Boy Scouts and the Long-Overdue Demise of “Separate But Equal”

Mirah Curzer
Nov 23, 2015 · 5 min read

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that a group of girls in California are requesting formal admission to the Boy Scouts. The girls, who call themselves the Unicorns, had been participating in activities with the Boy Scouts — and consistently winning contests and awards — before complaints from boys’ parents prompted the Boy Scouts to ban the Unicorns from many scouting activities.

One of the group’s members, 10-year-old Ella, told the New York Times:

“Because we’re girls we can’t participate with boys? When we get into the real world, we’re going to have to work with other people who are, like, not just girls … We can do the same things boys can … There’s no really ‘girl things’ or ‘boy things.”

To which the only possible response is: GET IT, GIRL!

I am duly impressed by the girls’ determination to become part of the Boy Scouts and their eloquence in support of their cause. I am also very VERY impressed with the girls’ parents, who are standing behind their daughters’ activism even at such a young age.

The Unicorns are fighting a very fundamental and familiar form of injustice: “separate but equal.”

The New York Times quoted a Boy Scout leader who did not like the idea of coed scouting as saying, “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.”

But let’s face the facts. Girl Scouts are not just Boy Scouts for girls, and everyone knows it.

Our country’s gender-segregated scouting programs teach girls to sell cookies and sew while the boys learn to build fires and shoot bows and arrows. The Girl Scouts may pay lip service to outdoorsy activities, but when the girls go “camping” it often turns out to be sleeping on the floor and watching movies, microwaving marshmallows for s’mores. Several of the girls in the Unicorns had tried being Girl Scouts, but “found the experience too sedate: rest time and whispering instead of playing tag and lighting fires.”

Unsurprisingly, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts embody the different values America wants to teach girls and boys — boys are strong and independent, while girls are collaborative and domestic. Men are capable providers, while women are caring wives and mothers.

In 2011, Kathleen Denny, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, studied the gender-specific messaging encoded in the Boy Scouts’ and Girl Scouts’ manuals and activities. She found that “scouts are being fed stereotypical ideas about femininity and masculinity.” Says Denny:

“The disproportionate and gendered distribution of art and science projects aligns with the large body of research that finds girls being systematically derailed from scientific and mathematical pursuits and professions due to cultural beliefs and stereotypes about their relative ineptitude in these areas.”

Other key findings from the study:

  • Girls are more likely than boys to be offered activities involving art projects; girls’ art activities make up 11 percent of their total activities.

The names of Scout badges also convey strong messages about gender, reinforcing “embellished femininity and stoic masculinity.” The boys’ badges have stoic descriptive titles like “Geologist,” as opposed to the whimsical girls’ version: “Rocks Rock.” The boys’ badges also use more career-oriented language (Engineer, Craftsman, Scientist), while the girls’ badges turn career activities into playful hobbies (“Sky Search” instead of Astronomer and “Car Care” instead of Mechanic).

Separating children by gender always has the result of reinforcing cultural expectations about what boys and girls should do, and by extension, how men and women should be. Boys are learning to be serious about projects and motivated by future career success, while girls get encouragement for being cute, whimsical, and caring.

And the adults defending the segregated status quo are arguing for it in exactly the way you’d expect them to. The New York Times reported that parents of boys in the troop the Unicorns wanted to join “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.”

Shared tents? They’re ten! But according to these parents, it’s never too early for those little Jezebels to start leading their angelic sons into temptation. The erosion of valuable boys-only time? If they believe boys can’t be boys if girls are around, what kind of masculinity are they trying to cultivate?

But worst of all, these parents have openly admitted that they don’t want to let girls into Boy Scouts because they are worried the girls will win competitions and take over the leadership of the troops.

Blithely perpetuating the myth that there is no greater shame for a boy than to be outdone by a girl, they want to safeguard their sons’ right to be better than girls.

How are those boys going to react when they grow up and start competing with women in the work force? We already know this story. They are going to think that they are the victims of a terrible flaw in society if they don’t automatically rise above all the women in their fields. They are going to feel cheated of their God-given right to be the stronger, better sex. And then some of them are going to take out their self-righteous masculine rage in violence against women.

And the girls are also getting the message loud and clear: keep your head down, keep your achievements quiet, keep your ambitions modest, and above all, don’t try to compete with the boys.

If the Unicorns lose this battle, American boys will continue learning to be strong and self-reliant, while girls keep learning the feminine arts of collaboration and domesticity. They will carry the lessons of scouting into adulthood and perpetuate systemic gender inequality.

Gender-segregated scouting has been another failed experiment in the principle of “separate but equal.” Haven’t we learned our lesson by now?


A culture magazine that brings you endless stories of imagination and foresight.

Mirah Curzer

Written by

Lawyer. Feminist. Photographer. Slurper of noodles and drinker of scotch.



A culture magazine that brings you endless stories of imagination and foresight.

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