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05.21.11

Why Are Pro-Lifers Targeting the Girl Scouts?

They sell cookies, they earn merit badges, they—promote abortion? Alizah Salario on how two teens from Texas are accusing the Girl Scouts of creating boot-stomping, sexualized radicals.

As devoted members of their local troop, sisters Tess and Sydney Volanski once held the Girl Scouts of the USA in high regard. Even when the girls reached their teens, they intended to stay affiliated with their close-knit troop throughout high school and earn the organization's prestigious Gold Award. But when these sisters from Texas learned what they call "jaw-dropping" information about the GSUSA—an organization they say helped them develop strong friendships and hone their leadership skills for nearly a decade—their plans quickly changed.

The Volanski sisters now believe that the Girl Scouts has a "pro-abortion mind-set" and a "radical feminist agenda." It's a belief that prompted them to abandon the organization in March 2010.

"While we recognize the many good things about the Girl Scouts, we had to ask ourselves: Will we stand for our beliefs, for the dignity of life, the sanctity of marriage, modesty, purity? Or will we remain true to the Girl Scouts? We cannot see any way to truly do both," they state on their website.

To spread the word, the Volanskis started the " Speak Now Girl Scouts" blog (the name is a nod to the title of a Taylor Swift album) to document the ways in which the organization supposedly pushes its radical agenda. They say this includes everything from providing information about reproductive health and birth control, to lauding leaders like Margaret Mead and Hillary Clinton. "The core of our mission is to spread awareness of the truth, and hopefully more media coverage will accomplish that," said Sydney Volanski in an email to The Daily Beast.

Is this beloved, century-old institution really churning out sexualized radicals along with Thin Mints and merit badges? Does the Girl Scouts organization have a "pro-abortion mind-set"?

“Many of them are very extreme, radical, and/or liberals.”

The GSUSA officially maintains a neutral position on abortion and birth control. Because the organization has a two-tiered leadership structure, however, local or regional chapters have the autonomy to partner with organizations of their choice, which may include, say, Planned Parenthood affiliates (or, for that matter, conservative organizations).

"In some areas of the country, Girl Scout troops or groups may choose to hold discussions about human sexuality and may choose to collaborate with a local organization that specializes in these areas," said the GSUSA in a statement. "The topic is discussed from a factual, informative point of view and does not include advocacy or promotion of any social or religious perspective."

Despite this, the Volanskis' opinions have slowly attracted the attention of pro-life organizations nationwide. Two right-wing pro-life groups, the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM) and the Family Research Council, have joined the two sisters in condemning the Girl Scouts, elevating a personal story of two teens cutting ties with their local troop to a full-scale assault on an organization known for peddling cookies and building "courage, confidence, and character."

"We think the [Girl Scouts'] national leadership has been infected with a radical feminist agenda," says Terry McKeegan, vice president of C-FAM.

Though the Volanskis didn't solicit the attention, they say they're grateful for the support of the pro-life community and remain focused on speaking out against the GSUSA because the organization directly affected their lives. "We realize that not every family will be concerned with GSUSA's broken promise of neutrality on the issues of a girl's sexuality, abortion, and birth control, but we seek to let everyone know the facts so that they can make an informed decision about supporting this group," said Sydney Volanski in an email.

Both the Volanskis and C-FAM suggest that if girls don't feel compatible with the Girl Scouts, they should seek a scouting alternative such as the American Heritage Girls, a group that reflects a more "traditional" vision. As for the Girl Scouts, "We would like to see them put the focus where it should be, on character building and leadership activities," says Tess Volanski.

But could providing information about reproductive health and offering opportunities to discuss issues affecting girls be exactly what character building and leadership are all about? Girls today are confronted with difficult choices about sex and dating at an increasingly younger age, and part of the Girl Scouts' mission is to provide them with the skills and knowledge to make informed decisions about their futures. The Girl Scout Research Institute, a branch of the GSUSA, found that family confidantes are often unwilling or unable to discuss personal issues related to sex, and that the majority of teens believe they should be getting information about abstinence and contraception, rather than either/or.

The Volanskis' gripe with the Girl Scouts began in earnest last spring, when the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) attended the U.N.'s Commission on the Status of Women. At the conference, 30 to 35 teenagers from around the world participated in the Girls Only Workshop, a panel discussion about global issues affecting girls.

The Volanskis and their supporters say that during the workshop, a brochure about HIV health, family planning, and reproductive rights entitled "Happy, Healthy, and Hot" was distributed to the teen girls. According to the GSUSA, the brochure in question was not distributed at the WAGGGS workshop, but was from a different event at the conference. There was also a march for women's reproductive rights at the conference—rights that include "accessible, affordable, and safe abortions," according to the WAGGGS website.

The events that transpired at the conference, as stated on the Volanskis' blog, were perceived as part of GSUSA's "corrupt" plan to promote "Planned Parenthood, promiscuity, and abortion to their members, as well as a political agenda."

"They have for years steered girls toward sources that have an agenda while saying at the same time they're neutral," says Susan Riedley, the editor of HonestGirlScouts.com, a site that advocates for a return to "traditional" Girl Scout values of "truth" and "purity" and for the elimination of all sex-ed from GSUSA curricula.

This isn't the first time the Girl Scouts have found themselves at the center of controversy. In the 1970s, a Catholic archdiocese cut all funding to the Girl Scouts when it began sex-ed programming, and in 1993 the organization was maligned for making the "God" part of the Girl Scout promise optional: "On my honor, I will try: to serve God and my country, to help people at all times and to live by the Girl Scout Law."

In 2001, GSUSA President Connie Matsui came under fire from the American Family Association for lauding "That's a Family!" a Women's Educational Media video exploring the diversity of the modern family, including same-sex couples with children. Since then, various conservative groups have lambasted the organization because it supposedly "endorses leftist social activism, promiscuity, and the homosexual agenda."

Critics of the GSUSA also take issue with their role models. The Volanskis find it troubling that the sash-wearing sellers of Samoas would honor "radical" heroines like labor organizer Dolores Huerta and French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, and make positive mention of leaders in the arts like the poet Mary Oliver and the Indigo Girls, women who advocate for "same-sex relationship rights," and "are regarded as icons of the movement" as stated on the Volanskis' blog.

"Many of them are very extreme, radical, and/or liberals," says Riedly of the Girl Scouts' heroine list. "There is no balance, with the exception of Mother Teresa. I could certainly think of many women with leadership qualities who could've made the list. Where's Margaret Thatcher? No, they'd prefer to put in Hillary Clinton."

Though the GSUSA feels the assessment of their organization is totally inaccurate, they applaud the Volanskis for speaking out for what they believe in—a quality that the Girl Scouts have worked hard to instill in all their members, past and present.

"As a leadership organization, we must always respect the right of others to express their views and we will continue to support girls who care deeply about an issue and have the courage to stand up and take action," GSUSA spokeswoman Michelle Tompkins told The Daily Beast, "even if we do not agree with what they say."

Alizah Salario is a freelance journalist based in New York. Her work has appeared in Women's eNews, Ms. Magazine, The Huffington Post, at the Poetry Foundation and elsewhere.