OAKLAND — Over the din of more than three dozen kids and adults, Abigail Wood took a moment out of the activity around her Tuesday evening to explain why she joined the Cub Scouts.
“I am attracted to nature,” said Abigail, 8, wearing her blue Cub Scouts shirt. In its pocket were the patches she’s already earned. “Since it was announced that girls could join, I thought I could get closer to nature in the Scouts.”
Abigail is the middle child in her family and the only girl.
Until just recently, she, like other girls in Maine and elsewhere, has been considered a tag-along – doing the activities of her Cub Scout brothers, but without public recognition and reward from the organization.
That has now changed.
In a move some consider controversial, the Boy Scouts of America announced the organization is welcoming girls from first through fifth grades to the Cub Scouts this year, and girls from the sixth grade and up to join the Boy Scouts, and work to the rank of Eagle Scout if they wish, starting next year.
While girls have for some time been able to join Venturing, Sea Scouting and Exploring, this is the first time they have been able to join the Cub Scouts and the Boy Scouts.
“We explained to her (at) a younger age why she didn’t get called up and rewarded,” said Kristina Wood, Abigail’s mother. “We told her, ‘You worked just as hard as the boys did, and your reward is the knowledge, just as theirs is.’ ”
Eric Tarbox, Scout executive and CEO of the Boy Scouts’ Pine Tree Council, which encompasses the Kennebec Valley, Abenaki, Casco Bay and York districts, said the decision to admit girls was a national one. At least three Maine Cub Scout packs have already begun accepting girls.
“It’s driven by a change in demographics,” Tarbox said Friday.
The generation that’s now having children is the millennial generation – generally those born between 1980 and 2000 and who make up the largest age demographic in the country – and the Boy Scouts of America, along with countless other organizations, has devoted time and energy into understanding millennials and what they want.
“One thing that is clear that millennial parents are telling us is that we’re not going to go to something for Johnny on Monday night and something for Jenny on Tuesday night and something for the family on Wednesday,” Tarbox said. “But if you have something the whole family can do one night a week, we can go to that.”
At the same time, the organization has been hearing from parents of tag-along sisters like Abigail that they want recognition for their daughters’ efforts.
If the girls could already join Venturing, Exploring and Sea Scouting when they are older, the parents reasoned, why couldn’t they join Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, too?
Opening up those two levels of scouting to girls is not as simple as issuing a decree.
The Boy Scouts of America grants charters to local religious or community service organizations to operate any of the units under the Boy Scouts.
“Because of that charter concept, the Boy Scouts are offering the option to the charter organizations of whether to invite families to be part of a pack or troop,” Tarbox said. “This is not a directive.”
The vast majority of chartering organizations in Maine say it’s a fine idea, he said.
“We’ll see for sure when the official rollout happens in September which will embrace families or stay single gender.”
Pack 454 in Oakland, where Abigail and her brothers Ethan and Declan are Cub Scouts; Pack 622 in Manchester; and Pack 51 in Windham didn’t wait for the official rollout. They are the early adopters in Maine.
As long as the packs were able to show they met the criteria that their leaders were trained properly and they had a good plan in place, Tarbox said, they could invite girls to join. And through these early adopters, he said, the organization will be able to learn what’s going well and what needs to be improved on.
“As Scouts, we like to be prepared,” he said. “We want to be prepared for the official rollout in September.”
Tarbox’s wife, Annie, serves as cub master for Pack 51 in Windham. The pack currently has 10 girls and five boys from Windham, Naples, Standish, Gorham and Raymond and was the first Cub Scout pack in Maine to register girls.
Annie Tarbox said the pack, which was formed in late January, has been thriving and hopes to attract more members. She said the gender mix has been “wildly successful.”
“Part of our advantage was that we didn’t have an established pack. Everyone knew what the expectations were upfront,” she said Sunday night. “It has been fantastic so far. It allows everyone in a family, including siblings, to participate. It makes things a lot easier for parents.”
Willie LeHay, cub master at Pack 454, contacted the Oakland Lions Club, his charter organization, earlier this year about allowing girls to join.
“They could have said no,” LeHay said. “There were some concerns – if we have Girl Scouts, why do we need to let girls into to Cub Scouts?”
Pat Couture, cub master at Pack 622 in Manchester, has heard some of the same concerns.
“I go to scouting round tables,” Couture said, “and there are some who are digging in their heels and saying they just don’t want girls, and girls have Girl Scouts.”
Since 1912, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of the USA have followed parallel but decidedly separate paths.
Both promote civic awareness, service and leadership and teach a wide rage of skills, and they have evolved with the times. In recent years both have opened their doors to transgender children – the Girl Scouts adopted guidance on serving transgender girls in 2011 and the Boy Scouts announced its policy in 2017.
