The most common argument I came across involved citing the name of the organization. There was emphasis on the word boy. As in, for example, North Carolina resident Kevin Stewart told Fox 8, “It’s called Boy Scouts for a reason.” And Troy Meekhof, a film student, wrote on Twitter, “It’s called ‘Boy’ Scouts for a reason.”
The naming of the “Boy Scouts of America” came in 1910, when women could not vote, on the heels of Robert Baden-Powell’s 1908 book Scouting for Boys. Baden-Powell, a British army officer, sought to impart a lifestyle that would “combat brooding and selfishness.” Though in his text he also praised “women scouts of the nation” like Grace Darling and Florence Nightingale. And Baden-Powell is quoted by the Boy Scouts as having said, “It’s the spirit within, not the veneer without, that makes a man.”
The boys of 2017 will go on to relate to women in ways different from the boys of 1910—who would know women as wives and family, but had little expectation of working together as peers. Vice President Mike Pence opts against working lunches alone with women, but elsewhere expectations of professional relationships without regard to gender are common. And they have proven extremely difficult or impossible again and again and again for men raised in a previous era.
The essence of the debate was well captured by commentator Tomi Lahren, who noted: “All this BS about girls invited to join Boy Scouts. Ever heard of GIRL Scouts? It’s okay for girls to be girls and boys to be boys!!”
People have heard of Girl Scouts, in my experience. They sell cookies that are vastly better than Boy Scout popcorn. What’s interesting here is the language of acceptance: It’s okay to be a certain way, a phrase typically used to empower a marginalized group. Here it’s used to defend a rigid understanding of the way the world should be divided—one perceived to be under attack.
Others echoed this appeal to antiquity: This is the way things have been for more than 100 years, and so it is self-evident that they should not change. As commentator Liz Wheeler put it, “Only boys should be Boy Scouts. Only girls should be Girl Scouts. Because girls and boys are different. Why is that so hard for liberals?!”
Assuming that’s a genuine question, I may have an answer. A constant tension among human-rights advocacy is whether to focus on protection or freedom. Nowhere is the debate more heated than on questions of gender and sexuality. There are times when it is necessary to highlight differences among groups of people, and there are times when it’s beneficial to downplay differences. When calling out discrimination and injustice predicated on such a difference, it needs to be discussed frankly. When the difference is being named to excuse injustice, it’s better to emphasize what everyone has in common.