Why girls? And why now?
BSA has included girls in the Venturing program -- and the Exploring program before that -- for many years, all the way back to the 1970s. We have a lot of experience with doing co-ed high adventure stuff. Including girls in older youth programs is old news.
Likewise, girls have taken an increasing part, as tagalongs, in Cub Scouting. Cub Scouts is a family-oriented program, and most of the things they do include everybody in the family, including big sister and toddler brother. Allowing them to actually register and earn the badges is a relatively minor step forward.
Many families have asked for their girls to be able to join Cub Scouts. I hear lots of comments, such as, "It's a lot more fun than Girl Scouts," etc. Nevertheless, BSA is incredibly resistant to requests they don't want to fulfill. They have pushed away these feelers for many years.
But what drives BSA these days is numbers. Someone returning from a national meeting some years ago said the word he heard was, "The last Boy Scout turns out the lights in 2035" (or whatever year was advanced as the statistical death of BSA). As more and more youth programs compete for participants, and as BSA struggles to retool its image to appeal to boys and their parents, the need to bring membership numbers up has become white-hot in an institution that has always been obsessed with numbers.
The opening to gay youth (and then, gay adults) of a few years ago has to be seen in this light. BSA found itself the unwilling torch-bearer of one side (only) in America's culture wars. Many parents were looking on BSA unfavorably for their boys. Meanwhile, the gay activists continued to beat on BSA. And they were beginning to have to discipline their own Councils, which they were very averse to doing. In the end, they were desperate to avoid being the "sex police." Changing their membership standards blew a gigantic hole in their membership, but the issue thereafter has largely gone away. BSA began to grow again (albeit from very far back), and had managed to stave off attempts by gay activists to "help" them with their curriculum. It was a desperate gamble, but it may have paid off. BSA's recent concessions to transgender youth are of the same sort. It's not that they think they can replace the losses of traditional volunteers and charter partners with those of more liberal persuasion: they're just trying to get off the hot seat and grow again.
More recently, however, the LDS Church announced that they would cease to support -- or perhaps more accurately, cease to mandate -- participation in the older youth programs of BSA. Instead of Venturing and Varsity Scouting, they would create their own youth programs and support them. This is an incredibly big deal. For many, many years, the LDS Church has set BSA programs as their official youth programs for boys. Every LDS congregation has been required to have Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and Venturing/Varsity Scouting, if they have the boys to enroll in them. The LDS Church is the largest charter partner in BSA. If they start to withdraw their support, even a little, it sends earthquakes throughout the institution.
So, why girls? And, why now? Because they've got all these girls in families already favorably disposed to BSA, clamoring for more inclusion. Because GSUSA is moribund and American Heritage Girls, which they were in a reciprocal relationship with, has repudiated them after their decision to allow gay members; so whom are they afraid of offending? It's a no-brainer. Girls -- at all levels of the program -- are the key to growth, and membership growth is the most important need of the organization at this point. So they announced it on the International Day of the Girl, and immediately got a favorable response from the other members of WOSM (World Organization of the Scouting Movement); but then, BSA was one of only two remaining WOSM members to practice single-sex Scouting these days (the other is the Philippine Scout Association).
So, is this a good thing? Are you happy with it?
I have done co-ed Exploring/Venturing for over twenty years. I don't have a problem taking girls on high adventure trips. Managing a co-ed program, including leadership and advancement, seems normal to me. I've seen a lot of girls in Cub families participating in Pinewood Derbies. I also have rather extensive international Scouting experience, where co-ed Scouting is the norm. On top of this, as a pastor for 41 years, I've taught a lot of co-ed classes of all ages, as well as doing church camp and retreats with all ages of youth. So, while BSA's announcement took me by surprise, I can't say I was displeased, or excessively attached to my own memories of single-sex Scouting.
But that doesn't mean that there are no downsides to making BSA a co-ed organization. Or, if not downsides, at least, anxieties.
As I said, I've done a lot of co-ed Scouting with older youth. And I've seen a lot of co-ed activity among younger youth. Where I fret a bit is with the Boy Scout program division itself. We talk a lot about the trail to Eagle and all that, but we often forget that the core of Boy Scouting is aimed at 10 1/2- to 13 1/2- year-old boys. The few who hang on through their teenage years, earn Eagle, work on camp staff, attain significant Council leadership positions, etc., are not representative of the program. Boy Scouting, with its emphasis upon codes, calls, uniforms, rituals, the patrol method, and the importance of the Scoutmaster are all designed to work with those who are just passing from being the biggest of the little kids to being the littlest of the big kids. It's a program about life transitions, about finding your identity, about self-discovery for those who are not yet able to really talk about their own insides much.
Now, putting 10 1/2- to 13 1/2- year-old girls with those same 10 1/2- to 13 1/2 -year old boys isn't too difficult. After all, we do it in church and school programming all the time, and increasingly, in sports. But. Both girls and boys of this age sometimes need a break from each other, a time to grow up a bit in their own world, where they don't have to compete with each other or navigate all the fraught issues that are opening up around them. If we have to give up single-sex Scouting, well, okay, but that doesn't mean that there wasn't some value to doing it that way.
And particularly for boys, Scouting has been one of the few remaining programs that worked in a boy-friendly way. Schools these days seem to think that a boy acting like a boy, learning like a boy, wanting to study what a boy finds interesting, is basically a defective girl, who needs constant correction (and likely, medication) in order to act right. This has led to girls' soaring scholastic achievement at every level, while boys at every level are struggling.
Boys need to be active. They can't sit still that long, particularly at middle school age. Boys want to touch first, bang on things, see what they can make of them -- and then learn why and how. They want to read about heroes and villains. They like competition. They want to be loud. They are risk-takers. When a boy joins a Troop, one of the first things we do with this likely lad is to put implements of destruction in his hands -- knives, axes, saws, rope, matches -- and we say, "Let's go mess around in the woods and see what we can make with these." No other major youth program left in operation does this any more. Now, if the girls want that too, then fine. Let 'em come. We'll all go grub in the woods together.
But then, in BSA's frantic search for more members in recent years, they have (to my mind) been turning much of their programming into school-in-the-woods. More classroom time, more merit badge seminars, more reports to write, more committee meetings, more sit-down training courses, more meetings in the church basement. The bling you can earn for doing all this is attractive, but I don't think it can hold a candle to the magic of a night in the woods. Not just any night in the woods, but -- well, you remember that night, don't you? We are not purveyors of awards. We're not about the bling. We are merchants of magic. That's what significant experience is called; that's what Scouts do in and for a boy. And I worry about BSA losing its soul sometimes. If, in letting the girls in, BSA follows the impulse to do more sit-down, boring stuff, then it will in the end cheat the boys -- and the girls -- who came looking for the magic.
So, we'll see. I'm reasonably optimistic, but numbers aren't everything. It's the magic that matters.