Girl Scouts advocates say the single-gender environment allows girls to try things they may not have tried before, to step outside their comfort zones. Cortney Smart, marketing and communications manager for Girl Scouts of Maine, said since it started, the organization has been focused on the development of girls.
“When Juliette Gordon Low started the Girl Scouts, her idea was to show girls they can do anything boys can do,” Smart said. “It’s still that today.”
The single-gender model allows them to make mistakes and try again and build their confidence, she said.
Today, Girl Scouts, starting with Daisy Scouts and Brownies, includes a range of activities from outdoors and life skills to travel and pursuing the Gold Award, Girl Scouting’s highest award, she said.
While less recognized, the Gold Award offers the same status that Eagle Scouts attain.
“I believe there needs to be a place for girls, just as there needs to be a place for boys,” Donna Rueger said.
Rueger has been a Girl Scout leader, at Girl Scout Troop 1254 in Waterville for years. While she understands the convenience that coed Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts offers to families, she grew up in Girl Scouts and her allegiance and loyalties lie with the Girl Scouts.
She’s a firm believer that girls stay with scouting not because of what they do in the weekly meetings on Thursday nights; it’s what they do outside that keeps them engaged and interested.
“One of my girls said that Boy Scouts are more hands-on and I got a little prickly with her,” she said. “I said, ‘You’re doing what you are choosing to do.’ ”
Right now, her group is working on raising money to travel to Australia and New Zealand in two years through Girls on the Go, sponsored by the Girl Scouts.
Smart said the most important thing for families to focus on is what’s important for their girls and their boys because the development for children is different. Girl Scouts offers what’s important for girls.
But even with all that Girl Scouts has, Rueger and others are concerned that enrollment will drop when the Boy Scouts opens its doors to girls.
“I am really curious to see what it does to the numbers on either side,” she said.
Both Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts lose members over time as the boys and girls develop other interests.
“As a Boy Scout from the ’80s era, our troop had 40 or 50 boys,” Couture said. “Our troop in Manchester has only eight or nine boys.”
In some areas, he said, it’s not cool to be a Scout.
Welcoming girls could add numbers, but it will also have to add adult leaders. Tarbox said as girls join Cub Scouts, they will be in girls-only dens, and boys will continue in boys-only dens.
“As we further develop the option for Boy Scout chartering organizations to welcome girls, there will be girl troops and boy troops,” he said.
Even with this single-gender organization, Tarbox said boys and girls will interact in group activities like camping and earning badges.
“Our mission states we serve young people, not girls or boys,” Tarbox said. “We are reaching out hands of partnership with the Girl Scouts so we can work together cooperatively. We are looking forward to meeting with them in the next few weeks to see how we can work together to recruit more young people.”
It is not clear, however, that such a meeting will take place.
The executives from the Pine Tree Council “have not contacted us directly,” Smart said via email on Friday. “We do not have – nor will we be looking for – a recruitment partnership with the Boy Scouts. We will remain steadfast and focused on our single-gender organization, and on providing the best programs for girls.”
In Oakland, as LeHay was finishing up sharing the last-minute details of the planned weekend trip to the science museum in Boston, and as the Scouts worked on their projects, the boys in Cub Scouts said having girls is a good idea.
“I like the idea,” Bradley Isaac, 8, said. “It makes for more people to have fun.”
Plus, he said, it’s not fair that girls don’t get the recognition for taking part.
Steve Isaac, Bradley’s father, said he has no problem with the Cub Scouts’ new coed status.
“If anything, (boys) will learn to interact with girls better, and when they grow up, maybe treat them better,” he said.
For Jeremy Conroy, 9, having girls join Cub Scouts means that his friend, Natalie To, 8, can do the same things. On Tuesday, they were working on whittling. Conroy was working on a piece of wood and To was intent on carving soap.
Christina Ames, To’s mother, said Natalie screamed with excitement when she learned she could join the Cub Scouts. Ames was a Girl Scout, and her daughter spent two years in the Girl Scouts, as a Daisy and a Brownie, but it didn’t hold her interest.
“They should have an opportunity to do a different thing than just with girls,” he said.
Although Abigail has her foot in the door at this level, she’s keeping her options open. When it comes time to cross over to be a Boy Scout, she’s not sure whether she will.
“Maybe,” she said.
Douglas Wood, her father, was an Eagle Scout, and he thinks his daughter would enjoy it, too.
“I think she will stick with it,” Kristina Wood said. “She likes challenges and she likes to be a leader. She doesn’t have a problem taking that leadership role.”
Natalie To, 8, far right, smiles with other cub scouts during a Kennebec County Cub Scout pack meeting at Williams Elementary School in Oakland on Tuesday. (Michael G. Seamans. Kennebec Journal)