I'm A Female Boy Scout Leader -- Every Institution Has Room For Change

Why I’m Proud To Be A Female Boy Scout Leader

July 1, 2020 Updated July 6, 2020

Female-Boy-Scout-Leader-1
Courtesy of Elena Vale Wahl

“You’re a BOY Scout leader? If so, that says it all. Their days are numbered…”

This rage tweet came from a total stranger on Twitter, one whose profile describes him as a “traditional American.” I’d replied to a tweet about Scouts BSA’s commitment to racial justice after the recent police killings, saying I was proud to be one of their leaders.

But it does beg a couple of questions. Why am I, a mom, an Assistant Scoutmaster for her son’s troop? And, why is Scouts BSA (as we’re now known) a legit place for girls as well as boys when we already have the Girl Scouts?

When my oldest son came home from second grade and asked to join Cub Scouts, I was a little surprised. Since my brother was a Scout when the sex abuse scandal broke in the 80s, I knew there was some controversy surrounding the organization, and membership was declining. But, it wasn’t baseball season yet, so what was the harm in checking it out?

From our first meeting, I felt safe in Boy Scouts. I’d already heard of the “two-deep leadership rule” (every Scouting event must have two leaders, and leaders cannot be alone with a Scout at any time). Lots of safeguards were put in place to prevent sexual abuse, such as background checks, bathrooms marked as kids-only, and adults not entering the tents of children. But Cub Scouts was even safer, because you couldn’t go on a campout without a parent. And that parent had to be me. My sons’ dad lived in another town. I’d just married their stepfather, but he’s not the camping type. I was now a mom of two and a stepmom, teaching full-time and attending graduate school. With a schedule like that, you would think that going on a large-group camping trip would be a huge drag, right? Hell no. It was not only fun, but healing.

Boy Scouts salute during an America flag ceremony at their camp in Colorado.
Robb Reece/Getty

As we walked through an avenue of trees, listening to a park ranger tell about the Native American ceremonies held there, I thought, This is what I’ve been missing. Cub camping was unplug time…not a laptop or video game console in sight, just crawdads in the creek and stories around the fire. Plus, I got to know other moms and dads who were struggling to get their wild boys to behave, just like me. Over the next several years, Scout trips took us to swimming holes and caves, Halloween costume contests and environmental service projects. And let’s not forget the s’mores. Endless, sticky goodness.

As our time in Cub Scouting unfolded, BSA toppled their LGBT policy, a relic from a bygone era. Gay Scouts were already allowed when we joined in 2013, and openly gay leaders were allowed in 2015. I agreed with these changes, but was a little surprised in 2018 when a female Cub leader announced on Facebook that the BSA would admit girls, saying, “This is a change we’ve been working toward for years.”

I’m a proud boy mom. Boy Scouts was a place for boys to be boys, and I, too, questioned whether they’d benefit more from a male-only organization. But I remembered my experience with Girl Scouts, where I read about high adventure in my paperback Handbook, but attended troop meetings centered on crafts and skin care. I respect GSA as an organization, and they’ve done great things for girls in leadership development, but few troops have a solid outdoors program. As a girl, I wanted to face the same back-to-nature challenges as my BSA brother. As I read more, I learned that some families wanted an activity that all their kids could participate in, not just the boys. I also learned that girls wanted equal opportunity for the higher military ranks and employment opportunities awarded to Eagle Scouts, and that other countries didn’t have the separation between boys and girls that exists in American Scouting. Was the exclusion of girls really necessary to the mission of BSA, or just another holdover in the name of “tradition”?

When my younger son crossed over from Cub Scouts to a Boy Scout troop, I witnessed three girls recite portions of the Boy Scout Law and change pronouns from “he” to “she,” and I teared up because history was in the making. These three brave ladies would walk across our symbolic two-by-four bridge to join an all-girl BSA troop, where they would get the same-sex camaraderie that Scouting is famous for, but would learn the same skills as the boys. A couple months later, I chaperoned at a BSA camp in Indiana, and saw an all-girls troop dining together in the mess hall. Their uniform shirts carried a bar patch that read “FOUNDER,” and again, my heart swelled with pride. These girls created their troop from the ground up. Thirty years ago, I would have loved to join their ranks.

I'm A Female Boy Scout Leader, And I Believe Every Institution Has Room For Change
Courtesy of Elena Vale Wahl

But none of this explains why I stepped up to help lead my son’s all-boy troop. When my boys were Cubs, I dodged Den Mother and helped with smaller tasks, like selling snacks at the Pinewood Derby. But when my youngest transitioned to Scouts, I figured it was my turn. And honestly, I didn’t want to stay home from hikes and caving anyway. Yes, there have been campouts where I’ve been the only female. But I’ve also shared a tent with the troop’s other female leader, and no one in BSA has treated either of us with anything short of respect. Catherine Pollard became the first female Scoutmaster in 1988, and a third of BSA volunteers are women. By participating in Scouting, I am not taking away the special relationships that boys develop with their dads and other male mentors. I am showing boys that women make a contribution in all areas of our society, and that gender roles can evolve, too.

So I bet you’re wondering how I responded to Mr. Traditional on Twitter. I felt like saying some really choice things, but I have to set an example for my boys. So I detailed a few of the changes the BSA has made, and politely added, “Seems like there’s a lot you don’t know about Scouting today.”

Every time an organization rewrites its policies, someone rings a giant, clanging bell of The Demise of Western Civilization as We Know It. People who are upset about change can either adjust their mindset or find another place to hang out. There are plenty of other options for right-leaning families who don’t like how Scouting (both BSA and Girl Scouts USA) has evolved. After all, freedom of choice is American as apple pie.

But I applaud the people who stuck with Scouting and changed it from the inside. And I won’t apologize for being one of them. And if you want to attack me because you’re mad that the Boy Scouts admits girls, go rappel down somebody else’s cliff, ‘cause we’re gonna keep it moving.