OTTAWA, ILLINOIS - When Matt Skelly was coming up through the Boy Scouts of America in his youth, achieving the rank of Eagle Scout was the ultimate accomplishment.
“Only 4 percent right now earn the rank of Eagle Scout,” Skelly told VOA. “It is a high honor, and a lot of people put a lot of stock in becoming an Eagle Scout.”
More than 2.4 million young men like Skelly have achieved Eagle Scout. Sometime in the not too distant future, however, this elite fraternity will mark the moment the first female joins their ranks.
“I think it’s kind of a natural progression,” said Skelly, who is part of a scouting family. He and his wife, Megan, began their careers as professional Scout executives with the Boy Scouts in Illinois in the late 1990s.
WATCH: Accepting Girls a Welcome Change in Boy Scouts of America Founders Hometown
While he no longer works for the Boy Scouts, it is hard for him to escape the legacy of the organization he still holds dear.
Skelly lives in the hometown of W.D. Boyce — founder of the Boy Scouts of America — and he serves on the board of the Ottawa Historical and Scouting Heritage Museum in the town that prominently features Boyce’s role in bringing the organization from the United Kingdom, where it began, to the United States.
Skelly says the decision to widely accept girls into the Boy Scouts of America isn’t a surprise to him because girls have been involved in other Scouting programs, like Explorers and Venture Scouts.
“Girls and young women have been a part of the Scouting program at an advanced age, 14 and up, for a long time.”
Criticism not unexpected
But allowing girls to join the Boy Scouts marks a dramatic change in the organization, and the decision quickly drew an online backlash, as well as criticism from the Girl Scouts, who now would have to compete for members.
Skelly admits there also are those within the Boy Scouts who may not view the change favorably, but then again, that’s not a surprise to him either because he’s heard it before.
“I go back to the 1980s, when women were first allowed to be Scout leaders,” he said, referring to the organization’s 1988 decision to end its policy of only allowing males to serve in leadership roles, something that until that point was frequently challenged in court. “I remember as a kid people would say, ‘oh my, the program is going to go down.’ But it only strengthened the program, as it did with Rotary when they allowed women in. And I think you have to be able to change as a program.”
“I wasn’t given any grief,” explained Mollie Perrot, who was one of the first women to volunteer as a Cub Scout leader in Illinois in the late 1980s.
“I know one lady in this area was the first lady Scoutmaster,” she told VOA. “I think she took a little bit of a ribbing from the guys. But I never had any problem with it.”
Perrot now serves as the executive director of the Ottawa Historical and Scouting Heritage Museum. While she is unsure how Boyce, who died in 1929, would welcome the changes to the organization he founded, she says that while Boyce lived in a different era, the principles and spirit of the movement remain the same, regardless of gender.
“I always said when I was a leader, if I could get a kid to live by the Scout oath and law, I figured they were one of the finest human beings on the face of the Earth,” she said. “I still believe that. If you can get girls to do that, I think the same thing.”
Skelly says the Boy Scouts still have a lot to work out before they start welcoming girls into the organization, but he’s looking forward to new opportunities not just for himself as a volunteer, but also his family.
“It provides me an opportunity, in all honesty, that I’ll be able to do Cub Scouting and Boy Scouting programs eventually with my daughter.”
It’s an opportunity, for her, that begins in late 2018.