Scouting is one of the world’s most successful men’s movements. So how did it become a feminist movement in the UK that excludes male leadership and bans boy-only groups?
I’ve often wondered if my interest in gender started in the Scouting movement—it’s where I discovered cross-dressing, had my first kiss and learnt how to start fires.
My mum used to take me on camping trips with the Brownie Guides (for girls aged 7 to 10), where I got to hold hands with one of the girls and experienced my first kiss through the strings of a wooden tennis racket.
I progressed to the Cub Scouts—for boys aged 8 to 11—and took part in an annual “Gang Show” that mostly involved singing, dancing and cross-dressing for the amusement of audiences filled with old ladies.
I’m not sure if my experience was what Lord Robert Baden-Powell (BP) had intended for boys when he formed the Scouting movement—and I‘m interested to know what he would make of the Boy Scouts of America’s ongoing refusal to include gay men—a question made more curious by speculation that BP was a repressed homosexual.
As far as Europe is concerned, we don’t seem to have an issue with gay Scouting—it’s guy-only Scouting we don’t like.
Being “an out Scout” is accepted in the UK, where a dedicated fellowship of Scouts actively supports the recruitment, retention and ongoing support of LGBT adults.
In the country where Scouting began, we’re so progressive that we’ve taken the “boy” out of Boy Scouts and converted the Girl Guides to feminism. So how did that journey happen?
The worldwide Scouting and Guiding movement now has more than 40 million members and attracts more nations to its global “Jamborees” than the Summer Olympics—and it all began in 1907 with Baden-Powell running a camp for 20 boys on Brownsea Island near Poole in England.
BP was a celebrated war hero and his ‘Scouting for Boys’ book inspired boys (and some girls) across the country to set up their own Scouting groups.
By 1909 11,000 scouts attended a national rally at Crystal Palace and according to the Girl Guiding UK website:
“Several girls demanded a place for girls at the Crystal Palace Boy Scout Rally. They were the very first advocates of the Movement—speaking out and challenging the norms and gender conventions of the time.”
The following year the Girl Guides was formed as a separate body by BP’s sister Agnes, giving girls equal but different access to the Scouting movement. It was another 18 years before all women in the country were given an equal right to vote.
So how did this global Scouting craze that provided parallel movements for boys and girls from its earliest days, end up banning male-only groups and embracing feminism? It seems that the parallel movements have gone on two very different journeys.
After re-directing the first wave of enthusiastic women and girls into their own movement, women also began to enter the Boy Scouts movement as leaders and helpers, particularly during the World Wars when male volunteers were in short supply.
Scouting continued in this way until 1966 when the Chief Scout’s Advance Party Report kick-started a 40-year process that led to the end of boy-only scout groups in the UK and beyond.
The first step was a name change from “Boy Scouts” to simply “Scouts”. Girls were admitted to the Venture Scout movement for older teenagers from 1976 and after an on-off debate that lasted until 1990, Scouting in the UK decided to admit girls of all ages.
The change was optional at first and the final move from “you can involve girls” to “you will involve girls” happened in 2007.
Scouting in the UK now has around 500,000 members and about a quarter of them are women and girls. The Guiding movement is a similar size and almost exclusively female.
I spent a fascinating hour chatting with Simon Carter, a volunteer Scouting Manger in Hertfordshire whose wife runs a Scout Troop locally.
Their commitment to youth work is inspiring and Simon paints a compelling picture of a diverse, inclusive movement that is working to reflect society in its membership at every level and every age group.
When you talk to the Scouts, you don’t get any impression of a movement that’s consciously doing gender.
“We’ve reached a tipping point in the movement where it’s less about gender and more about leadership and inspiring people,” he told me.
The Scout movement that Simon Carter describes is about providing young people with adventures that can help to produce good citizens, boys and girls, who grow up to be part of a society where men and women work together effectively.
Meanwhile Guiding in the UK has taken a very different path.
