Scouts, Boy and Girl

views updated

Scouts, Boy and Girl

The history of the American scouting movement provides a unique perspective on shifting gender roles and expectations in the United States. The creation and maintenance of two separate scouting organizations, one for boys and one for girls, is the first indication that the Scouts simultaneously construct and reflect cultural understandings of the two biological sexes as being inherently different. An overview of the origins and social functions of scouting provides insight into why the Boy Scout and Girl Scout organizations have overcome criticism and controversy to become two of the most prominent youth organizations in the world.


The American versions of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts trace their origins to the British scouting movement founded by Sir Robert Baden-Powell in 1904. Although there is some debate about the motivations behind the initial movement, the majority of historians consider the formation of scouting in the context of British imperialism: It was designed to train the next generation of British soldiers in the absence of mandatory military service. Baden-Powell consciously designed the organization for boys and was confounded when girls began to join by the thousands by 1909. To resolve that problem, Baden-Powell and his sister, Agnes, established the British Girl Guides in 1910 as a means to contain the "moral threat" of girls resisting femininity through unrestrained physical activities. Although that solution worked initially, World War I and the women's suffrage movement altered gender expectations in Britain, and the Guides' role shifted to accommodate the demand of women to support the war effort.


The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) was established in 1910, and, according to most historians and scholars, the American version was developed as a means of reactionary social control. The increased professionalization, consumerism, and modernization of the Progressive era invoked fears of emasculation, and the Boy Scouts were viewed as an effort to redefine masculinity amid dramatic social change. The Scouts, along with other boy-centered organizations, such as the Boys Club and the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), were designed to mold adolescent behavior and responsibility through civic participation and character-building activities. Nearly a century later, in 2006, the BSA was the largest youth organization in the United States and continued its early mission with its stated goal to "provide an educational program for boys and young adults to build character, to train in the responsibilities of participating citizenship, and to develop personal fitness" (Boy Scouts of America 2006).

The BSA offers a range of scouting opportunities, starting with the family- and home-centered Cub Scouts (ages seven to eleven), the Boy Scouts with an emphasis on outdoor activity (ages eleven to seventeen), and the high-adventure Varsity Scouts (ages fourteen to seventeen). The BSA also offers a Venturing program for both male and female young adults (ages fourteen to twenty). Operating on a charter system, the BSA is a network of more than three hundred autonomous councils that franchises program opportunities to youth-serving organizations. The Scout Oath and the Scout Law have remained unchanged since their inception in 1910 and have been the backdrop for contemporary controversy. The Scout Oath requires a Scout to promise to be "morally straight" and to "do my duty to God." This has been used as a warrant to ban homosexuals, atheists, and agnostics. The Boy Scouts argue that the oath is incompatible with homosexuality and that avowed homosexuals cannot participate as adult volunteers, charter hosts, employees, or youth leaders.

The BSA serves a variety of religious faiths through its charter system, although Christianity is the predominant religious model. However, Scouts can participate in units chartered to Jewish, Buddhist, and Islamic organizations in most major cities. Individual organizations can control the program content, membership, and religious requirements within the basic context of the Scout Oath and Scout Law.


If the early Boy Scouts were engineered to cultivate public citizens, the function of the Girl Scouts was to maintain the private and domestic sphere. For instance, the 1940 Girl Scout national convention adopted the theme "Half a Million Homemakers" and promoted the Girl Scout as a citizen of a miniature democracy: the family. Despite those foundations, the Girl Scouts of the United States of America (GSUSA) also has reflected broader impulses by periodically resisting traditional gender norms. In the 1970s, for example, the Girl Scouts embraced women's liberation and asked the feminist Betty Friedan to serve on the national board.

When Juliette Gordon Low founded the Girl Scouts in 1912, she envisioned an organization that would release girls from home life and provide an experience of nature combined with service to the community. The Girl Scout organization became invested in ideas of progressive social justice, with the following mission: "Girl Scouting builds girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place" (Girl Scouts of the United States of America 2006). In 1952 the Girl Scouts established the Public Policy and Advocacy office, and the organization has continued to build relationships with members of Congress and federal advocacy departments. It continues to work to raise public awareness of the Girl Scouts beyond their annual cookie sale, promoting outreach programs to underserved areas, including public housing, homeless shelters, juvenile detention centers, women's prisons, and immigrant communities. The Girl Scout Research Institute (GSRI) was formed in 2000 as a research and public policy center for the healthy development of girls. Reflecting an awareness that girls increasingly are concerned about body image at younger ages, the Girl Scouts have worked to develop and implement wellness education in their schools and communities. Additionally, their Studio2B program (Studio 2B 2006) encourages teenage girls (ages age eleven to seventeen) to defy peer pressures through self-empowerment and community. Studio2B is an online community for girls that is intended to promote positive female role models and activities.

More than has been the case for the Boy Scouts, the form and function of the Girl Scouts have shifted over time to accommodate changing gender roles and expectations of women in society, and their progressive polices have been attacked by socially conservative groups. For instance, prolife advocates have criticized the Girl Scouts for their support of Planned Parenthood, an organization that advocates for women's reproductive rights, including abortion and contraception. Additionally, unlike the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts have striven for inclusion. Most notably, the Girl Scouts differ from their male counterparts in their inclusive nondiscrimination policy. The Girl Scouts maintain that issues of sexuality belong between a girl and her parents and do not take an official position on homosexuality. Although this has been criticized as a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, it remains a progressive example for youth organizations around the country.

In 2006 the Girl Scouts could claim the participation of more than 236,000 troops in more than ninety countries. Further, through membership in the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS), the GSUSA is part of an international scouting community of 10 million females in 145 countries.


The Boy Scouts have endured much more public controversy than have the Girl Scouts. Undoubtedly, the most pressing controversy for the BSA has been its policy prohibiting homosexuals from participation. In Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (2000), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts' First Amendment right to free association as a private organization gave it the right to exclude a gay scoutmaster. The ruling gained national attention and prompted public debate about masculinity and homosexuality. Since the Dale decision, there has been increased publicity surrounding the BSA and its exclusionary practices and policies. Some scholars emphasize the significance of the Dale decision, arguing that the case allows the average citizen to confront the ways in which masculinity is constructed around the exclusion of "sissies" and/or nonnormative role models.

In the aftermath of the Dale case, the BSA has faced several instances of local backlash. For instance, in March 2006 the California Supreme Court ruled that groups receiving government subsidies are required to comply with local antibias policies, including those that provide protections on the basis of sexual orientation and religion. This decision is one of many that have proved costly to the Boy Scouts and other organizations that have not adopted inclusive admissions policies.

In light of the fact that the Boy Scouts originated in part as an effort to rehabilitate a certain form of masculinity, it is not surprising that the organization has resisted associations with male homosexuality. It is not clear whether the BSA will adopt a nondiscrimination policy in regard to homosexuality. However, the crisis of masculinity that characterized the early Boy Scout movement continues to affect the American organization. In 2001 several Scout packs announced that they would admit gays, and their charters were revoked. Scouting groups in Canada, Europe, and Australia do not have policies that ban homosexuals from participation.

see also YMCA/YWCA.


Boy Scouts of America. 2006. Available from

Girl Scouts of the United States of America. 2006. Available from

Studio B2. 2006. Available from

Macleod, David I. 1983. Building Character in the American Boy: The Boy Scouts, YMCA, and Their Forerunners, 1870–1920. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Mechling, Jay. 2001. On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

                                            Jamie Skerski