Actually, Girls Do Belong in the Boy Scouts

girls hiking

Yesterday, the Boy Scouts of America announced that it's letting girls join its ranks. As you can imagine, the news was met with mixed reactions. Supporters of the move came out to cheer and say it's about time. But plenty of people wondered why boys can't keep their own separate, no-girls-allowed group. Girls have the Girl Scouts, people said. Why can't they just stick to that? From the outside, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts might sound like they're one and the same. But as a former Girl Scout, I have to confess: I always wanted to be a Boy Scout.


I'd hear whispers at school of the things the Boy Scouts did. The boys went real-camping. Sure, we Girl Scouts went camping, like, twice a year, but we went camping-in-cabins, not camping-in-tents. The boys went camping-in-tents, and they had to hike to the campsite. I remember the boys showing off their knot-tying skills on the playground. I thought, I wonder when the Girl Scouts will get to the good knot-tying part.

Yeah, that didn't happen.

I Scouted all the way up to Cadette. And before you say I wasn't in good troops, or didn't have good leaders, I was and I did. In Brownies, my mom took over as the troop leader, always with a sidekick leader of someone else's mom to help her navigate the cookie and poinsettia sales and what I imagine were labyrinthine scheduling issues over who books the school cafeteria for meetings on what night. We did lots of merit badges. I had a badge for sewing an apron with my grandmother's help, and a badge for getting a glorified horseback riding lesson. I think I got one for learning about how animals make tracks. And we went on field trips, like the Ice Capades, which we hit every year, and got a special patch to sew on our sashes or jackets. And it was fun, really -- thanks, Mom! -- but I was always a little wistful about what the boys were up to.

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I didn't know how much I'd missed until I married an Eagle Scout from a hardcore Boy Scout troop. He had to learn knots as a Tenderfoot -- around age 11 -- which is pretty much immediately. Tenderfeet also had to pass a test proving they could carry a knife and sharpen a hatchet. We weren't allowed near a hatchet, much less allowed to freaking sharpen one! His troop went camping once a month in all types of weather, and they had a bead system to go with it: If the weather dipped below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, you got a blue bead. If it dipped below 10 degrees, you got a white bead. As a mother, I shudder to think of my babies out in that cold. But as a Girl Scout, I wished someone would bundle me up and push my ass out the door with a pack and a compass I knew how to use.

My troop tried orienteering exactly once, at the Girl Scout Jamboree. I failed miserably, and to this day cannot teach my three sons to use a compass. That's Daddy's job. So is teaching knots and the proper order to pack a backpack, how to read a river, how to slip a hook from a fish's mouth. We learned some first aid as Girl Scouts. My husband learned enough that when his brother broke his leg jumping into a lake, he was able to immobilize and splint the break with the materials he had on hand. At a lake.

The boys also didn't spend so much time singing. Half of a Girl Scout meeting was singing. You had to sing the unofficial Girl Scout song "Make New Friends, but Keep the Old," first together and then in rounds. Then we'd sing a million silly songs about meatballs and spaghetti and cats coming back the very next day. Even at Girl Scout camp, we had a song you sang while brushing your teeth. I can't carry a tune in a bucket.

I asked my husband if the Boy Scouts sang. "Um, no," he said. Apparently they did skits around the fire, which they set themselves using flint and steel (hardcore). They sat on logs, not those stupid sit-upons on strings I hated back then, and the boys were trusted to range freely in search of dry firewood. We had to stay close by. We were also too scared to go far in the dark -- or hell, even in the light -- because no one ever taught us that the woods could be safe. Maybe we wouldn't have been so scared if someone had dropped us on the side of the road with our packs, flashlights, and a map, and told us to get to a campsite, like they did in my husband's troop.

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I hear that now the Girl Scouts has gotten radically progressive and is all about teaching girl empowerment. In the past few years, it has upped its camping game and added badges for things like "conservation hiking," and it even teaches compasses at the Senior level. But you know what's empowering? Being able to do things for yourself. Using a flint and steel. Knowing how to camp in freezing weather. Knowing how to cook for five people using absolutely no prepared foods. Knowing the right way to split a log, how to identify local insects and plants, being able to tell a dog track from a coyote's.

Maybe Girl Scouts got into that in the highest echelons, and I missed it. But I know they weren't going around handing out knives to 11-year-olds and making them take a test to see if they were allowed to carry it. Or teaching those same 11-year-olds how to sharpen the hatchets they had before they were allowed to carry them.

Eleven-year-old girls deserve hatchets, too. They deserve knives. They deserve to know the difference between a bowline and a half-hitch and the dexterity to tie them both. I wanted that, desperately. While we sat at round tables and sang "On Top of Spaghetti," I was yearning for something else, something more than Ice Capades and talking about how girls-can-do-anything. I wanted Hatchet. I wanted My Side of the Mountain. I wanted knots that didn't fall apart.

And now, our daughters will get it.

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