In a year in which gender roles in traditional U.S. institutions have undergone major changes and challenges, a fight in Northern California over joining the Boy Scouts is among the most recent points of contention.
SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Five girls wearing pink and black shoes and makeshift scout uniforms stood before top Boy Scout brass this month and made an announcement: We want in.
“I want to be a Boy Scout,” Allie Westover, 13, told a panel of men in khaki uniforms weighted by pins and patches. She dropped a scout application in front of them. Then so did her sister, Skyler, and three friends: Ella Jacobs, Daphne Mortenson and Taylor Alcozer.
In a year in which gender roles in traditional U.S. institutions have undergone major changes and challenges, a fight in Northern California over joining the Boy Scouts is among the most recent points of contention. These girls — the latest of many over the decades who have sought to become Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts instead of Brownies and Girl Scouts — say they would rather be camping and tying knots than selling cookies.
And they say shifting attitudes are on their side: Bathrooms are going unisex in deference to transgender people, the Supreme Court has redefined marriage to include same-sex couples, and even the Boy Scouts have softened their stance on gay scouts and scout leaders.
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In this liberal-minded community, about two hours north of San Francisco, a group of girls ages 10 and 13 who have named themselves the Unicorns want to formally join the Boy Scouts, the 105-year-old organization that has long considered itself the cradle of U.S. male leadership. None of them want to be boys — they just want to play like them.
“Because we’re girls we can’t participate with boys?” said Ella, 10. “When we get into the real world, we’re going to have to work with other people who are, like, not just girls.”
But they face stiff legal obstacles: Among other factors, Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination by sex, carves out an exception for the Boy Scouts, allowing them to exclude members based on gender.
Indeed, even as the Boy Scouts have brought gay members into the fold, the organization has guarded its boys-only ethos. While allowing girls to participate in some affiliated programs, it keeps them out of the core scouting curriculum that has built a reputation as the most rigorous youth development program in the nation.
“We understand that the values and the lessons of scouting are attractive to the entire family,” the national Boy Scouts organization said in an email to reporters. “However, Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts are year-round programs for boys and young men.”
The Unicorns began to consider themselves Boy Scouts last fall, after they enrolled in a skills-building course, Learning for Life, that is affiliated with the organization and is offered to boys and girls. Several Unicorns had tried the Girl Scouts but found the experience too sedate: rest time and whispering instead of playing tag and lighting fires.
A spokeswoman for the Girl Scouts of Northern California disagreed with that assessment. “Outdoor experience has really always been a hallmark of what we do,” said the spokeswoman, Nikki Van Ausdall. “If they want to come back to join us, we’re thrilled to have them.”
Led by Ella’s mother, Danelle Jacobs, 43, the Unicorns moved quickly from the course lessons to more formal Boy Scout activities: earning badges, hiking alongside boy groups and buying uniforms that mimicked those worn by boys.
In the spring, the Unicorns placed second in a major scouting competition called camporee, where they went up against dozens of Boy Scout groups judged for grit and spirit.
“We can do the same things boys can — proven from camporee,” Ella said in an interview at her home. She waved a fistful of ribbons: first place in team building, second in backpacking, third in slingshot. “There’s no really ‘girl things’ or ‘boy things.’”
Her 12-year-old brother, Evan, said he was “very scared” the girls would sweep the competition next year.
But expanding the definition of “Boy Scout” is alarming some parents, who voiced concerns about the prospect of shared tents, the erosion of valuable boys-only time and the possibility that girls — who already outperform boys in many areas — might start to snap up all the leadership positions.
“I have sons,” said Jennifer Masterson, 54, a scout leader in the same region as the Unicorns who said she felt uneasy about the idea of coed scouting. “Would I want a girl sleeping in my son’s tent? No.”
Another Northern California scout leader, Randy Huffman, 56, said he felt similarly uncomfortable. “Maybe their approach should have been to go to the Girl Scouts and say: Instead of painting our nails and clipping our — whatever they do — to do archery and do climbing. Going through that process.”
This fall, at least one person contacted top Boy Scout officials to report that the girls here had invaded campouts and competitions. On Oct. 1, the local Boy Scout council barred the girls from participating in further activities, telling them that they had gone beyond the lessons permitted in the life-skills program and that the organization’s charter made it clear that “Cub Scouting, Boy Scouting and Varsity Scouting are for boys.”
A meeting was called for Nov. 13 to help the Unicorns understand the decision. It was there, at the local Boy Scout headquarters, that the girls confronted leaders and asked to be made full-fledged Boy Scouts.
The response from the men on the panel was swift: They would forward the girls’ requests to the national office, saying they had no local authority to admit them.
“The rules and regulations, the bylaws, don’t allow that,” said Rodney Mangus, 65, one of three top officials in the Boy Scout area that includes Santa Rosa.
Another official, Herb Williams, 79, said he supported the idea of girls in scouting, but only with approval from above. “Without process, without rules and regulation, there’s chaos,” he said.
Allie, one of the Unicorns, responded after the meeting: “I’d like to see them standing up like they did for the gay scouts and the gay leaders.” She noted that several of the officials had been early supporters of gay people in scouting.
The Unicorns are hardly the first girls to try to join the Boy Scouts. Carrie Crosman of Texas and Carla Schwenk of Oregon tried in the 1970s. Marystephanie Constantikes of Oklahoma tried in the 1980s. And Margo Menkes, Katrina Yeaw and seven girls from California tried in the 1990s. None could persuade Boy Scout officials to approve their membership.
“The conflict about admitting girls goes back even further than the conflict over admitting gays,” said Richard Ellis, a professor of politics at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, and the author of the book “Judging the Boy Scouts of America.”
The conflict in California coincides with a trend of declining membership in the Boy Scouts for at least a decade. About 2.4 million boys participated in Boy Scout activities in 2014, down from 2.6 million the year before, and some in Santa Rosa cited girl recruitment as a possible solution.
“Those programs have all been written for squirrelly little boys that run around and get crazy,” said Mangus, the local Boy Scout official, adding that he thought the curriculum would need to be rewritten if girls were admitted.
At the same time, Mangus said, “the Boy Scouts are not daft about what’s happening in society.” As far as admitting girls in the future, he said, “Who knows?”