How Do You Explain the Girl Scouts?

Scouts In a fascinating paper in the March issue of Perspectives, Barbara Arneil examines membership numbers in the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts.

There was a major drop in membership in both the Boy and the Girl Scouts in the 1970s. Robert Putnam explains that the drop in membership was a result of the rise of time in front of TV and later video games, the increase in dual family employment, the increase of suburban sprawl, and a decline in civic spirit. 

Arneil says that the decline occurred in the 1970s, which was a critical period for in American history. "For the 1970s ushered in a “civil rights” generation with a new post-materialist set of values  that sought to rectify the injustices associated with war, race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability." The Girl Scouts adjusted to the new mentality, while the Boy Scouts didn't. Therefore, the Girl Scouts saw a jump in membership after 1985, while membership in the Boy Scouts did not.

It was a very interesting, well-written paper. It was fascinating to see the differences in membership between the scouts. However, I think that other factors have to explain why the girl scouts have thrived and the boy scouts haven't. Some ideas:

  • It's all about the cookies and the tiny drops of meth mixed into those Thin Mints.
  • Fear of perverted scout leaders getting in a tent with little Johnny.
  • Competition with organized sports. I bet that time in little League and soccer game has increased.

32 thoughts on “How Do You Explain the Girl Scouts?

  1. Does the current (regionally variable) squeamishness about weapons also play a role? When I was (briefly) in scouting, the big draw was knives, axes, hatchets, starting fires, shooting, and archery. I wonder if they do those activities to the same extent these days? If they’d have asked us to learn about nature without any possibility of some weapon or another being used, nobody would have stayed.

  2. If you look at the Girl Scout chart, it’s total membership (with adults) that’s up. Actual girl membership has been flat for some time and is currently trending down.
    The trend has been toward breaking activities up into chunks, so that instead of one big global group with multiple activities, kids do each activity with a different specialized group. You see this with camps a lot. Rather than do a single multi-week camp with multiple activities, there’s a tendency to do multiple short, focused camps.
    In addition, the Boy Scouts have been kicked out of a lot of public venues over the last few years.

  3. My impression is that Boy Scouts are much more closely tied to religious organizations than are the girl scouts. How this effects their membership rates I don’t know. But, about 60% or more of boyscout troops are sponsored by religious organizations, with more than 20% of them being Mormon church branches (despite Mormons being a bit more than 2 % of the population, I think.) As a bit of pure speculation, I can imagine this leading to many people finding the boy scouts to be too sectarian for their tastes, while the girl scouts are not seen as much so. As said, though, that’s all speculation.

  4. I’m part of that trend — we started a new GS troop last year, with a membership of 13 girls now.
    Both adult & girl membership seems to have been trending down since 2003 (from the chart), but I’m not seeing where you see the “flat” in the girl trend. GS girl membership has trended upward since 1995.
    I don’t like the chart though — not having yet read the paper carefully. The BSA’s membership numbers are for 11-17 year olds, the girl scouts for which ages? Activity pressures increase as the kids get older, and if the same age groups aren’t being compared, the chart could be fundamentally flawed.
    For us, though, the diversity-acceptance difference between boy scouts and girl scouts wholly explains the fact that I am now a Girl Scout troop leader, and that my son will not join boy scouts. The Girl Scouts have not “embraced” diversity (Camp Fire is more far reaching in their official policy), and the pledge still has “god” in it. But, the GS has been accepting of diversity, so I and my daughter are able to participate. Boy Scouts, on the other hand, is simply off the table for us.
    So for us, though all the other factors might play a role (diversity of activities, time commitments, weapons, militarism, etc, thin mint cookies), the defining difference is the acceptance of diversity by one organization and not the other. If boy scouts changed it’s pledge rule, and said that any boy could join, I’d be searching out a unit for my boy in an instant. I’d probably even start one, since it wouldn’t bother me that the other units were religious, as long as it was acceptable for mine not to be.

  5. Great article, BTW. I was completely unaware that BSA had induced the start of Camp Fire Girls. And, I didn’t really know about the anti-GS sentiment from the Boy Scout leadership.

