In the late 1990s I was encouraged by our local Scout executive to become a Scout Master and I took them up on the offer. They were struggling then with membership. They had a reputation as a para-military organization (in fact, even though they still try to distance themselves from their own history by re-writing it, Baden Powell did start it in order to prepare boys for their inevitable service in the military in 1919), homophobic (they rejected boys and any leaders who they even suspected might be ‘inclined’), Christian-centric (sure they had some of ‘those others’ and they had, by then, demurred to anyone who would just acknowledge a “higher power” but they nearly always assumed Christianity in any god-based activities), and anti-woman (except of course Den Mothers).
There were many men at the time I was involved who wanted all of that changed and were willing to push back on it. I was their token of sorts. About the same time another woman had accepted the position of Assistant Scoutmaster in our council. As I recall the other woman was not very loud or aggressive; she just pressed ahead rather quietly. I was amazingly supported and several of the guys in my second year conspired to have me ‘tapped out’ for Order of the Arrow, which I completed. Boy-howdy, was that an experience that needs some serious talking about!
What I learned there in my six years was important. I went through the adult leader training called Wood Badge, I taught other adults outdoor skills, I learned to tie knots and how to build a tower by lashing poles and ropes, I learned that men could be incredibly gentle and nurturing with children, and I learned that some men are angry, frightened people who will get that all over anybody standing next to them. Their biggest fears were generally feeling they are not in control of everything. There were the guys who were afraid that if a woman could build a tower working side-by-side with men that somehow made them something less than they thought. There were men who were very sweet and tender humans, but only if women were not around (that one still seems weirder than weird). What I learned that was most valuable however, was leadership.
The leadership training that is provided to young boys and that extends to adult men is not available anywhere else in such an incredible, skill and age-appropriate way. That was what was missing from my experiences as a Camp Fire Girls (the organization that most mirrored BSA) and Girl Scouts. Even though the two girls organizations had much flexibility on the parts of leaders, as do the boys’, my experience in the girls’ groups was that of becoming an adult woman—‘you’re never dressed until you put on a smile’—baking and domestic work like sewing—child care –GSA even has a really good babysitting certification, and how to behave.
Boy Scouts teaches leadership. In fact everything about it fosters leadership from the youngest Scout to the Eagle Scout. It teaches project management, people management, it teaching planning and self-direction as well as how to identify and use resources. After a young man ages out he is then given a chance to continue as an adult where the adult leader training is the best leader training I’ve ever had and I’ve laid out some cash over the years for much less effective training.
Boy Scouts of America is really struggling with membership again/still; especially adult leaders. Like most things falling apart in this country BSA is as screwed up as it is because adults don’t give it their attention and don’t demand change. We have a tendency here to just walk away from things that we don’t like and then hope someone steps up to fix it. I don’t like many of the policies that they’ve held onto over the years. Even though they really ceased to be a paramilitary organization (They truly have. Boys don’t need woodsmanship skills to survive on military campaigns and haven’t since WWI and nothing they do focus on that) and they have struggled to deemphasize that, they still struggle (and they should struggle even more) with their right-wing mentality. But what that means is the boys of the right are more likely to get extraordinary leadership training and our children are not. Now the girls of the right will have access to that, too.