NEW YORK – Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts pledge to be friendly and helpful. But their parent organizations may find that promise hard to keep as they head into a potentially bitter competition triggered by the Boy Scouts of America's dramatic move to admit girls throughout its ranks.
The BSA's initiative, announced Wednesday, has already chilled what had been a mostly cordial relationship between the two youth groups since the Girl Scouts of the USA was founded in 1912, two years after the Boy Scouts.
"We have always existed in a space with competitors," the Girl Scout's chief customer officer, Lisa Margosian, said Thursday in an interview. "What happened yesterday is that we have another new competitor."
Rather than altering its message, Margosian said, the Girl Scouts will "double down" with a commitment to empowering girls.
"We believe strongly in the importance of the all-girl, girl-led and girl-friendly environment that Girl Scouts provides," the GSUSA said, describing itself as "the best girl leadership organization in the world."
The Boy Scouts' official announcement of their new plan made no mention of the Girl Scouts, although BSA board Chairman Randall Stephenson said girls should have the chance to benefit from his organization's "outstanding leadership development programs."
The BSA's chief scout executive, Michael Surbaugh, said in an interview that the Girl Scouts offered "great programs" but argued that many parents viewed the two sets of programs as significantly different and wanted the option of choosing between them for their daughters.
Under the Boy Scouts' new plan, Cub Scout dens — the smallest unit — will be single-gender, either all-boys or all-girls. The larger Cub Scout packs will have the option to remain single gender or welcome both genders. A program for older girls — mirroring the Boy Scout curriculum — is expected to start in 2019 and will enable girls to earn the coveted rank of Eagle Scout.
The Girl Scouts learned back in January that the Boy Scouts were considering opening their ranks to girls, Margosian said.
"They never reached out to let us know what was happening," she said. "Given our history, as a courtesy, they could have let us know."
Jan Barker, the long-serving CEO of the Girl Scouts' Heart of Michigan Council, suggested that Boy Scout programming would not be appropriate for many girls.
"The Boy Scouts' approach is very militaristic and top-down, and I don't know if that's the best environment for girls to feel nurtured," said Barker, whose base is Kalamazoo, Michigan. "Girls and boys are wired differently — you can't just put out the same curriculum."
Barker noted that many of the older girls in her council were interested in talking about issues such as the sexual-assault problem on college campus. She questioned whether that was an issue of concern to boys in the Boy Scouts.
The new challenge from the Boy Scouts is only the latest in a string of difficulties faced by the Girl Scouts over the past 15 years. There was a wrenching realignment in 2006-2009 that slashed the number of local councils from 312 to 112. There have been layoffs at many councils and at the national headquarters as the organization grappled with a large deficit. And there have been deep rifts between leadership and grassroots members over the direction of programming and efforts by many councils to sell summer camps.
Suellen Nelles, who heads the Farthest North Girl Scout Council in Fairbanks, Alaska, suggested that the series of problems caused the Girl Scout leadership to neglect their relationship with the Boy Scouts.
"All of our issues have weakened us to the point where the Boy Scouts now see opportunities," she said.
Nelles also said she was embarrassed by the harsh tone of some GSUSA statements assailing the Boy Scouts, such as one written this week by Latino civic leader Charles Garcia, a new member of Girl Scouts' national board.
"The Boy Scouts' house is on fire," Garcia wrote in the Huffington Post. "Instead of addressing systemic issues of continuing sexual assault, financial mismanagement and deficient programming, BSA's senior management wants to add an accelerant to the house fire by recruiting girls."
Joni Kinsey, an art history professor at the University of Iowa, has been both a youth member and a troop leader in the Girl Scouts and fought against the possible sale of camps in her region.
She is among many Girl Scout alumni concerned that camping and other outdoor activities have lost their prominence in the programming now promoted by the GSUSA. As a result, she has mixed feelings about the Boy Scouts' new overture to girls.
"I'm very happy that the girls who want to do the kind of camping I grew up with have a place to go — more power to them," she said. "I just wish it were with the Girl Scouts."
Mixed feelings also were expressed by the president of the National Organization for Women, Toni Van Pelt. She welcomed the Boy Scouts' decision to admit girls, yet in the same statement bemoaned the fact that Girl Scouts seem to struggle more than the BSA in terms of financial support.
Both the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have experienced sharp drops in membership in recent years. Both organizations have also faced competition from conservative Christian youth groups, including American Heritage Girls and Trail Life USA.
Those groups said the Boy Scouts' new initiative would not weaken their commitment to single-sex programming.
"As gender blurring only increases, it is more important than ever that someone provides a safe environment where boys can be boys, and where their natural talents and tendencies can be affirmed, encouraged and developed by men who can offer a positive role model," said Mark Hancock, the CEO of Trail Life USA.