  6. I have nothing useful to add other than that I was a Girl Scout from 77 to 82 or 83, and I LOVED IT. But I cannot get my daughter to join. Meanwhile, my son is in Cub Scouts (sort of–my schedule got in the way of bringing him to meetings this term).

  7. Matt, you’re on to something with your comment about sponsoring religious organizations, except that it’s not a straightforward yes/no. It is, rather, I think more a matter of the type of religious organizations which sponsor the respective groups. My daughters are involved in Girl Scouts, and the GS have long had a variety of on-again, off-again relationships with numerous local churches, as well as civic groups, etc. We’ll use this meeting house here, we’ll make use of this church camp area there, etc. It really flows, flexibly, between a host of different groups with different motivations (which of course goes to the point above about being more accepting of diversity). The organizations which sponsor Boy Scouts by contrast, as you well know in connection with us Mormons, make what you might call “ideological” use of the Scouts: their oaths, their programs, their policies, all are part of much more focused motivation. Leaving aside how this turns off some parents, this also involves a lot more time than Girl Scouts does, where you aren’t meeting with a how bunch of supervisors and talking about getting Scouting “right.” From what I’ve observed, GS leaders have far more freedom to work with whom they want to accomplish whatever they want to plan for their girls, than BS leaders do.

  8. Oh, and in the spirit of Laura’s slughtly-tongue-in-cheek suggested additional reasons for BS decline and GS growth: despite years of marketing, girls still don’t play as many hours of video games as boys. While else do you suppose BSA has found it in their interest to invent a video game merit badge?

  9. “I don’t like the chart though — not having yet read the paper carefully. The BSA’s membership numbers are for 11-17 year olds, the girl scouts for which ages?”
    Right. I’ve personally never known any high schoolers in Boy or Girl Scouts, although as a kid, there were a few high schoolers in our Pentecostal church’s “Royal Rangers.” It’s a bit dorky for older kids to wear a uniform with badges, etc, although I bet my 7-year-old girl would LOVE to get badges.
    “Both adult & girl membership seems to have been trending down since 2003 (from the chart), but I’m not seeing where you see the “flat” in the girl trend. GS girl membership has trended upward since 1995.”
    I’m just seeing that the 2005 membership is about the same as the 1999 membership, which is what I would call flat. There’s impressive growth from 1985 to about 1992, and then the girl GSA member numbers start to wobble and flatten. The trend looks very similar to some of the membership charts at the end of Putnam’s Bowling Alone.
    I just don’t see a lot of information about scouting locally, either at church or at school and I don’t really know any families with kids in scouting. The little girl across the street is in Girl Scouts, but I’m not crazy about her (where are my cookies?) and my daughter doesn’t really click with her, so I don’t feel much of a pull in that direction. I suppose that it’s this sort of thing that contributes to a downward spiral in membership.

  10. True confession:
    The girls’ counterpart to the Royal Rangers was the Missionettes. In the elementary years, the Daisies and Prims were quite fun (we had either yellow or pink sashes with badges), but the program dropped the ball in the upper years, which was when Missionettes proper started (around 6th grade). The uniform (which very few girls bothered to acquire) involved a lot of powder blue polyester. The organizer (a close relative of the pastor) was not a very energetic person or well-suited to working with hormonal 12 and 13-year-olds, and the only activity that I can recall involved decorating a metal clothes hanger with different colors of yarn. That craft went on and on for meeting after meeting. The one benefit that I got out of the group was that I memorized 1 Corinthians 13 in the KJV.

  11. My daughters were all Girl Scouts, I was a GS leader. My son will never be a Boy Scout. I just will not be part of another organization that openly discriminates against gays. I’m already Catholic and struggle with the discrimination there, I don’t need to belong to another one.
    I know a ton of parents who feel the same way about the Boy Scouts.

