Throughout U.S. history, women have fought tooth-and-nail to beat down the doors of prohibited, male-exclusive spaces: Congress, the military, universities, McSorley’s Old Ale House.
For me, championing these battles to break down barriers against female participation is a complete no-brainer.
As a proud feminist, there are very few scenarios in where I do not vocally support more opportunities and spaces for girls and women to participate and succeed alongside men—but the story of five young women in Northern California trying to join the Boy Scouts may be one of them.
Sisters Allie and Skyler Westover, along with Ella Jacobs, Daphne Mortenson, and Taylor Alcozer, serve in their own independent troop, the Unicorns, under the guidance of Danelle Jacobs (Ella’s mother).
But the five girls—ages 10 to 13 in Santa Rosa, California—ideally want to be part of Boy Scouts of America. This month, they formally submitted applications for membership and pleaded their case before the Redwood Empire Council of the Boy Scouts of America.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the council forwarded the Unicorns’ application to the national organization, but local Vice President Herb Williams warned, “There is no provision for girls in Boy Scouts. That’s a fact. It’s been a fact for 100 years.”
The Unicorns’ efforts to scout with the boys has earned national attention and sympathy. It is hard not to empathize with their plight—grassroots efforts of girls wanting the opportunity to participate in the same activities that boys do, to explore the outdoors and become friends with fellow scouts, to prove they can compete and beat their male counterparts. What’s not to like?
The problem with this version of the battle is that it grossly, and deleteriously, gives short shrift to all that the Girls Scouts do—namely camp and teach girls to be independent thinkers and self-reliant adults. (It should be noted the Unicorns are their own independent troop, not at all affiliated to the Girl Scouts.)
Instead, time and again reports about the Unicorns feature snide, ignorant swipes that make the Girl Scouts seem like delicate debutante training. The New York Times described the Unicorns as a contingency of girls who “would rather be camping and tying knots than selling cookies.”
Boston University’s student newspaper, The Daily Free Press, published an editorial that appears to have been written by someone who was not a member of the Girl Scouts, nor ever spoke to someone who was: “Girl Scouts in the United States seems to be an organization that confines women to predictable tasks, such as baking casseroles or having pizza parties. Many Girl Scouts never even had the opportunity to go camping, hiking or rock climbing. Girls are rewarded for going shopping, while boys are rewarded for building fires.”
I say this as a former Girl Scout who remembers annual whitewater rafting trips, overnights in platform tents, and volunteering at local domestic abuse shelters. It was hardly a giant slumber party of baking cookies and braiding our hair.
It’s been over a decade since I was a Girl Scout, and by all accounts, the organization has only grown more progressive, inclusive, and empowering of young women.
Now, certainly, every troop in America is different. A colleague of mine said she felt uncomfortable as, what she described as, a “tomboy” in her troop in a small, conservative Upstate New York town.
Perhaps, the Unicorns felt their own discomfort within the established troop in their hometown (Unicorns leader Danelle Jacobs did not respond to Daily Beast phone calls by the time of publication). “There's nothing wrong with Girl Scouts,” said 10-year-old Skyler Westover, “but they take naps and write letters during their meetings instead of running around doing outdoors things,” the Chronicle reported.
But the Girl Scouts were never meant to be a traditionally feminine, domestically confined organization.
In fact, founder Juliette Low established the Girl Scouts after becoming friends with Boy Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell and wanting young women to draw similar lessons of maturity and strength from scouting.
“It is the aim of this organization to teach girls how to be happy, vigorous, resourceful girls and how to become efficient, self-helpful women,” stated a 1918 informational article for the Girl Scouts in Albany, New York’s State College News student paper. Nearly a century ago, before women even had the right to vote in the U.S., the Girl Scouts were working towards empowering young women.
And the Girl Scouts practice what they preached. While their male counterparts wasted a revolting amount of energy on rooting out any scent of homosexuality within their ranks, the Girl Scouts made it explicit in their policy not to discriminate based on sexual orientation and admitted a transgender 7-year-old girl in 2011.
This past year, the Girl Scouts returned $100,000 from a donor who was against the admittance of transgender members.
In the past 15 years, the Girl Scouts have faced multiple boycotts from right-wing groups stemming from bizarre allegations that they are secretly pro-choice because the organization will suggest Democratic politicians, like Wendy Davis and Hillary Clinton, should be role models for girls.
“Boys, if they want to learn how to tie slipknots and make fire, will do so in an atmosphere steeped in straight male Christianity,” Kate Tuttle wrote in 2012 for The Atlantic.com. “Girls, if they want to sell cookies and go camping, will soak up messages about empowerment, diversity, and social activism.”
Moreover, it is not merely inaccurate to gloss over what being a Girl Scout actually entails. Painting the organization as an after-school spin-off of 1950s-era Miss Porter’s carries an underlying sexism.
The assumptions that the Girl Scouts organization is more placid and tranquil than the Boy Scouts, simply because it involves the “fairer sex,” reinforces the false notion that women inevitably fall into gentler or more domestic tasks when left to congregate on their own.
The Girl Scouts offers many of the same activities the Boy Scouts do, and to their credit, the Boy Scouts has programs that are open to both sexes, including the Learning for Life program in which the Unicorns participate.
When you take those similarities into account along with the fact that the Girl Scouts has a far more progressive record, one wonders why the Unicorns or their parents would rather they join the Boy Scouts?
It’s hard to think that this campaign is more than an effort at making a dramatic statement—one that does more to miscast and undercut the Girl Scouts while elevating and glorifying the Boy Scouts without discussing their fraught, discriminatory history.
“We know how to camp. We know how to start a fire. We want to be Boy Scouts,” Westover told the Chronicle after the local Boy Scouts council declined to agree to admit them. Never acknowledged in the article is the fact that the Girl Scouts can already provide that opportunity.
The five girls who make up the Unicorns are smart, ambitious, articulate, and resourceful. They will almost certainly fight many noble battles as they grow into strong women, but breaking into the Boy Scouts simply shouldn’t be one of those battles.