Julia Carvalho can’t wait to get on the trail to becoming an Eagle Scout. Her dad, her brothers and her uncles have been involved with the Boy Scouts her whole life. Now she can be one of the pack.
Beginning Feb. 1, the Boy Scouts of America will allow girls to join for the first time in the 109-year history of the group. And 12-year-old Carvalho plans to be among the first girls in the country to sign up.
“I’m 100 percent thrilled about it,” says the seventh-grader from Alameda. “I want to be the first girl in my family to become an Eagle Scout.”
The change has already sparked a lot of debate. Boy Scouts officials, who last year began welcoming girls into the Cub Scouts, see it as a watershed moment for the iconic institution. But after the organization announced last year it would drop the word boy from its namesake program and change to the new Scouts BSA, the Girl Scouts filed suit in federal court last fall, alleging trademark infringement and unfair competition. Both scouting organizations have been fighting declining membership in recent years.
“Boys in our society have had an advantage because it’s been a male-dominated society,” says Heather Burlew-Hayden, chief marketing and recruitment officer for Girl Scouts of Northern California. “We are all about what’s best for girls and we have been since we started, back when it was considered improper for girls to run and play outside. Our organization is about sisterhood, it’s about letting girls find their spark in a safe space.”
But Boy Scouts leader say they are responding to the needs of the families they serve with the new scouting program, which will allow girls ages 11 to 17 into the organization. The new troops will not be co-ed but girl troops and boy troops can be connected, so everyone can be doing the same kinds of activities at the same time. Linked troops might hold meetings together or go hiking together, for instance. But it’s up to individual troops to decide if they’d like to be linked or not. Julia’s troop will be aligned with a boy troop.
“It’s a big deal,” says Frank R. Yoke, Deputy Scout Executive of the San Francisco Bay Area Council, which represents about 250 troops and expects about six new all-girl troops to join shortly. “We can serve more kids and include more young people, which is our mission.”
The Boy Scouts say it’s part of an evolution toward a more inclusive group. In recent years the organization has been embroiled in national debates about gender roles and sexual orientation, generating some negative publicity along the way. The group lifted its ban on gay scouts in 2013, gay leaders in 2015 and transgender youth in 2017.
“I have been a champion of this for a long time and the Boy Scouts have been slow to change,” says Heather Hildreth, who has been involved with Boy Scouts since her sons, Matthew, 13, and Jonathon, 15, were in first grade. “We are thrilled to be able to welcome all kids to scouting. Opportunities should be open to everyone.”
Hildreth will be the leader of Alameda’s Troop 73, which has six girls signed up to join, including Julia. But Hildreth is hoping to grow its numbers over time. Wearing red shirts emblazoned with their name, “The Trailblazers,” the troop has been informally taking part in scouting activities for a few months before they are officially sworn in Feb. 1. Among the activities Hildreth has planned are rock climbing, hiking and camping.
“Being an Eagle Scout can open a lot of doors for boys and I want that for girls too,” says Hildreth, who lives in Alameda. “Also, if we want kids to be prepared for life, they need to learn how to work together.”
Certainly it’s a celebratory moment for Julia’s dad, Ken Carvalho, who has been involved with the Boy Scouts since the ’70s. His son Charles became an Eagle Scout, the ultimate achievement for a Boy Scout. Now his daughter has the same opportunity.
“This is a big step forward. My daughter has never been allowed to go hiking and camping and canoeing with (our scouting troop),” says Carvalho, who lives in Alameda. “And now she can.”
“If we tie knots, they tie knots,” says Carvalho, who adds that having brothers and sisters in one organization could be a big time saver for parents. “It’s about the whole family being able to participate in scouting together.”
Hildreth’s son Jonathon, 15, is excited about the change. “There will be many more opportunities to meet new people and forge new friendships,” says the sophomore in high school.
Not everyone is gung-ho about the move. Some say joining the Boy Scouts defeats the purpose of scouting for girls, which is to give them a chance to lead their own activities. After all, the Girl Scouts, which also champions outdoors activities like backpacking and camping, has been around since 1912.
“A big advantage of all-girl groups, at this age, is that their members don’t have to worry nearly as much about behaving so as to get approval from males,” says Professor Robin Lakoff, an expert in gender at the University of California, Berkeley. “They learn to develop self-confidence and skills of all kinds, without worrying that boys will find them too bossy.”
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