  12. The article is quite interesting, because it compares the GS & BSA and ties the trends to the the Putnam stuff (a break down of the commons for civic engagement). The author’s premise is that the two organizations (both through choice and their historical paths) have chosen their reactions differently.
    GS has adapted and reformed, to become what girls of today might want. These adaptations include, for example, no uniforms unless the girls want them — our girls did, and they wear uniforms from Old Navy, a growing wideness of badge opportunities, and an emphasis on the feminist reasons for segregating girls — empowerment, leadership and opportunity (rather than teaching the norms of girlhood).
    BSA has stood as a bulwark of its traditional values. Standing firm meant fighting the court case about “god” to the top and winning the battle. Standing firm meant not only forbidding gays in the organization, but also advocating for disenfranchisement of local units that would choose differently. In the process BSA became less hospitable to people like our family (less hospitable than even in the 70’s, when my husband was a scout, because the issues simply hadn’t been raised). In addition, by embracing their private organizational structure, they forced their ouster from public venues where discrimination is not allowed.
    Clearly, I prefer the GS’s path over the BSA’s, but I understand the BSA’s. An organizations responsibility does not have to be to respond to the needs of its potential membership; it’s perfectly reasonable to have values you advocate even if it decreases your popularity.
    Oh, and I admit that though I’m analyzing under the assumption that the national trends show that GS’s adaptations have maintained its membership in contrast to BSA’s, I don’t believe that the graphs shown in the article prove that. GS has lost membership by adapting, embracing feminist values, redesigning itself as a leadership program, as well as gained them. BSA has gained a dedicated following by embracing its traditional values, as well as loosing membership. How those numbers balance out is an empirical question not shown by the graph in the article.

  13. If you look at the Girl Scout chart, it’s total membership (with adults) that’s up.
    Not to necessarily disagree with Amy P, but to me it looks like the population including adult membership is just amplifying the same trend as girl membership. Is there some aspect I’m misreading?
    (I kind of hate the idea of girl scouts. Completely based on a childhood grudge. I was a Brownie for a year in an area where there was a waiting list–too much demand for what the troop moms were willing to handle. I thought I’d had an agreement to give my spot to my sister. Instead I quit only to see that spot go to the younger sister of a queen bee of the group. I went on a girl scout cookie strike for a few years and did my best to mock the members, not that an arty nerd’s position counted for much, even or particularly in elementary school. I still don’t buy from anyone in Ithaca.)

  14. “(I kind of hate the idea of girl scouts. Completely based on a childhood grudge.”
    Well, your story is the flip side of a volunteer-run, private organization, that it has the potential for becoming cliquey and exclusionary. I personally try to do my best to avoid this pitfall, but I’m certainly not a saint, and personalities (of moms & girls), politics, schedule, ability to contribute all do end up in playing a role in accessibility of the resource.

  15. I was a Girl Scout in HS. I don’t think we ever had to wear a dorky uniform. I think there was a sash, maybe.
    There were only 2-3 of us locally who were Senior Girl Scouts. What we did was we helped as “first aid counselors” for the local (Junior?) troop on camping trips. OMG, what fun. What could be better than being worshiped and having your attention fought for? We (my best friend and I) loved doing it.

  16. “What could be better than being worshiped and having your attention fought for? We (my best friend and I) loved doing it. ”
    Yeah, that’s going to be a big incentive for my daughter.
    The GS (as part of its new “leadership” roll out) has a “gold” girl scout award, and are working hard to get it the same level of recognition that “eagle scout” has.
    I think in its later stages they’re trying to turn GS from a generalist organization to a volunteer/leadership/community engagement CV builder. This will help with the problem that generalists don’t get the kind of credit exclusive-college-seeking students are trying to earn. It might help keep girls in the organization longer, too. But, it’ll be worth seeing how it ends up working.

  17. bj: I bet a lot of troop leaders struggle to make things the fairest they can be, in terms of membership. I have to admit, I don’t even have the whole story, so who knows what other factors might have been involved. That’s just how it looked at the time. I don’t really want to taint the entire organization, but I was badly hurt by the experience at the time, and my response is not completely rational (which I readily admit).
    This particular group was super-cliquey, and continued to be into high-school (save for those girls who peeled off into private schools out of town; presumably they cliqued elsewhere). But I mean, seriously. A girl that age negotiating this sort of contractual thing with an adult? (I don’t think my mom was involved, as she was a play by the rules type. She was telling me the other day that we got the “bad” elementary school teachers because she hadn’t even entertained the idea that you could badger the administration into assigning your kids to the “good” ones!) It’d have been a miracle if it had worked–but I had had fun with the brown vest and badges and sewing and cookie-selling, and wanted my year-younger sis to have a go. (And then betrayal! Villainy!)
    Whether or not I think many troops have that same clique problem depends really on how optimistic I am about human nature that week….

