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Women and Girls in the Boy Scouts of America (BSA)
When it started in 1910, the Boy Scouts of America was all boys and men. There were no positions that a woman could hold, and girls who wanted a Scout-like program had to join the Camp Fire Girls (started in 1910), or later the separate Girl Scouts organization started in 1912 (the American version of the international Girl Guide program started by Baden-Powell). In the decades since, most Scouting programs around the world have become partially or fully coed, and often the separate Boy Scout and Girl Guide organizations in those countries have merged. But the US has not rushed to join the trend toward coeducation.
The Camp Fire Girls are now called just Camp Fire, and have been coed since 1975, though still with far more female than male youth at their older levels. The Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) still insist on female youth only. While the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and GSUSA have discussed areas of mutual interest, and even mumbled about merging, the two organizations share a century-long history of non-cooperation. So they have separate national headquarters, separate local councils, separate professional staffs, separate camping properties, and separate programs & units; and they solicit donations and support for "Scouting" separately.
The Boy Scout Organization's Name
The Boy Scouts of America was incorporated on 8 February 1910, and has maintained that corporate name to the present day. The national office has stated that even with the BSA offering programs for girls from Kindergarten through adulthood, they will not be changing the organization's name. Starting in 1972, BSA briefly used the 'communications name' Scouting/USA, but still retained the official corporate name. BSA quietly dropped the Scouting/USA term by about 1980 [I'm sure the Girl Scouts of the USA would have objected to BSA calling itself Scouting/USA]. In February, 2019, the Scout section of the BSA was renamed from 'Boy Scouting' to 'Scouts BSA' (which fits with Cub Scouts BSA, Sea Scouts BSA, and Venturing BSA), but the overall organization remains the Boy Scouts of America.
There has been confusion in the US for over a century among donors and the general public about the two completely separate national "Scouting" programs, and it's all the fault of Juliette Gordon 'Daisy' Low, the founder of the US girls' organization. When Baden-Powell founded a worldwide program for girls comparable to Boy Scouting, he called it Girl Guiding to prevent any confusion between the two programs. But after a year of limited growth as Girl Guides, Low decided to rename her American organization Girl Scouts, and there has been confusion ever since.
Adult Women in the Boy Scouts of America
- 1910—Boy Scouting is for boys, aged 12 until 18. Scoutmasters, Assistant Scoutmasters, committee members, professional staff are all men. Separate programs for younger and older boys have yet to be created. The organization's new handbook is called the Handbook for Boys (and later the Boy Scout Handbook). Moms can provide indirect support of their sons' troop through bake sales or similar, but women cannot hold any position of authority, and may not attend campouts or other outings with their sons' troop.
- 1930—BSA creates the Cubbing program (later renamed Cub Scouting) for boys aged 9 through 11. Dens are led by a Boy Scout 'Den Chief' with no direct adult involvement. The pack is led by a male Cubmaster.
- 1936—BSA adds the optional (and unregistered) office of Den Mother (from 1936 to 1967, Den Mother is the first and only office closed to men). The handbooks state that the Den Mother should be ready to help when needed "but she leaves the actual running of the Den to the Den Chief."
- 1948—Den Mother becomes a registered position. But the 1949 handbook still reminds the Den Mother that she "helps the Den Chief plan Den fun." By the mid 1950's, the Den Mother becomes the actual den leader, assisted by the Boy Scout Den Chief.
- 1954—BSA moves the Webelos program (started in 1941) from a regular den to its own separate den for the final six months of a boy's time in the pack. The Webelos leader is a man who prepares the boys for entry into a Boy Scout troop.
- 1967—Leadership of regular dens is opened to men, and the Den Mother position is renamed Den Leader.
- 1969—BSA allows women to serve on the national Cub Scout Committee.
- 1971—Adult leader positions in Exploring (program for older youth) are opened to women as female youth are admitted to Exploring.
- 1972—BSA opens troop committee positions to women.
- 1976—BSA opens the Cubmaster position to women.
- 1988—BSA opens the Webelos Den Leader position to women, along with all other Scouting positions in all Scouting programs, including allowing adult women associated with a Boy Scout troop to be elected to the Order of the Arrow honor camping society.
- 2019—BSA opens membership in the Order of the Arrow to adult women in Venturing and Sea Scouts.
The latest BSA Nondiscrimination Policy (as of May, 2018, as contained on the BSA Adult Application) states: "The BSA is open to all who meet the requirements. Scouting units are open to all and leaders are selected without regard to race, ethnic background, sexual orientation, or sexual identity, and is based on individual merit." Until now, it has been BSA practice to allow chartered organizations that are religious institutions to discriminate on most of these bases, and this may still be the case.
