Boy (and Girl) Scouts of America

Martin Woodside's picture

On October 11, 2017, the Boy Scouts of America announced they would begin accepting girls in their ranks.  The landmark decision came on the heels of previous decisions to reverse longstanding policies on barring gay scouts, 2013, and gay scout leaders, 2014.  All together, the BSA promoted these policy shifts as signs that the organization was evolving, becoming more diverse and inclusive, while continuing to adhere to their own clear-eyed mission of developing all American youth into the right kinds of American citizens.  Well, maybe not all—Atheist children, for instance, remain out of luck.

While many have lauded the BSA’s recent efforts to become more inclusive, some critics viewed this decision as nothing more than a sign of the organization’s increasing desperation.  BSA Enrollment has been flagging for some time, and some critics suggested the decision to bring girls in to the fold suggests not a meaningful shift in the organization’s philosophy or principles, but, rather a last ditch attempt to boost their numbers.  Is this cynicism warranted?   Or is the BSA just an easy target, catching undue flak for what should be a laudable willingness to adapt to changing times?  Perhaps, a better question to ask might be, do girls want to join the BSA and, if so, why?  In trying to answer these questions, and figure out what youth scouting will look like in the future, it helps to get a clearer picture of what it’s looked like up to now.

When the founders of the BSA met for their first big public event at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel in 1910, many of the organization’s most prominent supporters were in attendance.  Financier John D. Rockefeller was there, along with G. Stanley Hall, who helped popularize the term adolescence with his 1904 book of the same, and, of course, British Boy Scouts founder General Robert Baden Powell was on hand to give the American version of his brainchild a formal blessing.  The speakers extolled the virtues of scouting and the great need for this kind of character building organization to confront what they perceived as a growing host of issues threatening the proper development of American boys.  Unsurprisingly, the issues of American girls were an afterthought. 

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed a growing anxiety about America’s youth, with Hall’s Adolescence, serving as an exclamation point.  Hall defined adolescence as a unique life stage that held great potential for human development and also brought with it an increased need for adult supervision.  In maximizing the developmental potential of adolescents, he argued, American adults could usher in a dynamic generation of superior citizens.  As Susan Miller points out, Hall and most of his contemporaries were convinced increasing American modernization had facilitated a crisis of masculinity and that responding to that crisis mandated, above all else, tending to the developmental needs of American boys.

Still, if the BSA grabbed all the headlines in 1910, educators and social reformers certainly didn’t ignore girls.  The Girl Scouts of America was also founded in 1910, followed by a host of others, including the Girl Guides and Juliette Low’s The Girl Scouts of the United States of America—which ultimately emerged as the nation’s most successful venture in girls’ scouting.  As this intense competition suggests, girls were interested in scouting from the get-go.  Prominent child study leader Luther Gulick and his wife Charlotte launched the Campfire Girls in 1911—they had established a summer camp for girls in 1907—and an early press release published in the New York Times boasted that the organization had already spread “into almost every city in the land.”  As Mrs. Gulick explained to the paper of record, a huge market existed for girl scouting precisely on account of their being so few character-building organizations for girls.  Existing organizations for girls, Mrs. Gulick explained, focused only on utility, all work and no play; “Girls must have romance,” Mrs. Gulick told the Times, and the Campfire Girls was launched to provide them with it, raising American girls who excelled not only at cooking and cleaning but at swimming and dancing as well.

While, these organizations offered opportunities for girls to take part in the “romance” of scouting, they were not mirror images of scouting organizations for boys.  Early girl scouting endeavors offered little challenge to gender expectations and constructed gender roles.  In fact, even the similarities in scouting for boys and girls gestured to the essential differences between genders.  For instance as Charlotte Gulick explained to the New York Times, both boy scouting and girl scouting addressed what she describes as the “gang spirit.”  Boys, she notes, have plenty of this spirit in them, so that the work of boy scouting is to harness that spirit, creating citizen-scouts rather than juvenile delinquents.   Girls, on the other hand, needed to have the gang-spirit nurtured in them; Gulick points out girls  “have never known much about co-operation”—and achieving that goal was one of the primary objectives of her Campfire Girls.