  18. Did you see the NYTimes article a few weeks ago, about elite private girls’ schools embracing Girl Scouts?
    The article skirted the well-publicized concerns of moms of privileged girls: meanness, growing up too fast, spoiled pink-princess culture. I suspect that girl scouting is perceived as a potential antidote: wholesome, outdoorsy, well-rounded, all with an empowering DIY attitude.
    I can say from experience that Cub Scouts do stress archery, BB-guns, knives, and flag-waving. My son loves it, and we have done many other fun things involving nature, indigenous cultures, knots, science, and community service. Still, I do fret about its pre-military tone, and its over-indulgence of boys interested in fantasy games that involve imaginary killing.
    After witnessing some disturbingly gang-like games being played at a recent campout, I will probably talk with our pack’s leadership about discouraging this while continuing to stress safety and the appropriate use of such things (i.e., for hunting, for sport).
    Finally, it’s true that the BSA has experienced scandals about pedophile crimes being committed by leaders. To their credit, their parent-child materials and policies to address this are extraordinarily well done. Talking with your boys about safety and the realities of child sexual assault are a mandatory activity, and good materials are provided to help families fulfill this mandatory requirement upon joining the organization. The Catholic Church would benefit from a similarly serious approach to an sensitive but essential topic.

  19. Fear of perverted scout leaders getting in a tent with little Johnny.
    As the comments above show, I think the trend is based less on fear of pedophiles and the decision that the boy scouts is a hate group.
    The Boy Scouts are going the way of the Daughters of the American Revolution, which was a nice civic group right up until they point that they decided that they were definitionally a nice White civic group, at which point joining the DAR gained the implication of joining a racist organization.
    The short-term peak in Boy Scout enrollment is right before the boy scouts took the position that “morally straight” meant no gay boy scouts. I decided then that no son of mine would be joining. It looks like lots of others did too.

  20. My daughter is at the school profiled in the NYT article (Chapin), but a little older than the Girl Scouts. Obviously a large portion of New York’s upper middle class grew up in more middle-class, less urban settings which they are happy to recreate. It’s funny that people would complain about uniforms: my daughter has spent most of her life in either a school uniform, a camp uniform, or a soccer uniform. (When out of uniform, the girls do devote themselves to skankiness and meanness, to the extent possible.)

  21. Let’s not forget that a huge percentage of children are growing up without fathers at home today, so the pool of fathers available to be involved with Boy Scouts is a lot smaller than it used to be. Girl Scouts may benefit a lot from having female leadership.
    “The Catholic Church would benefit from a similarly serious approach to an sensitive but essential topic.”
    Back 7 years ago, I remember seeing a lot of discussion at Amy Welborn’s blog (which was at the time the NYT of the Catholic blog world) for the Boy Scout’s handling of the aftermath of their sex abuse cases in the 80s. People especially liked the requirement that no Boy Scout leader be alone with any child at any time. Here’s a summary of Boy Scout policy:
    I don’t know what the implementation of US Catholic policy has been, but about six years ago zero-tolerance and training sessions became mandatory for staff and volunteers. I continue to see announcements of training sessions for volunteers in parish bulletins. Here’s an example of a summary of youth protection policy:
    About six years ago, there was a fair amount of griping online about the mandatory training sessions for lay volunteers, basically, we didn’t abuse, why are we being punished? However, I’ve also seen people who’ve done the training talk about how beneficial it is. One of the videos used has a convicted abuser describing his methods, which a number of training participants found helpful. There is an awful lot of value to parental alertness, to being able to notice that behavior fits into a particular pattern. From the clerical abuse stories I read from 7 years ago, there was an awful lot of innocence on the part of parents, who were often very happy that an adult took such a lot of interest in their teenage sons, taking a teenage boy to Vegas (!!!), taking a group of teenage boys to a cabin in the woods, etc.

