The Scout Wars: The Persisting Conflict Between Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts

In 2017, Boy Scouts officially allowed girls to enter their troops. This incident was merely one in a long line of controversy and tension between the two organizations, and begs the question: which Scouts organization is better?


U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts work together but with separate organizations.

When I was in middle school, there was a period when my brother and I were in our respective scout troups at the same time. One Friday, he had a Cub Scouts meeting in which he learned how to use a knife for camping. On that same Friday, I had a Girl Scouts meeting in which I learned how to effectively shop online.

History of Girl Scouts

My experience with Girl Scouts was a far cry from its original goal. Founded in 1912 by Juliette Gordon Low, the Girl Scouts was focused on offering girls the same opportunities as their male counterparts in the Boy Scouts by participating in activities, such as learning survival skills and public service experience.

This was a very bold move, especially considering that it would be another eight years before women gained the right to vote. At the time, women were expected to stick to stereotypically feminine activities, so the idea of young girls participating in camping or survival skill training (because building a tent in the woods is such a gendered activity) was unheard of.  

Throughout the history of Scouts, Boy Scouts has consistently overshadowed Girl Scouts. Eagle Scout – the highest rank you can reach in Boy Scouts for which you need to complete a major community service project – is a term that almost everyone knows and respects. Some popular Eagle Scout projects are building birdhouses or fixing fences. On the other hand, in order to obtain the Girl Scouts equivalent (The Girl Scouts Gold Award) you must create a lasting solution to a problem in your community, with some girls building a database which offers service-learning opportunities for students, or creating programs to educate children on dental disease and oral hygiene. This award receives little to no recognition from the general public, in spite of the equal or even greater work that Girl Scouts put in to achieve this award.

Criticism and Controversy

Although the Girl Scouts is worthy of more respect than it has been given, the organization’s problems still need to be addressed.

Girl Scouts has been struggling financially over the past few years, with Boy Scouts of America (BSA) allowing girls in (and changing its name to Scouts of America, or SOA) and the Coronavirus pandemic making selling cookies – an activity which makes Girl Scouts around $80 million a year – a risky endeavor. However, there are also systemic issues that have been present long before the pandemic.

The activities that Girl Scouts participate in vary somewhat from troop to troop, but the general perception is that survival skills and camping are no longer a fundamental aspect. Giancarlo Pancheri ’23 noted, “The first things I think about when I hear the name ‘girl scouts’ are arts and crafts and cookies.”

There is nothing wrong with traditionally feminine activities or hobbies, and they should not be denigrated simply because they are stereotypically enjoyed by young girls or women. In fact, learning how to stitch up a hole or market cookies are very valuable life skills. The demographics of the participants should not qualify activities as inherently inferior or superior. Nevertheless, young girls should not be confined to such activities, something that the current Girl Scouts organization is failing to achieve by having members rarely participate in the activities regularly enjoyed by the boys, such as camping, knot-tying, and wilderness survival skills. 

Girl Scouts involves the scouts working to earn various badges. (Elizabeth Goodspeed, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons )

There is also some criticism aimed at Boy Scouts. The odds of someone becoming stranded in the woods with only a knife, a piece of rope, and knowledge on which mushrooms you can eat, are nowadays minimal at best. That is not to say these skills are not valuable, but some of the more practical skills learned in Girl Scouts such as baking or stitching are more applicable to the real world, and just as valuable.

Sharlize Castillo ’24 said, “I believe girls learn more crafting skills while boys learn more survival skills. Both groups should be taught both skills.”

But scouting faces a much more serious problem affecting both the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts: child abuse. By 1935, Boy Scouts already had hundreds of problematic troop leaders that needed to be removed, and according to Abused in Scouting’s list of confirmed BSA abusers, the number has increased to over a thousand. Not only were the organization’s screening processes to prevent the hiring of predators poor, but Boy Scouts did nothing to stop the harm of these young children.

The 2007 case against Boy Scouts in Portland, Oregon broke the floodgates on this issue after six men came forward with allegations against their former troop leaders. A 2012 review of hidden BSA reports detailing child abuse revealed that after reports were made, the offenders were encouraged — not forced, encouraged —  to leave the organization by the higher-ups. This was not followed up by a police report or even a warning about this person. ‘Abused In Scouting’ claims that the Boy Scouts, “likely covered the tracks of these predators.” The lawsuits resulting from these past sexual abuse cases caused Boy Scouts to declare bankruptcy.

