Before I really delve into this, perhaps it would be best to clarify a few things first:
My name is Emily, I’m 16, and I live in the UK. I am also an active member at my local Explorer Scout unit. For those of you who live in another country and maybe refer to it as a different name, or who simply haven’t heard of it before, ‘The Boy Scouts’ was originally founded by Sir Baden-Powell in the early 1900s in the UK, along with ‘Girl Guiding’. Since then it has spread across the globe, and, more recently in the ‘90s, ‘Boy Scouting’ opened its doors to girls as well.
Unfortunately, one of the common misconceptions here is that girls join the Scouting community in order to attract boys. I will admit that, in my hormone riddled late-primary-school/early-secondary-school stages, that was a pretty strong motivator, but as the years passed since I first joined the Scouting movement in 2011 I’ve come to realise that Scouting for me is about so much more than that.
I attended Rainbows, and then Brownies (both are branches of the Girl Guiding movement) when I was a lot younger, but by the time I left Brownies I was bored of baking and toasting marshmallows over a candle (and a small candle at that). I mean, even the Beaver Scouts (the youngest of whom are only 6 years old) are allowed to use real fire to toast marshmallows.
So, as I left Brownies, I elected instead to progress to Scouts, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the group had roughly a 50/50 split of boys and girls (that’s not to say that this applies to all Scout groups; another group not too far from me has no girls at all). Eventually, however, the time came for me to progress to Explorer Scouts.
Imagine my disappointment when I walked into my first meeting to find that there were only three girls, including myself, in regular attendance (one of whom doesn’t attend events like hikes or camps). Three girls in a group of twenty five Explorers.
Of course being the minority comes with its perks: on camps we are allocated the same tent as the boys, but we share it between two people instead of five or six; on one camp, where toilet paper was rationed out, we were given our own roll between two girls, while the boys shared one between the thirteen of them who were in attendance; our bathrooms are cleaner and less busy, because they are used less. Like I said, perks.
Unfortunately, however, it seems that safety comes in numbers: discrimination becomes a lot more apparent when there’s less of you to shoulder the burden. There have been times when we’ve been told not to pitch our tent so far back in the woods ‘just in case’, when one of the groups of boys had their tent pitched a good few meters further back. They were allowed to stay put, of course. I have, at one point, been referred to as a ‘little girlie’ by one of the leaders of the group. This was last year, and I was 15, not 5.
We are rarely offered leadership opportunities, in favour of the boys in the group, who take the same roles over and over again and, quite frankly, are fairly shit at it. On both of only two occasions in the past two years when I was given a chance at leadership I was scrutinized far more than any of the boys have ever been, and some of the boys even tried to take control of a situation that I clearly had a firm handle on.
And here’s the thing that practically makes steam come out of my ears: even in 2016, we as girls are frequently relegated to the kitchen to cook for events, or on camps, to the point where we have had to organise camp-wide rotas just to ensure that we aren’t cooking every single evening.
One thing that I have taken away from these experiences is that to be a girl in Scouting means having to be twice as tough as some of the boys to earn even a little bit of credibility. When you are pitched into such close comparison, striving to equal levels of attainment never quite fits the bill. You have to attend every evening, you have to be up for anything, even the things that make some of the guys squirm as well. You put yourself forward far more often than anyone else does. You bloody well get on and do it without complaints, and without pause. One small slip up on any of the above and you fall straight back into the ‘girly’ category. Of course, to them, ‘girly’ doesn’t mean feminine. It means weak.
To an extent I am proud of some of the things I do just to be considered an equal of these boys: I’ve climbed mountains with steady determination and absolute refusal to be left behind at the back of the group; I’ve participated in and won the ‘I’m a Celebrity’ style challenge on one of our relatively brutal survival camps; I’ve pushed myself to the limit of my physical ability on hikes and activities, just to try and keep up; I’ve stood up and refused to take any shit from anyone; I’ve proved people wrong when they’ve doubted if I could, or even would, do something. But is it worth it?
Why should I have to try so hard to keep up, to be an equal? Why is it that if I decide not to participate in a game, if I mention that my legs are sore from hours of hiking, or if I shy away from eating something grotesque, that I am instantly labelled as weak, even though there are three boys already sat out at the side, even though the boy walking three meters behind has been complaining for the last half an hour, and even though the boy I’m competing against called it quits the moment he saw the dish? In what world is that a fair way to judge people? Why are the standards for men set so much lower than the standards for women? And more importantly, how can we change that?
When you think about it, the answer seems simple: we stop putting each other down, we stand up for each other, we work as a team, girl-to-girl. I don’t come here pretending to be an innocent party, of course. I’ve caught myself thinking to myself ‘why does she even come if she doesn’t want to hike or camp?’ but completely dismissing the regular absence of the male members of our group on hikes or camps.
I’ve also been there, in her position, before I learnt that that kind of attitude helps nobody, not even yourself. Maybe it’s unfair of me, then, to look down on her. She’s new to this, she doesn’t get how hard I’ve worked over these past two years to call myself an Explorer Scout. I shouldn’t be shaming her for that, I should be helping her. Instead of tutting and shaking my head when she falls behind on a hike, I should be walking with her, encouraging her to catch up. Instead of rolling my eyes when she doesn’t want to join in a game, I should be pulling her along and telling her how fun it will be if she gives it a shot. And I do try, because how can I expect the respect of my peers when I can’t respect someone else of my own gender?
Scouting has been an invaluable learning curve for me, and not only for the development of my understanding of the social issues that surround me, but for so much more. I have grown so much as a person, and I doubt I would be the same girl I am today without Scouting. It keeps me sane, it makes me tick, it runs in my blood, and it makes up my bones. In two years time, when I leave Explorer Scouts and cease to be a young person in Scouting, I know that it won’t be the end of my time as a member of the Scout movement. No, it’s too much a part of me for that. I have plans to begin my training to be a Leader as soon as possible, so that hopefully, one day in the future, young girls who join Scouting won’t need to struggle the way I did.
Emily, despite being only 16, has big hopes for her future, and isn’t afraid to express her fairly strong opinions to anyone who will listen. She’s also a big dreamer with an addiction to stationery who hopes to one day dye her hair blue, when she’s no longer restricted by school uniform guidelines. You can come and scream with her about feminism, fandoms, and the fact that she really should be working on Tumblr.