NEW YORK — The Boy Scouts of America revealed plans Wednesday to broadly accept girls, marking a historic shift for the century-old organization and setting off a debate about where girls better learn how to be leaders.
The Boy Scouts, which has faced dwindling membership numbers in recent decades, said that its programs could nurture girls as well as boys and that the switch would make life easier for busy families, who might prefer to shuttle children to a single organization regardless of gender.
“I’ve seen nothing that develops leadership skills and discipline like this organization,” said Randall Stephenson, the group’s board chairman. “It is time to make these outstanding leadership development programs available to girls.”
The decision was celebrated by many women, but criticized by the Girl Scouts, which said that girls flourish in all-female groups.
“We’ve had 105 years of supporting girls and a girl-only safe space,” said Lisa Margosian, chief customer officer for the Girl Scouts, who added that the organization felt “blindsided” by the announcement. “So much of a girl’s life is a life where she is in a coed environment, and we have so much research and data that suggest that girls really thrive in an environment where they can experiment, take risks, and stretch themselves in the company of other girls.”
For the Boy Scouts, the change is also a chance to boost its sagging membership. The group says it has 2.3 million members between the ages of 7 and 21 and nearly a million volunteers throughout the United States and its territories. At its peak in the 1970s, the organization, incorporated in 1910, was closer to 5 million members.
For families involved in scouting, the announcement led to a scramble of questioning phone calls and frantic Facebook discussions as parents and Scout leaders wrestled with tentative plans for the transition. Next year, girls will be allowed into the Cub Scouts program, which had been limited to young boys.
A program for older girls is expected to be available in 2019, giving them a path to earn the prestigious rank of Eagle Scout.
The Boy Scouts has offered girls limited access to some programs before, but it has never before welcomed them into its core Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts programs. And the introduction of girls still does not mean that Boy Scouts’ gatherings will necessarily include both genders. The smallest groups of Cub Scouts will continue to be single sex.
Many parents of Scouts have wanted the group to include girls, said Chuck Eaton, chief executive of the Spirit of Adventure Council, the largest Boy Scouts council in New England.
“We are very enthusiastic about it,” Eaton told The Boston Globe. “We got a lot of feedback from families who say to us ‘Gee, we love what this does for my son . . . we would love if our girl could be involved as well.’’
The Spirit of Adventure Council’s first female Scout packs will not exist for about a year, Eaton said, but he was confident that they will garner widespread interest.
“As soon as it gets available, there will be girl Scout packs all over the place,” he said.
Others were deeply skeptical. Joseph Carballo, 70, has been with the Boy Scouts for 30 years, most of that time as a scoutmaster of Troop 65, in the Bronx. His two sons, both Eagle Scouts and now in their 30s and 40s, have been with the organization since the 1990s. “And we all have the same view: no girls,” he said.
“Boys and girls should have separate organizations for activities,” Carballo explained. “There is an organization for girls. It’s called the Girl Scouts.” (His granddaughter, he pointed out, is a member.)
For some parents, however, the announcement came as an answer to long-standing complaints that offerings by the Girl Scouts were lacking.
“The problem with the Girl Scout curriculum is that it’s very focused on who your leader is for your particular troop,” said Rebecca Szetela, a mother of four from Canton, Mich. “If you have a mom who’s really into crafts and girlie stuff and being a princess, then that’s what your Girl Scout troop is going to be like. If you have a daughter who’s more rough and tumble, it’s not going to be a good fit.”
Some girls, like Ella Jacobs, 12, of Sebastopol, Calif., have long argued for the chance to be allowed into the Boy Scouts.
“My point has always been that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the Girl Scouts, but they weren’t the right fit for our family,” said her mother, Danelle Jacobs, a lawyer. “Girls should have the choice.”Globe correspondent Jacob Carozza contributed to this report.