Boy Scouts celebrate the first group of female Eagle Scouts

This Oct. 1, 2020 photo provided by Edmund Tunney shows his daughter, Isabella, center, with Bev Verweg, her scoutmaster, and Brian Reiners, the scoutmaster of the corresponding linked boy troop, in Edina, Minn. (Edmund Tunney via AP)

Growing up in Minneapolis, Isabella Tunney followed the progress of her older brother with admiration and occasional envy as he worked toward earning the Boy Scouts' prestigious rank of Eagle Scout.

This weekend, at age 16, Tunney will be one of nearly 1,000 girls and young women honored by the Boy Scouts in a virtual celebration of the inaugural class of female Eagle Scouts. It's a major milestone, given the hallowed stature of a rank that has been attained over more than a century by astronauts, admirals, U.S. senators and other luminaries.

Only in 2018 did the Boy Scouts start accepting girls as Cub Scouts; older girls were admitted into the flagship scouting program in 2019. Overall, more than 140,000 girls have joined.

Tunney, like many of the girls attaining Eagle rank, worked intensively to amass the needed merit badges within two years. A minimum of 21 badges are required to attain Eagle; Tunney earned all 137, in subjects ranging from welding to white-water rafting to coin collection.

"The quarantine helped a lot," she said, referring to the lockdown ordered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. "I had a lot of time to spare."

For her Eagle Scout public service project, she organized a drive to collect essentials for families being assisted by a homeless shelter.

Tunney is a junior at St. Paul Academy and Summit School in St. Paul, Minnesota, and she is interested in a career related to the STEM disciplines - science, technology, engineering and math.

As a child, she loved tagging along with her older brother, Eugene, but was sad when he and their father would go off on weekend camping trips with the Scouts.

"I was very envious of all those," she said. "When the Boy Scouts opened up to girls, I was so excited to get the opportunity to participate myself."

Like Tunney, new Eagle Scout Sydney Ireland also was drawn to the Boy Scouts due to participation of an older brother. She became an unofficial member of his New York City unit at age 4 and over the ensuing years was outspoken in urging the Boy Scouts to officially admit girls.

Ireland, 19, is now a sophomore at Amherst College, taking classes remotely from the Massachusetts island of Nantucket. She's majoring in political science and psychology; law school and a career in politics could be on the horizon.

"Scouting has influenced my life in nearly every facet," she said via email, crediting the leadership skills she learned in the Scouts for giving her the confidence to run for Amherst's student Senate.

The Boy Scouts say about 6% of all scouts attain Eagle rank – roughly 2.5 million since the award's creation in 1911, a year after the Boy Scouts of America was founded.

"This is a powerful moment for these young women, for all Eagle Scouts, and for our nation," said Jenn Hancock, the BSA's national chair for programs. "People recognize Eagle Scouts as individuals of the highest caliber, and for the first time, that title isn't limited by gender."

The celebration of the new Eagle Scouts comes at a challenging time for the Boy Scouts. Facing a wave of lawsuits, it filed for bankruptcy protection a year ago in a step toward creating a huge compensation fund for tens of thousands of men who were molested as youngsters decades ago by scoutmasters or other leaders.

The case has advanced slowly since then in a federal bankruptcy court in Delaware. The BSA is expected to unveil a plan soon explaining how the compensation fund will be financed in a way that enables the organization and its local councils to maintain their programs.

Many in the scouting community have retained their admiration for the BSA's mission – among them is Megan Wright of Omaha. Starting about 10 years ago, she helped run a Boy Scout troop to which her son belonged, and more recently she has been scoutmaster for her daughter's troop.

The daughter, 18-year-old Rebecca Wright, is among the new Eagle Scouts, having earned 102 merit badges. She now attends the University of Wisconsin-Madison and wants to be a genetics researcher.

"It's been fantastic to see girls be able to participate in this program," said Rebecca's mom. "Just seeing the pride, the sense of accomplishment, knowing that they have achieved what so few others have."