I did not start out as a believer in co-ed Scouting. For most of the last 35 years I’ve been a volunteer with the Boy Scouts of America the status quo worked fine for me, co-ed Scouting was a big unknown, and being unknown it was something to resist.
Three Things That Changed My Mind.
First – during a week-long international Scouting trip several years ago (and two more since) I watched co-ed Scouting at work. Almost every other Scouting association in the world is co-ed. Most of us haven’t seen co-ed Scouting in action on that scale. It wasn’t complicated, a Scout is a Scout, it was that simple.
Second – I’ve talked to Scouters from many different parts of the world at length about co-ed Scouting. I probed for problems or regrets, I didn’t find any.
Third – and most important, nearly six years ago our first grandchild was born. Before long she’ll be old enough to have the same experiences and advantages Scouting afforded her Eagle Scout father.
I know and admire Girl Scouts and Girl Scout leaders but the Girl Scouts of the USA does not offer the same experience her father had. The GSA and BSA are separate organizations with meaningful differences between their programs. Some Scouts will do better in one versus the other, not because of their gender, but because of their interests and ambitions.
There’s no reason gender should limit the opportunities my granddaughter (or any child) has in life. I think my granddaughter and her parents ought to be able to choose the Scouting program and organization that best fits her interests and ambitions.
A week ago it seemed she’d have this choice, but now I am not so sure.
It’s been a weird couple of months.
Let me explain.
I retired as a Scoutmaster four years ago. I returned to the role for a year because our next Scoutmaster wasn’t quite ready to take over. My fill-in year ended in August when I, along with many unit volunteers, received an email invitation from our local Council Executive:
There has been much talk about “Family Scouting” and ways to perhaps serve girls in the elementary and middle school years. On Thursday, after the rather “canned” national presentation, there will be an opportunity for discussion. More importantly, there will be an opportunity for you to send you thoughts and comments directly to the National team that is tasked with studying this opportunity.
Our Committee Chair and new Scoutmaster told me they would be attending. I decided I’d stay away because I am fidgety and impatient at meetings of any kind. Besides, given the chance, I end up talking too much.
I did, however, have something to say on the subject, so I decided I’d write a blog post.
I Write A Blog Post
Blog posts begin with an idea, and several hours writing a first draft. I usually let that draft sit for a few days or weeks, sometimes months. When I look at them again I may decide not to publish them at all. About one in three drafts aren’t published for various reasons.
My recent post, Girls in The BSA?, wasn’t something I came up with on a whim. I’ve been thinking, talking, and writing about co-ed Scouting for years. In addition to the usual draft and revision regimen I also asked a professor of developmental psychology to review the post. I asked them to check the accuracy of my statements about gender. After a few more hours of revisions I published the post earlier this month.
Girls in the BSA? asks if gender ought to define Scouting. I answer no, a Scout is a Scout, and tell how I arrived at this conclusion. At 640 words it is an intentionally brief post. I was aiming at writing why I think this is the right thing to do as simply as I could.
Many people responded to the post. The majority were positive, a significant number disagreed and a few who did got angry and/or called me names.
A week later in podcast 354 Gender and Scouting I talked about the post and responses.
Two days after that, to my great surprise, the BSA announced girls could become Cub Scouts beginning next fall. The announcement went on to say older girls would be allowed to participate in troops a year after that. The details were sparse, but the direction was clear (or so I thought). There was no connection between the timing of my posts and the announcement.
I hurried to put together links to the announcement and associated resources.
I was overjoyed the BSA made this decision, and stunned at how quickly it had happened.
Not So Fast!
After a few days it became clear things were not as I had hoped.
At first I thought chartering organizations would choose from three options –
- Remaining as they are now, boys only.
- Separate units for girls and boys.
- A fully co-ed program.
In the ensuing discussions, online and off, I had growing concerns.
I never imagined the BSA intended to limit girls to a separate but equal plan. After all, they had to know that’s exactly what people would call it, and the uncomfortable associations it invokes. I thought they’d at least recognize this was a much more complex and unworkable than a co-ed plan. How is this consistent with why the BSA offers membership to girls in at all age levels?
Before long readers and listeners sent links to things like this email from the BSA’s Key 3 (National President, Chief Scout Executive, and National Commissioner) that says in part:
While our curriculum is relevant both to boys and girls, our commitment to single-gender offerings remains the same. Our decision does not make our programs co-ed. (Emphasis in the original.) We acknowledge and celebrate that boys and girls develop differently, and there are times that single-gender learning is most appropriate. We will maintain the experience boys have had in our organization while at the same time expanding our time-tested programs to girls and young women.
(It’s understood, I suppose, this announcement does not affect coed Venturing.)
I had read things wrong. There’s definitely no co-ed option.
One Step forward, Two Steps Back.
Take a step forward if you accept the premise that “that boys and girls develop differently, and there are times that single-gender learning is most appropriate.”
Take two steps back if you don’t accept this premise.