Note that a woman can be Scoutmaster of a boys' troop, and that it would be acceptable for a boys' troop to have all adult positions filled by women. Similarly, a man can be Scoutmaster (or hold any other position) in a girls' troop; however, a girls' troop must have at least one registered female adult leader over age 21, and there must be a minimum of one registered female adult leader over 21 in attendance at any activity involving female youth.
Female Youth in the Boy Scouts of America
- 1910—Boy Scout troops are for boys only. Girls can join the new Camp Fire Girls (no connection to BSA, but with significant input from a number of leading BSA officials).
- 1911—A new magazine aimed at Boy Scouts (and all boys) is called Boys Life. BSA buys the magazine in 1912.
- 1912—Sea Scouting begins, for boys only. Girls can now also join the new Girl Guides of America (later renamed Girl Scouts of the USA; no connection to Boy Scouts of America).
- 1930—Cubbing (later Cub Scouting) begins, for boys only.
- 1935—Senior Scouting begins, consisting of Sea Scouting and Explorer Scouting (later adding Air Scouting). All are restricted to male youth and adults.
- 1969—Explorer posts (later development of Explorer Scouting) are allowed to admit young women as non-registered "associate" members.
- 1971—Explorer posts become fully coed *, the first section of the BSA open to female youth. The successor Venturing program, and Sea Scouting, are also fully coed.
- *—The asterisk (*) means that female Venturers and Sea Scouts have been almost equal to male Venturers. Male Explorers/Venturers and Sea Scouts have always had a path to earn the Eagle Scout award, which was closed to female Explorers/Venturers and Sea Scouts until February 2019.
- 2018—Cub Scouting opens to girls as well as boys. Packs may now choose to be male youth only, female youth only, or mixed. In mixed packs, each den must be single gender (though two dens may meet together). All Cub Scout handbooks have been revised to use non-gender-specific terminology and to include photos of male & female Cub Scouts.
- 2019—BSA begins allowing troops for Scout-age girls (11-17). Troops must be for girls only or boys only (no coed troops), though a chartered organization may sponsor both a boys' troop and a girls' troop, which can be operated by a single troop committee or by separate committees. A boys' troop and a girls' troop with the same chartered organization may also share the same troop number, and are officially referred to as 'linked' troops. The Scouting programs for boys and girls are identical, including rank advancement culminating with Eagle Scout. The first female Eagle Scouts earned the award in autumn 2020.
- 2019—For the first time, there are now TWO essentially identical Scout Handbooks, one for boys (entitled Scouts BSA Handbook for Boys) and one for girls (Scouts BSA Handbook for Girls). The only differences are gender-specific photos and drawings. Both boys and girls in Scouts BSA are referred to simply as 'Scouts'.
- 2019—Female Venturers and Sea Scouts can now also earn the Eagle Scout award, if they have earned the ranks through First Class in a Scout troop (same requirement as for male Venturers and Sea Scouts); and the Order of the Arrow honor society, formerly open only to Boy Scout youth and adults, is now open to male and female youth and adults from the Scout, Venturing, and Sea Scout programs.
- 2021—BSA renames its flagship magazine from Boys Life to Scout Life.
We'll keep posting information about the impending changes in the various Scouting programs as soon as we hear about them. We'll also monitor how the coed pack and troop programs actually work. Will there be growing acceptance of mixed activities, both in our society and in Scouting? Will many boy-only and girl-only troops have joint activities and campouts (becoming coed in everything but name)? How will the BSA changes affect the Girl Scouts of the USA? [Back in 1971, the Girl Scout Senior program section suffered significant losses when the BSA Exploring program went coed.]
That takes us to the obvious next question: Will the BSA ultimately make its packs and troops fully coed, and if so, when? I find it instructive that boy and girl troops sharing the same chartered organization can also share the same troop number and are called 'linked' troops....
Want to be a Scout?
If you want to be a Cub Scout, Scout, Venturer, or Sea Scout, and don't know where your local units are, The BSA's "BeAScout" website (https://beascout.scouting.org/) will give you contact information and location for all units near you (you just enter your ZIP code).
For more information about Scouting in the US, see Boy Scouts of America (BSA).
For information about Guiding [Girl Scouts] in the US, see Girl Scouts of the USA.
For information on Camp Fire and other alternatives to Scouting, see our Scout-like Organizations page.
Last Revision to This Page: 4 January 2021
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