The romance of scouting also colored early scouting efforts for both boys and girls.  Ernest Thompson Seton was a major proponent of scouting’s romantic appeal and served as co-founder off the Boy Scouts of America.  In fact, he (and many others) maintained that Baden Powell appropriated much of the structure of his Boy Scouts organization directly from Seton’s Woodcraft Indians, a precursor to the BSA established in 1902.   By 1910, fences had been sufficiently mended for Seton to take a leadership role in the Boy Scouts of America.  In the first BSA handbook, published in 1911, Seton is listed as “Chief Scout,” and in the book’s opening message to the scouts, he touts a love of nature and the lure of James Fenimore Cooper’s books as the twin inspirations that had drawn him to scouting as a young boy. 

 Of course, if Seton valude the romance of nature, this attachment likely led to his dismissal from the BSA, and Ben Jordan argues that this belief played a central role in the quickly growing rift between Seton and Executive Secretary James West.   West and others wanted the organization to move away from romance, toward a more scientific approach to the natural world, promoting a vision of masculinity that augmented the ideals of Victorian manhood with the strong management skills and corporate ethos men needed to succeed in a modernizing world.  West saw Seton’s belief in the romance of nature as a poor fit for his vision of scouting, and the feud between the two men led to an ugly split between Seton and the BSA in 1915.

Jordan’s analysis of the BSA’s philosophical shift helps explain how scouting organizations for boys and girls grew further apart in the early decades of the 20th century.  Interestingly, Seton’s views, and his philosophy on Woodcraft, had a strong influence on early girl scouting organizations, most notably the Campfire Girls.  As Philip Deloria notes, Seton’s idealization of the noble savage, along with his firm belief in the developmental value of children “playing Indian,” directly influenced the Campfire Girls, brought into the organization through the use of costumes, names, symbols, and, most notably ritual.  For instance, performances of texts such as the “Fire Maker’s Desire,” were used to mark a girl’s rise to the level of Fire Maker within the organization. 

Of course the presumed affinity between the feminine spirit and “Indian lore” only further separated scouting for boys and girls, erecting barriers between the two genders through the reductive appropriation of indigenous cultures.  Interestingly, Seton himself moved in a different direction after leaving the BSA.  Founding the Woodcraft League of America in 1915, Seton made the program coeducational (and open to adults too, for that matter).  The Woodcraft League never rivaled the BSA in popularity, but continues to exist in some form today.  Camp Fire is still around, as well.  By the 1970s, the organization had started rethinking their use of “Indian Culture,” and the group’s leadership undertook a thorough rebranding that promoted inclusivity and diversity.  In 1975, the group was renamed Camp Fire and became co-educational.  It continues to operate in the capacity today, offering boys and girls a range of programs, from afterschool to outdoor camping. Coeducational scouting organizations, it seems, are nothing new, all of which raises the question of how much of a paradigm the BSA’s recent organizational shift really is, while bringing back to the question of what will mean to American children interested in scouting.  

Statements from the BSA suggest the organization now believes developing discipline and leadership skills is important for girls as it is for boys.  That’s certainly a welcome—and long overdue—development.  Still, some critics see more sinister forces at work.  In an editorial for the New York Times, writer Kate Tuttle frames the BSA’s move in political terms, described it as an attempted hostile takeover of a progressive institution (the Girl Scouts) by a fiercely conservative one.   There may be some truth to that, and the BSA’s current political agenda is certainly worth further consideration.  It seems more than likely that the BSA’s dwindling enrollment stems, at least in part, from it’s increasingly close relationship with Christian conservatism.   Still, the uproar over this announcement also gestures to broader questions about gender and childhood in America, and at its root, this debate isn’t really about scouting at all.  It’s mostly about gender.

It seems clear our transition to a post-gender world remains very much a work in progress.  What’s more, many Americans remain unsure about what the journey portends, what gender itself means or what we want it to mean, and, how, as a society, we should raise our children.  In the wake of the BSA’s announcement of this new policy, a common refrain among Girl Scout leaders was that girls benefited from female-only environments and their organization offered a space for girls to flourish in ways that coeducational organizations do not.  They’re not alone, as scores of educational and athletic organizations for youth continue to operate on a gender-segregated basis across the country.  Does this type of gender segregation produce positive outcomes?  If so, what leads to these outcomes?  Will these institutions all soon be a thing of the past?  The BSA’s decision to admit girls suggest that we’re one big step closer to that reality, and the strong reactions to their decision suggest a palpable anxiety—on multiple fronts—about this uncharted world to come.


