Around the country, two entities are in bitter rivalry, and it’s boys versus girls — quite literally.
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.
Girl Scouts leaders have gone 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.
Scoutmaster Lee Hutchins, a 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.
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.
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 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.