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Why We Expect the Girl Scouts to Be Progressive

A good portion of the Girl Scouts’ history reflects an embrace of a diversity of opinions.

By Francie Diep


A Girl Scouts sells cookies. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

About 75 Girl Scouts will be marching in Donald Trump’s inaugural parade today—news that’s sparked an uproar. “Across this nation, I’m hearing comments about it,” Patricia A. Parcellin, chief executive of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts, told the Boston Globe. “Some people think it’s great, and some people think it’s disgraceful, frankly.” Meanwhile, it’s nobody’s news that the Boy Scouts of America will be marching. So why are expectations so different for the two groups?

On the one hand, the answer seems obvious. Trump has been caught on tape bragging about kissing and groping unwilling women, and has made many other objectifying, derogatory comments about women throughout his career. An organization for girls might naturally be expected to take a stronger stance against Trump than one for boys.

But perhaps part of the outrage also has to do with the Girl Scouts’ long history of tolerance, compared with the Boy Scouts. The Girl Scouts have been quicker than their Boy Scout peers to extend olive branches to queer and non-Christian members. The Girl Scouts even de-segregated troops before the Boy Scouts did.

Despite their common origins, the Girl Scouts contained a kernel of rebellion that the Boy Scouts didn’t.

It wasn’t always clear the Girl Scouts would wind up on such a different path. Both organizations were founded at roughly the same time—1910 for the American Boy Scouts, and 1915 for the Girl Scouts of the United States. At first, the values to which their members aspired reflected conservative norms well enough: Boys pledged “to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight,” while the ideal girl scout “keeps herself pure” and was “womanly,” “sweet and tender.”

In an essay published in Perspectives on Politics in 2010, University of British Columbia political scientist Barbara Arneil offers a theory for how the two diverged. Despite their common origins, the Girl Scouts contained a kernel of rebellion that the Boy Scouts didn’t — one that was, in part, forced upon them by Boy Scout leadership’s objections to the idea of girls scouting at all, which they feared would turn girls into “tomboys.” Girls should be guides, they thought. But Girl Scouts of the United States founder Juliette Low Gordon persisted. When the civil rights movements of the 1960s threatened both organizations’ values and membership, the two organizations reacted very differently, presaging the way they would deal with the winds of change to come.

Some of the first Girl Scout badges were for a fascinating mix of skills, including cooking, sewing, nursing, typing, using a telegraph, camping, and distinguishing edible mushrooms. “Juliette Gordon Low, by the time she was 51 years old and had founded the Girl Scouts, understood that a woman’s life was no longer predictable and that you could not count anymore on being a pampered wife and a beloved mother and grandmother,” Stacy A. Cordery, who wrote a biography of the Girl Scouts founder, told Smithsonian in 2012. Gordon Low’s own high-society marriage had failed. “It behooved you as a teacher of young girls to train them for unexpected futures.”

While the Boy Scouts were founded on a desire to maintain a narrowly defined sense of masculinity, the Girl Scouts pushed something in between traditional femininity and a more flexible notion of womanhood, Arneil argued.

The 1960s hit both organizations hard, but the Girl Scouts’ pluckier origin story meant that adapting was less of a challenge. After the rise of the civil rights movement and counterculture, more Americans looked at Boy and Girl Scouts’ pledges of obedience and loyalty with a skeptical eye, Arneil wrote. Membership plummeted. Alden Barber, chief scout executive from 1967 to 1976, tried to adapt the Boy Scouts: developing diversity programs, cutting “to be square” from the Cubs’ oath, even changing the name to Scouting USA. But those moves just created backlash among conservative members. (After Barber retired, leaders undid many of his initiatives.) Meanwhile, the Girl Scouts embraced second-wave feminism and changed its bylaws so that the ideal girl scout was no longer “loyal,” but instead tried her best to be “honest and fair.”

From there, the Girl Scouts consistently outdid the Boy Scouts in adopting liberal mores—for example, allowing girls to replace “God” in their pledge with whatever made sense to them (the Boy Scouts prohibited atheism).

But the Girl Scouts haven’t always been perfectly tolerant. Activists and journalists objected to their 1998 announcement that “[t]he Girl Scout organization does not discriminate, but we do not endorse any particular lifestyle and we do not recruit lesbians as a group.” The wording suggested a peculiar aversion to lesbians, even as it expressed non-discrimination. Yet it was still a far sight better than the Boy Scouts’ ban on gay scouts, which was only lifted in 2013. Gay adult leaders are still not allowed in the Boy Scouts.

Girl Scout leadership defended their decision to march at Trump’s inaugural parade by saying they’re allowing a diversity of “ideas, opinions, beliefs, and political ideology” among their ranks, including pro- and anti-Trump. And perhaps that actually better reflects the heart of their values, which began with a straddling of traditional women’s roles and more futuristic ones: leaving options open, and leaving girls to choose for themselves.