The Boy Scouts of America announced on Wednesday that girls will soon be allowed to become Cub Scouts and to earn the coveted rank of Eagle Scout, the organization’s highest honor.
"We believe it is critical to evolve how our programs meet the needs of families interested in positive and lifelong experiences for their children," said Michael Surbaugh, chief executive of the Boy Scouts.
The scouting board of directors voted unanimously to make the historic change in an organization that has been primarily for boys since its founding more than 100 years ago.
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Starting next year, young girls can join Cub Scout units, known as dens. Local scouting organizations can choose to have dens for girls and dens for boys. "Cub Scout dens will be single-gender — all boys or all girls," the organization said in a statement.
A separate program for older girls will be available in 2019, the Boy Scouts said, enabling them to earn the rank of Eagle Scout.
The Boy Scouts said the moves reflect the changing nature of American life, adding to the appeal of a scouting program that can serve the entire family.
BSA said it commissioned two nationwide surveys that showed parents not involved in scouting had high interest in getting their daughters signed up for both Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts.
Girls are now part of four scouting programs — Venturing and Sea Scouting, geared toward outdoor activities; Exploring, a career-oriented mentoring program; and STEM, focusing on science and math. But those programs have not offered a path to Eagle Scout for girls.
Earlier this year, the National Organization for Women urged the Boy Scouts to admit girls to the entire program, supporting the efforts of a New York teenager, Sydney Ireland, to attain the rank of Eagle Scout, as her older brother did.
"I just want to do what the Boy Scouts do — earn the merit badges and earn the Eagle Award," she told NBC News. "The Girl Scouts is a great organization, but it's just not the program that I want to be part of. I think girls should just have the opportunity to be a member of any organization they want regardless of gender."
In the past, the Girl Scouts have been cool to the idea of admitting girls into the Boy Scouts, citing research that showed many girls learn best in an all-female environment.
"We are unparalleled in our ability to build great female leaders who contribute to society at every level," said Andrea Bastiani Archibald, a psychologist who helps guide the Girl Scouts.
Pete Williams is an NBC News correspondent who covers the Justice Department and the Supreme Court, based in Washington.