There have always been men and boys around the movement. I spent a lot of time taking part in the Guiding myself because my mum was a leader and she took me with her.
When my daughter was enrolled in the movement in 2007 I remembered the ceremony and the songs instantly, even though I hadn’t heard them for 30 years. It connected us both to a shared past and a shared present.
I helped out a few times at my daughter’s group and the girls thought it was funny to call me “Glenda”.
I considered becoming a leader so I could spend more time with my daughter and follow in my mother’s footsteps. I soon found out that this option wasn’t open to men. I could come along as a parent helper but men are excluded from the leadership.
The gender warrior in me was itching to make this an issue, to be a pioneer, but we’d just moved to the area and my daughter’s mum asked me not to make a fuss. I didn’t want to embarrass my daughter or make her childhood about my gender politics, so I stopped helping and drifted away from the movement.
It was my choice. I chose to not make a fuss and there’s a part of me, looking back, that regrets not having the balls (or was it the ovaries) to take a stand for dismantling the matriarchy.
The big irony is that two years later, the Guides announced that 50,000 girls in the UK were on waiting lists, unable to join a group because the movement was short of 8,000 leaders. A spokesperson said this was due in part to “the changing face of society and women’s roles, with more women working full-time.”
And this is where Guiding has diverged from Scouting. When Scouting had a leader shortage women were welcomed and given the opportunity to “lean in”. Meanwhile, 50,000 girls are waiting to join the Guides, and asking men to help out as equals isn’t even an option.
Personally, I have no issue with single-sex groups as I know they can be hugely valuable. Some of my favourite men’s organisations deliver rites of passage experiences for men and boys and they assert their need for a men-only space to do this work.
Guiding doesn’t do this. It allows men to help out in lesser roles. Men can now volunteer at group level as assistants and they can’t be leaders. Guiding in the UK discriminates against men in the way that the Boy Scouts of America discriminates against gay people.
This would be easier to understand if the organisation said it was honouring some traditional viewpoint about gender roles.
But the Guides has declared itself to be the “ultimate feminist organisation” with the arrival of its new chief executive, Julie Bentley who aims to “use her frontline campaign experience to direct Girlguiding UK’s growing work to give girls a voice on the social issues impacting their futures—from body image and mental health to equality and female role models”.
It’s a bold statement to label an organisation that excludes boys and discriminates against its male volunteers as the “ultimate feminist organisation” and lays the movement open to criticism about sexist double standards.
The combined Scouting and Guiding movement in the UK has more than 1 million members and when you look at them together you find men and boys are under-represented at every level. The majority of members are women and girls; the majority of leaders are women; the majority of volunteers are female and the majority of young people involved are girls.
For its part, Scouting seems to be taking a non-gendered approach other than to measure gender equality by the number of males and females involved—but it doesn’t seem to consider gender issues from a male or female perspective.
Meanwhile, Guiding is taking a much more gender conscious approach in terms of issues like violence against women and girls, but doesn’t seem to concern itself with the equal representation of men and boys in the movement.
Bentley has so far defended the status quo telling the BBC that girls need access to girl-only spaces and girls should also have the choice to join the Scouts. According to Simon Carter, some girls love the Scouts and Guides so much they join both.
I have huge respect for Scouting and Guiding and dedicated volunteers like Simon and his wife who make a big difference for girls and boys. What I’d like to see is the two halves of the movement thinking together about what gender equality really looks like.
What gender equality doesn’t look like is focussing on women’s issues but not men’s issues; giving girls more choice and boys less choice; including women and excluding men and preserving girl-only groups while banning boy-only groups.
This is a situation that the Scouting and Guiding movements in the UK have unwittingly created together and it’s a pattern that seems to be repeated globally with only 10% of countries now offering a boys’ movement while around two-thirds still offer a girls’ movement.
I don’t support the Boy Scouts of America in banning gay leaders, but those of us who champion diversity for women, girls and the LGBT community also need to stop and ask ourselves – what about the boys?
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