In its latest momentous policy shift, the Boy Scouts of America said Wednesday it will admit girls into the Cub Scouts starting next year and establish a new program for older girls that will enable them to achieve the coveted Eagle Scout rank.
The Boy Scouts, founded in 1910 and long considered a bastion of tradition, have undergone major changes in the past five years, agreeing to accept openly gay youth members and adult volunteers, as well as transgender boys.
The expansion of girls' participation, approved unanimously by the organization's board of directors, is arguably the biggest change yet, opening the way for hundreds of thousands of girls to join.
John Cary, the assistant scout executive for the Baltimore Area Council, said local officials had just learned of the policy change and immediately began gathering information to prepare for the changes that will come over the next year.
Cary said families in Maryland have long expressed interest in having girls participate in Boy Scout programs and activities to keep siblings together in a single extracurricular experience.
The expansion, he said, opens up to girls “the best outdoor classroom experience” available.
“We welcome this opportunity,” Cary said. “It is important to note, the core value of scouting hasn’t changed. We’re a mission-centered organization that helps young people become active members of their community.
“That core mission hasn’t changed. We’ve just expanded it to allow more people.”
Scouting organizations in many other countries already allow both genders and use gender-free names such as Scouts Canada. But for now, the Boy Scout label will remain.
“There are no plans to change our name at this time,” spokeswoman Effie Delimarkos said in an email.
Under the new plan, Cub Scout dens — the smallest unit — will be single-gender, either all-boys or all-girls. The larger Cub Scout packs will have the option to remain single-gender or welcome both genders. The program for older girls is expected to start in 2019 and will enable girls to earn the same Eagle Scout rank that has been attained by astronauts, admirals, senators and other luminaries.
Boy Scout leaders said the change was needed to provide more options for parents.
“The values of scouting — trustworthy, loyal, helpful, kind, brave and reverent, for example — are important for both young men and women,” said Michael Surbaugh, chief scout executive.
The announcement follows many months of outreach by the Boy Scouts, which distributed videos and held meetings to discuss the possibility of expanding girls' participation beyond existing programs, such as Venturing, Exploring and Sea Scouts.
Surveys conducted by the Boy Scouts showed strong support for the change among parents not currently connected to the scouts, including Hispanic and Asian families that the BSA has been trying to attract. Among families already in the scouting community, the biggest worry, according to Surbaugh, was that the positive aspects of single-sex comradeship might be jeopardized.
“We'll make sure those environments are protected,” he said. “What we're presenting is a fairly unique hybrid model.”
During the outreach, some parents expressed concern about possible problems related to overnight camping trips. Surbaugh said there would continue to be a ban on mixed-gender overnight outings for scouts ages 11 to 14. Cub Scout camping trips, he noted, were usually family affairs with less need for rigid polices.
The Girl Scouts of the USA have criticized the initiative, saying it strains the century-old bond between the two organizations. Girl Scout officials have suggested the BSA's move was driven partly by a need to boost revenue, and they contended there is fiscal stress in part because of past settlements paid by the BSA in sex-abuse cases.
Danita Terry, a spokeswoman for the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland, said the organization stands resolute in its mission to provide “the best leadership experience in the world for girls.” She said the Girl Scouts are proud to continue to be a girl-lead, girl-only group, as it has been for a century.
“We strongly believe that girls thrive in a girls-only space,” she said. “In the single-gender environment that the Girl Scouts creates, it’s an inclusive, safe space. Girls aren’t competing against or with boys.
“In a girls-only space, the same distractions don’t exist.”
She added that the Girl Scouts count many notable figures among its alumna, including nearly every female astronaut who has flown into space and most of the female senators.
“That’s the proof that what we’ve been doing is working,” Terry said.
In August, the president of the Girl Scouts, Kathy Hopinkah Hannan, accused the Boy Scouts of seeking to covertly recruit girls into their programs while disparaging the Girl Scouts' operations. On Monday, Charles Garcia, a new member of the Girl Scouts' national board, wrote that the Boy Scouts’ overture to girls “a terrible idea.”
“The Boy Scouts' house is on fire,” Garcia wrote in an opinion piece for the Huffington Post. “Instead of addressing systemic issues of continuing sexual assault, financial mismanagement and deficient programming, BSA's senior management wants to add an accelerant to the house fire by recruiting girls.”
Instead of recruiting girls, Garcia said, the Boy Scouts should focus on attracting more black, Latino and Asian boys — particularly those from low-income households.
The Boy Scouts recently increased their annual membership fee for youth members and adult volunteers from $24 to $33, but Surbaugh said the decision to expand programming for girls was not driven by financial factors. He expressed enthusiasm at the possibility that the changes could draw hundreds of thousands more girls into BSA ranks over the coming years.
The Girl Scouts, founded in 1912, and the Boy Scouts are among several major youth organizations in the United States experiencing sharp drops in membership in recent years. Reasons include competition from sports leagues, a perception by some families that they are old-fashioned, and busy family schedules.
The Girl Scouts reported more than 1.5 million youth members and 749,000 adult members in March, down from just over 2 million youth members and about 800,000 adult members in 2014. The Boy Scouts say current youth participation is about 2.35 million, down from 2.6 million in 2013 and more than 4 million in peak years of the past.
The Baltimore Area Council, which covers Baltimore and the five surrounding counties, serves more than 26,000 young people, including as many as 5,000 girls, Cary said. Women also help make up the 8,000 to 9,000 adult scout leaders.
While allowing girls to join the Cub Scouts is a new step, he said, the Boy Scouts have a long history of welcoming females. Girls participate in Maryland Venturing, Exploring and Sea Scouts programs.
Cary said he is “not at all worried” about the impact the change will have on Maryland’s Boy Scouts.
“We have co-ed programs in place going back to the ’70s,” he said. “That has been going on for years and it has been highly successful.”
The National Organization for Women urged the Boy Scouts this year to allow girls to join. NOW said it was inspired by the efforts of a 15-year-old New York girl, Sydney Ireland, to emulate her older brother, an Eagle Scout.
The Girl Scouts, unlike the Boy Scouts, have limited all their programs to girls only. The empowerment of girls is at the core of its mission.
“We know that girls learn best in an all-girl, girl-led environment,” said Andrea Bastiani Archibald, a psychologist who provides expertise on development for the Girl Scouts' national programming.
The Boy Scouts' new policy on girls was hailed by Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout who played an active role in pressuring the organization to end its ban on gays. He urged the Boy Scouts to take one more step and end its exclusion of atheists and non-believers who do not profess a “duty to God.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger and Associated Press reporter David Crary contributed to this article.