Boy Scouts Are From Mars, Girl Scouts Are From Venus

Behind the khaki uniforms and the merit badges, the two organizations have vastly different political leanings.

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Left: Eagle Scout Darrell Lambert holds a letter expelling him from the organization for being an atheist. Right: A girl scout creates a "confidence journal" to help promote a positive body image. (Reuters)

When the Indiana House of Representatives took up a resolution to honor the Girl Scouts' 100th anniversary, freshman Republican representative Bob Morris refused to sign. Instead he sent colleagues a letter warning that the Girl Scouts were not a benign, cookie-peddling kids' organization but rather "a group that has been subverted in the name of liberal progressive politics" with "surprisingly radical policies" -- and, in fact, "a tactical arm of Planned Parenthood." His February 18 letter made the national news, and while he later walked back some of his criticisms - writing, in part, "I realize now that my words were emotional, reactionary, and inflammatory" - Morris reiterated his objections to the Girl Scouts, citing the group's support of reproductive health education and quoting "Blessed Pope John Paul II" on the topic of abortion.

While Morris's wrath seemed extreme even to his Indiana House colleagues (at least one of whom took to selling and distributing Thin Mints on the House floor), his anti-Girl Scout feelings are hardly unique. Back in 2004, conservative Christians in Texas called for a Girl Scout cookie boycott to protest the group's supposedly cozy relationship with Planned Parenthood; every year or so, another boycott is proposed. In late 2011, a group calling itself Honest Girl Scouts organized one to protest the Scouts' inclusion of a transgendered child. Over at Fox News, panic over allegedly radicalized Girl Scouts has joined the War on Christmas as a perennial source of outrage, and concerns over the group's pro-choice connections and airy-fairy religious affiliations have spawned a cottage industry of right-wing women's organizations. In January of this year, a 10-year-old Girl Scout selling cookies door-to-door in Reston, Virginia, encountered one neighbor who blurted out that her family doesn't give money to Girl Scouts because "they support abortion, which kills babies."

The War on Girl Scouts is getting personal.

Meanwhile, the Boy Scouts have their critics on the left. Objections to the Boy Scouts mostly focus on the group's 1991 ban on gay members or leaders (which is unique to the Boy Scouts USA - their Canadian and European counterparts have no such policy). Since 2000, when the group's legal right to reject gay troop leaders was upheld by the Supreme Court's Boy Scouts of America v. Dale decision, protests have mostly been held on a local scale by families, schools, and communities. When the BSA faced a series of embarrassing revelations in 2010 about child sexual abuse by scoutmasters, many drew parallels with the Catholic Church, another male-led, gay-unfriendly hierarchy that sheltered pedophiles. The BSA is churchlike in another way: the group expressly prohibits membership (even as Cub Scouts) of atheists and agnostics. Local Boy Scout troops and councils that have tried (or been forced) to follow anti-discrimination policies have been banned or ejected from the national organization.

How did this sharp division between Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts come to be? Most adults remembering their own scouting days are only vaguely aware that there's any difference at all between the Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts. What does it say about gender and child-rearing in this country that while the Girl Scouts foster a strong ethos of feminism, environmentalism, and multiculturalism, the Boy Scouts now embody a code of values Rick Santorum could endorse? Is the gender gap in electoral politics being replicated around our kids' campfires?

To put it another way, are Boy Scouts from red states and Girl Scouts from blue?

In truth, while the two organizations were founded with similar purposes, history has enormously widened the ideological gulf between them. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts share a founding father: Robert Baden-Powell, credited with inventing the worldwide scouting movement. Baden-Powell was a soldier of the British Empire, active in battles in Africa and India. While conquering indigenous people in what is now South Africa, Baden-Powell met American soldier of fortune Frederick Russell Burnham, who introduced him to the Indian lore and Wild West mythos that came to inform, with a dose of British Kipling-ish élan, the style and substance of the scout experience. Baden-Powell's Scouting for Boys, published in 1908, lay the groundwork for the Boy Scouts of America organization, which was founded in 1910 by Chicago's W. D. Boyce.

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Kate Tuttle is a freelance writer and the author of the Boston Globe's Short Takes column.

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