The two organizations have developed markedly different curriculums over the past century. In their earliest years, Boy Scouts teachings were imbued with a more frontiersmen ethos connected to the national narrative of moving west, while the Girl Scouts were a more urban movement teaching both domestic and outdoor skills, said Tammy Proctor, the head of the history department at Utah State University and author of the book Scouting for Girls: A Century of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts.
I spoke with Proctor in order to understand the historic separation between the two organizations and why they seem to be at odds over the question of co-education. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Taylor Hosking: How did the Girl Scouts get its start?
Tammy Proctor: When [Robert Baden-Powell's guide book for scouting] Scouting for Boys was first published serially in 1907, there was a lot of interest among both boys and girls. It was a movement designed for boys, but a lot of girls got a hold of the book and were doing scouting. In some cases, they even wrote-in to headquarters using their initials rather than their first names, so they were kind of unofficial girl scouts. But early leadership got concerned because they were afraid that boys would be turned off from a youth movement that had girls in it. They thought it would be unappealing; it wouldn’t be manly.
Baden-Powell enlisted his sister as head of the girls version of the movement, called the Girl Guides, and published the first girls version in 1909 and then the organization got off the ground in 1910. These early years were kind of messy and they really felt strongly that it should be a single-sex movement for each, that their development was different. When the movement spread to other countries, including the U.S., it did so as a single-sex movement. The British Boy Scouts developed boy scouting movements in other places and the Girl Guides developed girl scout movements in other places—and they weren’t always at the same time.
There might be a year or two lag between a boys movement and a girls movement. In the U.S., the two movements were pretty different from the beginning. Juliette Low, who was the founder of the Girl Scouts, had actually worked in a Girl Guides troop in Britain. And in the same way, the Boy Scouts were founded out of the boy movement in Britain.
Hosking: How is the purpose of the Girl Scouts different than the Boy Scouts?
Proctor: From the beginnings of the two movements, there’s been friction. In the 1920s, the Boy Scouts actually sued the Girl Scouts in court over the name “scout.” They thought it was a male term. There were legal battles—and battles in the media—over this. In some countries, there’s a closer relationship between the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. But in the U.S., they’ve functioned as totally separate organizations and they don’t always get along.