  22. Our town has the opposite pattern. My husband (a foreigner) asked, “are there Girl Scouts older than 3rd grade?”
    Our daughter tried a year of Daisies, but we didn’t continue in Girl Scouts. We had too many competing activities, and the Girl Scouts’ activities were too shallow for kids who want to do something more than once or twice.
    I disliked the explicit teaching of morality. The “help people at all times,” as I recall, was the deal breaker for me. I feel there is too much pressure, in our society as a whole, on girls to act in an approved feminine manner. We didn’t need another group telling my daughter that she should always put others’ needs first.
    The Boy Scouts are very popular. Then again, our local pack leaders refuse to discriminate. Even there, though, it’s a popular activity for boys until the travel teams take off.

  23. “Then again, our local pack leaders refuse to discriminate. ”
    How do they manage to do that? In particular, do the allow boys to avoid God in the pledge?
    I did read the NY times article, and it was amusing to see myself as being part of a trend. We’re not in NY, but we are at a private school, and the patterns described in the article (including the liklihood that our own upbringings were more middle class than that of the girls in our private school, and a desire to teach those middle class values, in spite of the privilege many of our girls live with, the desire to keep the girls young, to provide opportunities for girls to connect with other girls, the “leadership” focus) all played a role in our involvement in Girl Scouts. And, of course, the official policies did not embrace exclusion and discrimination, so we were able to use the organization for our goals.
    The counter forces that we see are the pressure to combine GS with all the other activities, some of which seem to have more competitive demands (sports, drama, dance, drama being the big ones) and the availability of parents to take on the responsibility. Right now, I’ve decided to be that parent, but that’s a random circumstance; without it, the group would probably not be sustainable. We’ve made it through our 3rd grade year, and I think we’ll make it to 4, but those pressures are just going to increase going forward.

  24. Admittedly, like almost every organization the BSA is certainly imperfect from the perspective of ACLU, Human Rights Campaign, etc. Despite this, our family has decided to pursue our son’s interests in camping, nature, friendship and service via BSA, and now we try to do our bit to watchdog and transform from within. To me, such exposure can teach about tolerance and inclusiveness better than simply staying away. But, I’m not everyone, and chaqu’un a son gout.
    The BSA being pro-religion and anti-gay on paper at the national level leaves a lot of room for variation within regional councils and in local packs. Being ‘white-only’ and ‘Christian-only’ is certainly not the case in the NYC area and not a policy or stance of the national BSA. Camping last weekend at a large camp that serves the NYC area, we saw packs from Queens with huge numbers of immigrant and American-born Chinese scouts, Spanish-speaking Hispanic scouts from Brooklyn, and plenty of color and diversity everywhere. Photos in recruiting materials show all colors (and visible disabilities), and there are foreign language versions. Manuals explicitly address religion in an incredibly inclusive manner: Buddhists, Ba’hai, Islam, etc. and the listed examples of ‘important religious leaders’ are ML King Jr and Menachem Schneerson.
    Finally, my son’s pack and den is beautifully accommodating and welcoming to a boy with health-related disabilities that affect him physically and behaviorally. (Indeed, many boys were extremely concerned last fall when he was hospitalized and missed many successive meetings. Touching.) From my own childhood and hometown, I recall families with mentally disabled children finding the BSA and GSA to be very welcoming.

  25. Pro-religious, gay-excluding is a deal breaker for *me*. I haven’t gotten to the level where I think it should be a deal breaker for everyone.
    Pro-religious is, of course, only a deal breaker for *my* family. I have no objection to religious organizations that other people want to join. For example, I wouldn’t *pick* the religious organization for my charitable giving, but I wouldn’t specifically avoid it (i.e. salvation army), either. And I certainly don’t shun or censure people because they want to belong to a religious organization — it’s a personal choice that excludes me, but everyone should be free to practice religion as they choose (as our constitution guarantees).
    The gay-excluding is a civil rights issue, though. I’ve thought long and hard about whether it requires me to shun the organization more aggressively (by more than just avoiding it personally): Can I reasonably buy coffee or whatever the local BSA troop is selling to support their organization? I’ve had troubled feelings about this, but the comparison to the Catholic church (which also excludes gays, though I think the policy is different — my understanding is that they exclude gay behavior, but not gay status) helps clarify for me — I’m willing to buy wrapping paper to support the local catholic school, so I think I’ll keep supporting the local BSA troop. But it’s an issue I reconsider at times.
    I’m interested in hearing what local variability there is in BS troops — but my understanding is that it is official BSA policy to exclude gays and athiests. Are there local councils/local troops that buck the national organization and allow it? Could I find a BSA troop that would permit my son to say the pledge without god in the text? I don’t think so, but if it’s possible somewhere, I’d guess it would be possible in my neck of the woods. And, it would make me more comfortable about buying the coffee.