While this issue is more prevalent in Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts also has its own history of abuse. In July, 2020 former Girl Scout troop leader Marty Walton was charged with harming several girl scouts, and his wife was charged with child endangerment. A month later, former girl scout Alice Weiss-Russell filed a lawsuit against Girl Scouts in which she alleged that she was harmed by the husband of a troop leader as a young girl. There are countless other similar incidents reported across both organizations, demonstrating an urgent need for change in management among the scouts.

Another controversy surrounding scouting is the issue of girls and boys being separated. Many people believe the two groups should just unite. Girls that are now able to be in Boy Scouts often cite the fact that they grew up around both older brothers and this organization, and are now able to be an official member of a group they watched their brothers and fathers bond over. Others argue that it is convenient to be able to take your sons and daughter to one meeting. On the issue of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts being separated, Kazi Gilman ’23 said, “The idea of so drastic a distinction between two groups who are apparently only divided on the basis of the gender/sex seems to maintain divisions and uphold sexist norms.”

This somewhat differs from the viewpoint of Girl Scout Kelly Tching ’23, who said, “Boy Scouts is pretty different from Girl Scouts so I think anyone should be able to join whichever one they want.”

Both Gilman’s and Tching’s perspectives contrast with the view of Girl Scouts, whose mission is focused on helping girls develop leadership skills and come into their own. The idea of allowing boys into the organization is antithetical to the goal of Girl Scouts, and this organization clearly sees the separation as being much more essential than the Boy Scouts did.

Future of the Scouts

With the changing times, alongside a waning membership count, Boy Scouts made the leap to no longer be exclusive. Even though Girl Scouts is going through a similar situation right now, they have not made this same move. And with their statement on ‘In a World of Boys’ Clubs, Give Her One of Her Own,’ in which the organization points out that girls need an organization in which they are focused on instead of boys, and aren’t compared to boys, it is clear that this move really is not an option.

However, even though Boy Scouts is no longer exclusive to boys, boys and girls are still not supposed to intermingle in their troops, as shown by the membership policy of BSA which said, “Starting in 2018, we serve boys and girls through single-gender dens in the Cub Scout program.”

This rule means that, when the scouts are young enough to be in Cub Scouts, they will be in one group. However, once they become old enough to move past Cub Scouts, girls and boys are separated.

This rule stomps on one of the possible positives of unification between Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, this being the chance for girls and boys to intermingle and form healthy relationships with each other. This is supported by a negative point that Lilly Lin ’22 cited about the two being separated. Lin said, “If anything, splitting young girls from boys could deter them from socializing with one another, potentially disrupting their social circles for an indeterminate amount of time. An inclusive environment is important to teach children to be open-minded early on in life.”

Girl Scouts openly accepts people from all across the gender spectrum, except for cisgender boys. SOA allows in cisgender/transgender boys and cisgender/transgender girls. The organization has yet to make a public comment on people who identify as gender non-conforming. Girl Scouts made this statement in 2011, whereas the Boy Scouts started allowing transgender members in 2017.

This further supports the fact that historically, Girl Scouts has been the more progressive of the two. Its very creation was radical and went up against gender roles. In the years since, Girl Scouts openly allowed lesbian members in 2000, whereas Boy Scouts lifted the ban on gay members in 2013. This issue, paired with the Boy Scouts’ main donor being The Church of Latter-Day Saints (up until 2013 when they denounced Boy Scouts), has led to Boy Scouts being seen as a much more conservative organization.

This is why it is out of the blue for Boy Scouts, or SOA, to be seen as making such a radical feminist move, when Girl Scouts has been making such moves since its inception.

Boy Scouts changing its name to Scouts of America, allowing girls in, and taking a more progressive stance on gender and sexuality are all positives. But the irony lies in the fact that the Boy Scouts’ newfound inclusivity is being used against Girl Scouts, which was founded to counter the former organization’s original exclusivity. 

On the issue of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts being separated, Kazi Gilman ’23 said, “The idea of so drastic a distinction between two groups who are apparently only divided on the basis of the gender/sex seems to maintain divisions and uphold sexist norms.”