Works Cited

Deloria, Philip J, Playing Indian.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

E. M. (1912, Mar 17). “Girls Take up the Boy Scout Idea and Band Together.” New York Times, retrieved from

Jordan, Benjamin, Modern Manhood and the Boy Scouts of America: Citizenship, Race, and the Environment, 1910-1930.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.

Miller, Susan, Growing Girls: The Natural Origins of Girls’ Organizations in America. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2007.

Tuttle, Kate (2017, Oct 12). “Girls, Don’t Become Boy Scouts.” New York Times,

To augment this, you might explore the history of the Baden-Powell Service Association (BPSA), which has always been coed and inclusive since its founding in 2006 in the US. Currently the organization is wrestling with how to maintain its stance as "traditional" scouting based on Baden-Powell's original writings while also maintaining its mission to be coed at all levels, since of course B-P focused his efforts on boys, as well as taking to task the issues of cultural appropriation in the "Indian lore" etc.

This is a useful introduction, but it blurs differences in gender imaging and purposes between the early Girl Scouts and the Camp Fire Girls and understates the early animosity of top BSA leadership toward Girl Scouting. Whether memories of these conflicts endure today is of course an open question. The Boy Scouts of America’s longtime Chief Scout Executive James West, along with other BSA leaders, helped Luther Gulick and Charlotte Gulick to design Camp Fire Girls so as to fill a social niche analogous to Boy Scouting while averting any suggestion that these were imitation Boy Scouts. Himself a member of the BSA’s first organizing committee, Luther Gulick declared that it would be “fundamentally evil” to copy Boy Scouting. The Gulicks elaborated Indian maiden imagery and made the “domestic fire” the group’s symbol. Girl Scout leaders, one of whom derided the Camp Fire Girls’ ceremonial robe as a “fantastic nightgown,” adopted a khaki uniform that closely resembled the BSA’s uniform, which, in turn, closely resembled the US Army’s. The Girl Scouts directly copied many of the Boy Scouts’ outdoor requirements and activities, although they also required proficiency in specified domestic skills. Initially, Camp Fire Girls rapidly outgrew the Girl Scouts, although World War I gave Girl Scouting a huge boost in publicity. Girl Scouts sold war bonds and marched in parades just like the Boy Scouts. Both organizations rode the wave of militant patriotism. A reporter watching Girls Scouts parade in 1919 gushed that “the young girl soldiers . . . are just as militaristic as their brother scouts.”

By 1930 Girl Scout membership surpassed the Camp Fire Girls’. The Girl Scouts’ rise greatly displeased James West, an ambitious, centralizing executive jealous of his organization’s power. After receiving a congressional charter in 1916, the BSA gained monopoly control of all Boy Scouting in the US, a task made easier because rival groups were small, often inept and commercially exploitive or excessively militaristic. West likewise consolidated power within the BSA. He easily ousted Ernest Thompson Seton, who was a writer and somewhat eccentric naturalist, but not an administrator and not an American citizen either. With the war, the BSA equated masculinity and American nationalism. In 1917 West demanded the Girl Scouts drop the word “scout,” proposing they merge into the Camp Fire Girls. Having Girl Scouts, he claimed, “sissified” the term and scared off boys. With their “mannish” uniform, Girl Scouts were “aping men.” In 1924 West threatened a suit for patent infringement; it never went to trial and would probably have failed because the Girl Scouts had used the term before the BSA objected or had a federal charter. At the top level, the feud subsided with West’s retirement in the 1940s. At the local level, however, Boy Scout and Girl Scout leaders often cooperated. A few Boy Scout executives pressured Girl Scouts to convert to Camp Fire Girls, but such efforts were rare.

References: David I. Macleod, Building Character in the American Boy: The Boy Scouts, YMCA, and Their Forerunners, 1870-1920 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), esp. 50-51, 183-84.

Mary Aickin Rothschild, “To Scout or to Guide? The Girl Scout-Boy Scout Controversy, 1912-1941,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 6 (Autumn, 1981): 115-121.