  26. The author of this paper, Barbara Arneil, answers some questions about her methodology:
    Thanks very much for your kind comments and for bringing attention to the article. I found the comments underneath it really interesting and insightful about how we might explain the differences. Just thought I would let you know since a couple of your subscribers asked about why my two charts used two different measures (in the case of the Boy Scouts, I used only 11-17 year olds, in the case of the girl scouts I used total membership). In the case of the BSA, they added new school programs, changed the age parameters and so on which made it difficult to create comparisons across time in relation to total membership. The 11-17 year old category was constant and I believed provided the most accurate measure across time which is why I used it to measure the changes in membership for the BSA. The decline amongst younger Scouts is much steeper (but due to changing parameters more difficult to hold constant) so in using the older category, I believe I have been very fair to the BSA in choosing an accurate measure of their declining membership.
    By the way, I emailed both organizations to get their own statistics and while the GSUSA sent me their figures on membership, dating back to their inception, I was unable to get any response from the BSA so put together this chart based on figures publicly available to me, largely from the BSA itself, through annual reports etc.

  27. “By the way, I emailed both organizations to get their own statistics and while the GSUSA sent me their figures on membership, dating back to their inception, I was unable to get any response from the BSA so put together this chart based on figures publicly available to me, largely from the BSA itself, through annual reports etc.”
    I saw this in the notes and actually wondered whether that opened the potential that the GSUSA statistics were less accurate, since they were not publicly available. Are the GSUSA statistics public information as well?
    I did very much enjoy the article. It had a clear thesis, was well written, and informative and I was able to read it easily in spite of it being not at all in my field of expertise.

  28. Medium Raggirl is “bridging” today — graduating from Daisies to Brownies. As a Jewish troop leader of a troop in which everyone but my daughter is Christian, religious references have been largely scrubbed. No one sees it as a religious experience, so it’s not an issue.
    We are a very pro-girl-scout family, for many of the same reasons that we are anti-boy-scout.

  29. Our local boy scouts are sponsored by the local equivalent of the PTA. As it’s a public school, they can’t sponsor discrimination based on religion or sexual preference. The school committee dealt with the issue during their meetings. As reported in the local paper, the scout leaders publicly disavowed any intent to discriminate at the local level, and sent a letter to the national organization to that effect.
    Did the national organization read the letter? Who knows? If they did read the letter, perhaps they didn’t want to force the issue. Had they forced the issue, it would have meant the end of scouting for boys in our town, and likely in the Northeast. Could some of the “hardline” policies be due to the local sponsors’ inclinations? How many other troops simply said, “no, we can’t do that,” and if so, what happened?

  30. ” As reported in the local paper, the scout leaders publicly disavowed any intent to discriminate at the local level, and sent a letter to the national organization to that effect. ”
    Cool. The national council has strong policies on the issue — with the suggestion that BSA units that take the stands you describe will/would be disenfranchised. GSUSA officially allows a lot more local decision making.
    I’ll have to take a look at whether any of our local units have taken the stand you described. For it to work for me, it would have to be official, not just a “don’t ask, mumble the words” form of acceptance.
    The units in our neighborhood that I’m familiar with are run out of a Catholic schools/churches, so I’m they won’t be a the forefront, but there might be some others to search out. I’d be willing to take a shot at influencing the institution from within, given the right situation.

  31. Could I find a BSA troop that would permit my son to say the pledge without god in the text?
    We’re atheists whose son will be starting Cub scouts soon. We have no problem with our son saying “to God and country”, but there is another family who does (although they’re not atheists — UUs) so the plan is for their child to pause momentarily when everyone else is saying “to God and”. The pack leader, a fairly devout Methodist, didn’t bat an eyelash.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s