The rising of the women

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There’s a great line in the old labor anthem “Bread and Roses” that declares that “the rising of the women means the rising of the race.”

I sang that line in recent weeks as various news stories seemed to dramatize the point.

The Girl Scouts of America celebrated its centennial anniversary this year. Given the Boy Scouts of America’s recent decision to continue discriminating against gay, bisexual and transgender boys, there is much to revere in the wise and inclusive policies of the Girl Scouts.

The Girl Scouts have not been hit by the controversy rocking the Boy Scouts because they never adopted a policy excluding anyone. If I’m reading their policy correctly, even a boy who identifies as a girl can, with the consent of his parents, join the Girl Scouts. The policy describes “sexual preference” as a personal matter irrelevant to membership. It is accompanied by the reasonable provisos that “sexual displays” of any kind are not permitted at scouting events and that leaders are forbid- den to “promote” their sexual preference.

Kids are coming out at younger ages these days, and there are many openly lesbian girls in scout troops. There always have been and continue to be lesbian adults who serve as scout leaders. Conflicts? Zip. Controversy? None. The Girl Scouts fosters a culture of inclusion and tolerance that manifests itself in a diverse, thriving organization whose members love it.

In a minor controversy resolved 20 years ago, Girl Scout leaders exhibited the wisdom of Solomon (perhaps I should say of Esther) by adopting a policy that neither requires nor prohibits prayer at scouting events and that allows scouts who are not monotheists to substitute another word for “God” when reciting the Girl Scout Promise.

It’s an old truism that girls mature more quickly than boys. Apparently that maturity extends to our scouting organizations, too.

Another story that had me furious, then philosophical, was the sentencing of a U.S. Air Force training instructor to 20 years in prison for the sexual harassment and assaults of women recruits under his command.

The horrendous numbers of sexual assaults of women in the Armed Forces and the institutional inertia that tolerates it have been the focus of recent cable news shows and a hard-hitting documentary called “The Invisible War.” Of 3,192 reports of sexual assault in the services in 2011, only 240 went to trial. The Pentagon admits that the crime is vastly under- reported and that there may be up to 19,000 rapes in the military annually.

In a system of command and subordination, where the perpetrators are often senior officers, victims are too intimidated to speak up. Evidence reveals that the few who do are ignored or harassed even more.

It’s not easy to change a culture as macho and a bureaucracy as massive as the military, but change is clearly afoot. The number of women joining the services and achieving senior ranks is increasing every year. More and more victims are standing up and taking their stories to the media. Congress is demanding more thorough investigations and enforcement, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has ordered administrative reforms to improve accountability. The advancement of women in the military, where brains are now more important than brawn, may signal the end of a culture of impunity and sexual aggression.

Like the song says, the rising of the women means the rising of the race.