The Boy Scouts of America announced yesterday that it will welcome women and young girls into its ranks beginning in 2018. The news was met with ire from many corners of the Internet, including perplexed former-girl scouts, outraged conservatives and harbingers of the demise of traditional American values.
But here’s the thing: we don’t need to speculate about what the results of gender integration in the Boy Scouts will be. Branches of the organization, including Venturing and Sea Scouts, have been co-ed since 1972, and thousands of women across the country participate in these programs today.
I have good news: it’s going really well.
I joined Mariners 936, the largest Sea Scout ship in the country (Sea Scout groups are called “ships,” not “troops”) in the spring of 2009. I’d been counting down the days until I’d be old enough to join since my sister had signed up three years earlier. We came from a sailing family — both my father and grandfather sail competitively — and I was excited to stake out my own place in the family tradition.
As it turned out, my experience in the program was transformative.
Thanks to Mariners, I went on to sail in college, and I had the opportunity to develop many of the qualities and interests which led me to become a journalist. The women I met in the program became politicians, offshore wind engineers and Coast Guard officers. Their experience serving in leadership positions and advancing in the ranks of the Sea Scouts helped them get there.
For those of you who are hearing about Sea Scouts for the first time, here’s a quick guide:
Mariners, my ship, offered three categories of activities. First, there was rank advancement, a rough equivalent to the merit badges and requirements people generally associate with the Boy Scouts. Instead of Tenderfoot and Eagle Scout, our ranks progressed from Pogey to Quartermaster, and we learned to tie knots, chart and helm ships instead of how to start fires or plan hikes.
We also competed with other ships. Our ship was divided into teams — usually comprised of about 12 scouts — which met twice a week over the course of a three-month period to train for competition. We participated in two competitions each year, one each “season.” Ancient Mariner Regatta, our spring competition, was held on the U.S.S. Hornet — an aircraft carrier in Northern California — where we competed against a dozen other ships in maritime events ranging from sailing to first aid and navigation.
Our program was entirely youth-led; the ship elected three boatswain’s mates and a boatswain to oversee the program at the beginning of each competition season. The boatswain was responsible for the entire program, helping boatswain’s mates to pick teams and instruct newcomers while also leading the ship’s varsity team as they prepared for competition.
In the off-season, many of my teammates and I sailed, both competitively and recreationally. We had the opportunity to sail The Spirit of Dana Point, a tall ship, up and down California’s southern coast, and we raced dinghies in our harbor and at local regattas. Three members of my graduating class went on to sail competitively in college, and two of us (both women!) served as captains of our teams.
Mariners — and the Sea Scouts by extension — dominated my high school experience. I spent most of my weekends at the harbor, and many of my closest friends were also in the program. We worked together to make rank, prepare for competition and practice for regattas. Gender didn’t get in the way.
Over the course of the nine seasons I was involved in the program, six women served as Mariners’ boatswain. I was one of them. Two women earned the Quartermaster Award. I was one of them. One team won Great Republic, the highest award at our spring competition. I was on that team.
I think I speak for many of the women in Sea Scouts when I say that my time in the program changed me. Mariners gave me the opportunity to practice leadership and find my voice. It pushed me to challenge myself as I pursued the rank of Quartermaster. The friends I made as a Sea Scout are still my best friends today.
But I like to think our participation changed the Sea Scouts too. We demonstrated that men and women could coexist and — dare I say — collaborate in the same space. We led teams and won. We didn’t bring the institution down in flames.
I also hope our participation taught our male teammates that women can be strong and capable leaders — that they’re smart, driven and high-achieving. I hope they continue to respect and support the women in their lives.
I think they did—and they do—and I’m excited that soon the Boy Scouts of America will get to experience that too.