Girls allowed

(First published in the July 25, 2019 issue of City Pages)

More than 200 girls are now members of local Boy Scout troops. But many of Samoset Council’s programs already included girls.


Members of Scouts BSA Troop 513, in Merrill, at Tesomas Camp in Rhinelander earlier this summer: Girls started entering Cub Scouts last fall, and in February 2019 the organization allowed girls into the Scouts BSA, what was Boy and Eagle scout programs.

The Boy Scouts of America announced in 2017 that it was going to start letting girls into Boy Scout programs. The decision was met with scorn from some circles. After all, isn’t there already a Girl Scouts?

Part of BSA’s reasoning is that the principle qualities of the Boy Scouts — trustworthiness, loyalty, helpfulness, kindness, bravery and reverential — are pretty universal, and can apply to boys and girls, according to a statement at the time by national Chief Scout Executive Michael Surbaugh. Another reason, Surbaugh wrote, was that Boy Scouts put more focus on the outdoors.

Yet Girl Scouts of America’s website says their program focuses on STEM, outdoors, life skills and entrepreneurship.

Girl Scouts of America wasn’t necessarily happy with the decision — its executives sent a letter to the BSA that year telling them the move would undercut the Girl Scouts’ mission. The number of Girl Scouts has already been in decline. The latest estimates show roughly 1.7 million Girl Scouts in the organization as of 2018 — that number was closer to 2.9 million in 2003. Boy Scout numbers are also in decline nationally. There are about 2.3 million Boy Scouts now compared to about 2.7 million in 2006.

Locally, of the Girl Scouts of the Northwestern Great Lakes, says the Central Region of their organization has 3,400 girls in the program covering Wausau, Stevens Point and the Northwoods, says Amy Schultz, Chief Operating Officer. That number has stayed pretty steady if not slightly increased.

“I think we see it as an opportunity to talk about the fact that we have a strong outdoor program, high rewards, and all the same leadership programs,” Schultz says. “There is a place for an organization that is for girls, by girls.”

A big part of the decision to allow girls into BSA pertains to simple logistics for its participants. Families are busier today, and it makes sense to allow them to participate in scouting activities all in one place, says Leanna Holzem, communications executive for the Boy Scouts’ Samoset Council here in the Wausau area. “Today there are a lot of single parents, parents who work different shifts,” Holzem says. “Boy Scouts of American wants to get the whole family involved.”

Holzem says she remembers herself needing to sit through her brothers’ Cub and Boy Scout meetings, waiting until her time to go Girl Scout meetings. “In a perfect world, we would have the whole family involved in scouting.”

Although previously Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Eagle Scouts technically did not admit girls, there already have been plenty of Scout programs open to both boys and girls. Samoset Council’s Venturing program, a youth development program that pairs youth with adult leaders in the community through a variety of activities, has always been open to boys and girls, says Amanda Flannery, Senior STEM Executive with Samoset. As was the organization’s High Adventure program, which involves activities like scuba diving, sea kayaking and backpacking.

The newly formed local program STEM Scouts—Samoset was one of 12 pilot programs nationally—was always opento both boys and girls from the start. Samoset was the leading council for the pilot program, which is slated to launch nationally in 2021.

That doesn’t mean there wasn’t backlash when BSA announced it was open to girls, too, Flannery says. A lot of people didn’t fully understand what the change would mean, she says. “We’re not changing our core mission, or promoting boys sleeping in tents with girls,” Flannery says. “We’re just allowing girls to experience the same programming as the boys.”

As is the norm for this era, much of the backlash comes through social media — mostly from people without children, or whose kids weren’t even in Scouts, Flannery says.

The local Samoset Council first allowed girls in Cub Scouts last fall; in February it allowed older girls into what is now called Scouts BSA (Boy and Eagle Scouts). Locally there are 53 girls participating in eight troops in the older troops, and 154 girls in the Cub Scout levels, Flannery says. Nationwide 21,000 girls are enrolled in the Scouts BSA program, and 90,000 more in the Cub Scouts.

In order to further spark membership, Holzem says anyone can come to Scout programs to see the experience. “It’s sort of like try before you buy,” Holzem says.

This fall, Samoset Council leaders expect even more girls to join. Many families waited to see how the change would happen, Flannery says, and there’s a lot of interest in the programs coming this fall.