My parents met in the spring of 1978 when my mom was a field director for Girl Scouts and my dad was a volunteer Boy Scout troop leader. Their mutual respect of scouting ensured that once I was born, I, too, would become a Girl Scout — whether I wanted to or not.
I was active for 12 years, starting as a Daisy scout in kindergarten and ending with high school graduation after earning my Gold Award. I still give my money and time to my local Girl Scouts council, because I believe in the mission — to build girls of courage, confidence and character who make the world a better place.
My life is filled with memories created as a Girl Scout. I first learned to face my biggest fear as a counselor-in-training at Camp Sky-Wa-Mo in northeast Tennessee. It was the summer of 1998, and as per usual, I was the biggest girl in my camp unit. And we were rappelling. Rappelling from the trees, in fact. The doubts rose up inside me. Was I strong enough? Is there a weight limit on this rope? Could this harness ride my crotch any tighter? Will these girls judge me if I fail?
I remember asking myself those questions, and with a heart pounding full of anxiety, I did it. I pushed myself, did my best, and then rappelled my amazing self back to the ground. I still feel courage thinking back to that day.
But there is one thing I also know for sure: adding a Boy Scout into that mix would not have helped ease my insecurities. The all-female environment created a safe space and gave me the freedom to discover my own capabilities.
Boy Scouts of America President Randall Stephenson was recently quoted saying of the BSA, “I’ve seen nothing that develops leadership skills and discipline like this organization. It is time to make these outstanding leadership development programs available to girls.”
Stephenson’s statement is indicative of the patriarchy in our society. In scouts, we see it with the Eagle Scout and Gold Award. Both recognitions are difficult to attain and require the scout to demonstrate equal levels of commitment, skills and competencies. However, the Eagle Scout designation is celebrated without question, while the Gold Award is virtually unheard of and often described as the “Girl Scout version” of the Eagle Scout.
Sure, there are advocates, lobbyists and some families who are thrilled with this change. They say it’s a step toward equality in scouting.
However, the premise at its core is ironic and offensive. Ironic in its assumptions that women cannot effectively lead after BSA’s own decadeslong history of barring participation by women and girls. And offensive in its attempts to justify and qualify BSA’s male leadership development experiences as superior to those available to girls.
Frances Hesselbein, CEO of GSUSA in the 1980s, was once named by Peter Drucker, the godfather of management and leadership, as the greatest leader in America. Drucker, GSUSA board president at the time, and lifetime member, also described Girl Scouts as the “best-managed organization around.”
Hesselbein’s brand of inclusive leadership made it possible for my mom to grow her career and become CEO of what was then called the Appalachian Girl Scout Council in Johnson City, Tennessee.
Gender equality in Boy Scouts should not come at the expense of Girl Scouts’ reputation. Establishing credibility with girls by minimizing the standing GSUSA has as the preeminent leadership development organization designed with, by, and for girls, is wrong.
Now, more than ever, all boys need to learn to respect girls, sexually and otherwise. I believe Boy Scouts has the power to help make that happen. And especially in a world where some boys and men are still learning that lesson, girls need an organization that will teach them to be honest, courageous, caring, and strong and help them develop those skills in an environment free from distraction and male dominance.
These tenets of leadership are a part of the Girl Scout Law that unites all members — children and adults, around common language and a clear path for expected behavior.
It helped to shape my core values as a girl, and bring focus and direction to the work I do today. The Girl Scout Law still inspires me to do my best, be responsible for what I say and do, and strive to make the world a better place. My story, along with those of millions of other women, can attest to Girl Scouts’ proven ability to build young women into confident, capable and compassionate leaders.
Changing who you are to gain popularity is not a lesson I learned as a Girl Scout; in fact, I was encouraged to do the opposite. But I fear this decision by BSA teaches just that. Since they have chosen this path, I encourage them to give credit where it’s due and acknowledge GSUSA’s expertise in leadership development.
Simply overlaying programs designed for boys into a girl’s experience won’t work, and BSA would benefit from the research and experience found in GSUSA to pursue its newfound mission.
If gender equality is truly BSA’s goal, my hope is that in addition to their 137 available merit badges, that all Boy Scouts are taught to honor and respect the girls and women who share this world with them with their words and actions.