Boy Scouts Are From Mars, Girl Scouts Are From Venus

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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.

Aided considerably by Norman Rockwell, who inked covers for its Boys' Life magazine beginning in 1913 and illustrated its annual calendar for over 50 years, the Boy Scouts quickly came to represent a kind of all-American ideal of health, outdoor exploration, and patriotic goodness. It also served as a pipeline to leadership in a country still ruled mostly by men. Anyone could be a Cub Scout, but those who have ascended to the pinnacle of scouting, Eagle Scout, are overrepresented within military academies, NASA, and even Congress. Texas governor and former presidential candidate Rick Perry, an Eagle Scout, wrote his first book on the glories of scouting and the need to defend the BSA against secularists who would try to defeat it. Structurally, the BSA tends to wrap itself around existing power structures - so that, for instance, scout troops are chartered by community organizations, most frequently churches. Today, the largest single partner of the BSA is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

The Girl Scouts were founded in 1912 as the Girl Guides by Juliette Gordon Low of Savannah, Georgia, after she met Baden-Powell in England (and renamed a year later). Up until the 1950s, most Girl Scout troops were segregated (as the Boy Scouts were), but an early push toward integration led Martin Luther King Jr. to deem the organization "a force for desegregation" in 1956. Increasingly, Girl Scout policies emphasized social justice (including the formation of special troops to serve girls living in poverty, serving time in detention centers, or at risk for domestic violence). In 1993, when a prospective scout refused to vow to "love God" as stated in the Girl Scout promise, the national organization issued a ruling that any scout could substitute whatever words fit her individual belief system. (This change prompted the 1995 formation of an alternative group, the American Heritage Girls, a fervently Christian organization whose website touts its partnership with the Boy Scouts, which it more or less mirrors in its values.) It's perhaps obvious by this point that the Mormon Church does not support the Girl Scouts as it does the Boy Scouts.

According to the organizations themselves, there are currently 2.7 million boys involved in BSA and 2.3 million girls in GSUSA (the American Heritage Girls, in comparison, boast 10,000 members). These numbers are much lower than in previous years - the Boy Scouts had over 4 million members in the 1970s - but they still represent a large population of kids. While a handful of these boys and girls might grow into their generation's future Rick Perrys or leaders of Planned Parenthood, most will not. But they will all, in varying doses, be influenced by the worldview each organization has crafted. Boys, if they want to learn how to tie slipknots and make fire, will do so in an atmosphere steeped in straight male Christianity. Girls, if they want to sell cookies and go camping, will soak up messages about empowerment, diversity, and social activism.

And the political differences seep into subtler areas, informing the very ways the young members approach the world. In a journal article comparing the content in handbooks issued by both groups, a researcher wrote, "The girls' handbook conveys messages about approaching activities with autonomous and critical thinking, whereas the boys' handbook facilitates intellectual passivity through a reliance on organizational scripts." All of which goes a long way toward explaining how men end up beginning life on Mars and women on Venus.

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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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