Progressive Values and Scouting Today: Understanding the GSUSA and the BSA
By Rev. Dr. Cynthia L. Landrum
I’ve been involved with Girl Scouts USA for eight years as a troop leader and one year as a Juliette mentor – a guide for an independent Girl Scout. But when I first got involved with Girl Scouts, I was cautious. Like many people, I didn’t fully understand that the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts are two completely different and separate organizations. And like many progressives and Unitarian Universalists, I had significant differences with the Boy Scouts – who, at that time, did not include atheist scouts and gay, bisexual, and transgender scouts – and still don’t clearly include atheist scouts by national policy. So I looked into Girl Scouts carefully.
What I learned quickly about Girl Scouts was that they were already progressive and open in these areas. While not perfect in their inclusion, they go a long way. So, while the word “God” is included in the Girl Scout Promise, Girl Scouts has allowed girls to substitute wording appropriate to their beliefs for the word “God” since 1993.[i] Some atheists many find their language about faith still too confining, but as an agnostic Humanist, I have substituted words like “earth,” “love,” and “peace” while saying the Girl Scout Law.
On the issue of sexual orientation, Girl Scouts has no policy on sexual orientation. They say that sexual orientation shouldn’t be advocated for or promoted in Girl Scouts, but Scouts’ sexual orientation is only their own business and shouldn’t be a barrier to inclusion.[ii] The issue of advocacy is also somewhat flexible. For example, many scouts have had independent silver and gold award projects on issues related to LGBT advocacy, particularly around bullying. An independent scout project, though, is different from a troop activity.
On gender identity, Girl Scouts is definitely a girl-based organization. But the Girl Scouts are clear that any child who lives as a girl and whose family recognizes her as a girl is welcome in Girl Scouts.[iii] In practice, I’ve also seen children who started in Girl Scouts as girl-identified and then identified as gender-queer as they aged continue to be welcomed in Girl Scouts, as well.
Part of the reason for this difference in levels of progressive policies is structural. Boy Scouts have the majority of their troops organized through religious organizations – 68.4%, of which more than half (36.7%) are chartered through Mormon churches.[iv] In contrast, most Girl Scout troops are held in schools. I would argue, however, that part of the reason this discrepancy between Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts exists is built into the very conception of the organizations. Boy Scouts created an organization that wouldn’t admit girls. Girl Scouts created an organization designed to give girls the same opportunities that boys had. In its very creation, Girl Scouts was a feminist organization, and continues to be one, in that it is dedicated to teaching girls to be strong leaders, giving them valuable business skills and leadership skills, teaching girls about STEM careers and civic participation as well as the typical outdoor skills one expects from scouting organizations. It’s no wonder that so many female governors, senators, and U.S. representatives were once Girl Scouts.
Overall, the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts have faced very different pressures from society. Over the last decade and more, the Boy Scouts have been pressured by conservatives to stay conservative, and by progressives to become progressive. The pressure has been around changing policies that were conservative. In contrast, Girl Scouts has been pressured by conservatives to become conservative, and faced much less pressure from progressives who were fairly content with the policies. One example of pressure Girl Scouts has faced is around sexual education. Girl Scouts has careful policies in place that require parental consent for any programs, and doesn’t develop the programs themselves, but some conservative organizations point to ties that seem too close between the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, of which Girl Scouts is a member, and Planned Parenthood. There has been particular pressure on Girl Scouts about this from the Catholic Church.[v]
So given this history, what are we to make of the recent decision by Boy Scouts to allow girls into their organization? I’m hopeful that it means that Boy Scouts is continuing on its path to becoming a more open and welcoming organization. However, the very language that the Boy Scouts use to explain its decision makes me skeptical. They point to research that shows that families already involved in Boy Scouts are interested in Boy Scouts for their girls as well.[vi] What this tells me is that they’re not doing this because they’re interested particularly in girls’ leadership and development, or about increasing opportunities for girls. And the very parents who are asking Boy Scouts to create opportunities for girls may be the same ones who are uncomfortable with Girl Scouts as an organization because of its inclusivity and progressive stances.
Personally, if I was looking for a scouting organization that I could send children of all genders to, I would look to one that’s been inclusive in its programming for much longer. Camp Fire, for example, says, “Camp Fire works to realize the dignity and worth of each individual and to eliminate human barriers based on all assumptions that prejudge individuals. Designed and implemented to reduce sexual, racial, religious, and cultural stereotypes and to foster positive intercultural relationships, in Camp Fire, everyone is welcome.”[vii] Navigators USA has inclusion built into their creed, “As a Navigator I promise to do my best to create a world free of prejudice and ignorance.”[viii]
But if I was looking for an organization that specifically focuses on building leadership skills in girls, the answer is definitely Girl Scouts.
Rev. Dr. Cynthia L. Landrum is a UU Minister who serves the Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty in Clarklake, MI. She has been a Girl Scout leader and is the mother of a Juliette Girl Scout, and received a Community Spirit Award from the Girl Scouts Heart of Michigan Council in 2014.
[i] “Girl Scouts of the USA,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girl_Scouts_of_the_USA.
[ii] “Girl Scouts of the USA,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girl_Scouts_of_the_USA.
[iii] “Social Issues,” Girl Scouts USA, http://www.girlscouts.org/en/faq/faq/social-issues.html
[iv] “Chartered Organizations of the Boy Scouts of America,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chartered_organizations_of_the_Boy_Scouts_of_America
[v] Teresa Donnellan, “A History of the Friction Between the Girl Scouts and the Catholic Church,” America: The Jesuit Review, https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2017/05/12/history-friction-between-girl-scouts-and-catholic-church
[vi] “The BSA Expands Programs to Welcome Girls from Cub Scouts to Highest Rank of Eagle Scouts,” Boy Scouts of America, http://www.scoutingnewsroom.org/press-releases/bsa-expands-programs-welcome-girls-cub-scouts-highest-rank-eagle-scout/
[vii] “Camp Fire Recognizes Dignity and Worth,” Camp Fire, http://campfire.org/experience/inclusion
[viii] Navigators USA, https://navigatorsusa.org/