I am not out to stop you if you want to build your Scouting program on this premise.
I am not advocating that the BSA mandates a fully co-ed organization.
Families have legitimate differences in how they want to raise their children. Chartering organizations should have the choice to be fully co-ed, create separate girls-only groups, or remain boys only. This would be consistent with our history. Scouts from different religious backgrounds have had wide latitude in applying the program in a way consistent with their values for decades. Scouting should support any application of the program that helps young people in a way consistent with the oath and law.
Now it’s clear the BSA separate but equal plan closes the door on the option of having fully co-ed packs and troops.
Separate Isn’t Equal
The emerging details of the BSA plan places girls in separate “girl only” dens and troops. The BSA has categorically stated there will be no fully co-ed program for girls in packs or troops.
This plan invites association with the troubled history of “separate but equal”. An unfortunate, unavoidable, yet totally accurate definition of the plan announced for girls.
To borrow a well-known phrase from the legal holding reached in the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education; separate is inherently unequal. Although the BSA is not subject to the kind of civil rights laws in Brown v. Board of Education the fundamental moral principle is identical.
I am, by far, not the first to make this association. Others have used it before and after the announcement. While the BSA has not used the phrase the decision embodies the same concept.
Why no Fully Co-Ed Option?
What I find really puzzling is why a fully co-ed plan isn’t even an option. What evidence for or against the idea was studied? Was it even discussed? If so why was it rejected?
Assuming chartering organizations can choose to remain boys only, or have separate but equal units, what does the BSA lose by permitting those who want it to have a fully co-ed program?
One defense of the separate but equal plan is the assumption girls are more developmentally advanced than boys between the ages of 11-14. It’s assumed this difference gives girls in a co-ed troop an unfair advantage, they will run roughshod over the boys, and the boys will quit in despair. If this is the justification why can’t younger Cub Scouts be in fully co-ed dens? If differences in developmental stages are so important, why do we not separate boys in troops over 14 from boys under 14?
Are our Scouts or our organization so entirely different from the rest of the world we can’t meet the challenges or reap the benefits of a co-ed program? The Scouts Association in the United Kingdom, (founded by Baden-Powell in 1907) rose to those challenges twenty six years ago when they became fully co-ed. So did Scouts Canada nineteen years ago, Scouts South Africa eighteen years ago, so has almost every other Scouting organization in the world. As of today only 13 of the 160-plus member organizations of the World Organization of the Scouting Movement, of which the BSA is a member, remain ‘boys only”.
Valid questions remain about how the decision was reached, the motives behind it, it’s potential effects on other organizations, and the way it was announced, but they aren’t the most important answers we need.
Can the BSA separate but equal plan actually work?
How Will This Work?
The BSA announcement mentions the goal of creating convenient programs for busy families. It’s difficult to see how the separate but equal plan achieves this goal.
Establishing and serving separate but equal troops and Cub Scout dens will demand significantly more effort than accommodating 8 or 10 new Scouts in an a fully co-ed pack or troop.
That additional effort and inconvenience is justified if it is the choice of families the chartering organization serves, but what if they prefer a fully co-ed program?
We don’t yet know to what extent we’ll have to keep the girl troops and boy troops separated so we don’t know what the current plan does to our already crowded schedules. Will boy troops and girl troops share meeting space and time or go on camping trips together? Can they attend summer camp at the same time? Can they share existing volunteers or will we need to recruit a whole new set of volunteers?
In Cub Scout packs scheduling looks less complicated. But requiring separate dens in Cub Scouts means recruiting additional den leaders to maintain smaller dens when it would otherwise make sense to combine them were a fully co-ed option available.
These are just a few of the many questions that come to mind.
At this point plenty of volunteers are asking themselves how they can possibly make this work.
Wrestling With the Decision
I understand if you find all this troubling. This is a big change.
As the details become clearer I think a majority of volunteers are likely to disagree, in one way or another, with the BSA separate but equal plan.
I think a lot of families won’t like it either.
Someone defended the plan with the old chestnut “a good compromise leaves everyone equally dissatisfied”. Surely we can do better than that. Truly good compromises require the consideration opposing viewpoints to create a good agreement. It’s very hard work, but it can be done. People voluntarily comply with a good agreement because their concerns are equally satisfied. If everyone is dissatisfied it’s not”good”.
We can, and will, find a way to work together on this, we are Scouters after all.
The Greater Aim
Maybe one thing we can all agree on is the greater aim of our work.
Whatever our disagreements all of us strive to make it possible for our Scouts to embrace and live out the oath and law.
From that perspective everything else is window dressing. The uniforms, badges, jargon, paperwork, hallowed traditions, and even the organizations themselves only exist to serve the greater aim.
I support a fully co-ed option because I am confident boys and girls are strongest and safest working together as Scouts.
You may choose to work with your Scouts differently. I don’t want to restrict how you work towards the greater aim.
All I ask is the BSA extend the same courtesy.