy Scouts and Venturing Scouts stood at the front of the church to share their experiences. Among them were two teenage boys with Eagle Scout neck ties, marking the highest achievement of the Boy Scouts. The rank is known to impress college admissions officers, and it will now be within reach for girls for the first time in the program’s history.
Standing next to them was Brianna Conlon, 15, who hopes to be an Eagle Scout just like her father. She comes from a long family line of Scouting — both her grandfather and great-great grandfather were Boy Scouts. For Brianna, the Eagle award wouldn’t just be a line on a college application, it would give her the skills to survive in any situation, to “not be that damsel in distress character.”
“I can show that hey, I actually know how to do this stuff and I don’t need to have some guy or other male do it for me,” Brianna said.
The Girl Scouts’ Gold Award has similar requirements for a service project as the Eagle Scout rank and some argue it’s more difficult because a Scout must prove the project is sustainable in the long term. But unlike the Gold Award, the Eagle Scout rank requires Scouts to earn merit badges in camping and survival skills, and even some Girl Scouts view it as more prestigious.
It was part of the appeal to Cordelia Curb, 14, who had been a Girl Scout up until this summer before learning she would be able to begin transitioning to the Scouts BSA in Springfield, Va. In the Girl Scouts, Cordelia’s troop chose to go on trips to places like New York City and Savannah, Ga., she said, but the only time they camped they stayed in a shelter, “never like, in the woods exploring.” They never went on long hikes, or learned how to shoot a rifle or use an ax.
“In the Girl Scouts, it depends on the troop,” Curb said. “If your troop doesn’t like camping, you don’t go camping.”
Cordelia saw the kinds of camping trips her younger brothers got to do in Boy Scouts and yearned to be a part of it. But joining a Scouts BSA troop is also about “proving to the guys that we can do this,” Cordelia said. “It’s just that we never got a chance to.”
At the Methodist church in Woodbridge, one of the girls in the audience, Lilyanah Johnson, 10, went up to Hutchins after the meeting and told him how excited she was to join the Scouts BSA program. She said she couldn’t wait to learn how to use a pocketknife and go hiking in Northern Virginia.
“I’m kind of a tomboy,” Lilyanah said later. “I don’t play tag. I play football with the boys.”
She initially thought the boys and girls would be in the same troop and was excited by the idea of Scouting all together. But after learning the groups would be gender segregated, she was still on board — as long as they’re not doing the kinds of things girls usually do, she said.
Her mother, Nicole Johnson, said she had thought about signing up her daughter for the Girl Scouts years ago. But it just didn’t seem to be the right fit for Lilyanah.
“She’s not into girly stuff,” Johnson said, endorsing her daughter’s take on the Girl Scouts. “She’s never really fit in with the ‘girl’s girls.’ She’s always been like, ‘Well, if a boy can do it, I can do it.’ ”