Women in the Camp Industry: A Collective Force for Good

March 26, 2018
Ann Sheets

March is National Women’s History Month. While some institutions need to be reminded of women’s contributions, that is not the case in the American Camp Association! From the early days of ACA, women have played a significant leadership role. Since 1910, there have been 65 individuals who have served as the national president or chairman of the board (the title was changed a few years ago). Of those, 25, or 38 percent, have been women. However, since the 1980s, there have been 16 presidents – eight men and eight women.

Those members who attended the national conference in Orlando last month heard from Peg Smith, the 2018 recipient of ACA’s highest recognition, the Distinguished Service Award (DSA). Peg, who was honored for her leadership as ACA’s CEO for 17 years, was the 50th person to receive this recognition, and the 19th woman. In the last 30 years (the award was first presented in 1968), over half of the recipients were women. It’s easy to see from these numbers that gender equality is not an issue at the American Camp Association.

It wasn’t always that way, as Rita Yerkes and Wilma Miranda described in their 2010 Camping Magazine article “Her Story: The Role of Women in the Formation of the American Camp Association 1910 – 1924.” They wrote about early leader Laura Matoon of the National Association of Directors of Girls Camps (NADGC), a woman of strong convictions who played a key role in the union of the NADGC and the all-male Camp Directors Association of America (CDAA) into the Camp Directors Association, which would eventually become the American Camp Association. According to Yerkes and Miranda, the CDAA was “a brotherhood of mentors joined in the quest to provide optimal conditions in the outdoors for the promotion of a robust and joyous American boyhood.” Bringing these unique groups together was a challenge, but the women of the NADGC “influenced a form of association that provided leverage for their entrance into a profession on equal terms with men.”

Matoon’s leadership and influence has carried forward, as we see some of the women in ACA who have done amazing things, starting with the first recipient of the Distinguished Service Award (DSA), Eleanor P. Eells. Eleanor Eells was a leader in camping her entire life, from her trailblazing days in the Settlement House movement in Chicago to being one of the founders of the Fund for Advancement of Camping (FAC), serving as its director in the early 1970s. Eleanor worked with FAC to support ACA programs such as standards research, to reorganize ACA governance, and to secure government funding for campership use. She helped many individuals and camps start new programs to reach underserved populations and wrote The History of Organized Camping: The First 100 Years. The Eleanor Eells Awards today are given in her memory and focus on recognizing program excellence as well as excellence in research in practice at camps. 

Another Chicago woman made a significant contribution to camping by her actions in the 1960s. Marcy Brower, now a retired camp professional, was a social activist who participated in civil rights activities from her college days. Marcy and her husband Bob owned a co-ed day camp that served white, middle- and upper-class children in suburban Chicago. Moved by President John F. Kennedy’s call to action and Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, Marcy was inspired to bring King’s message to their camp.  After the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Marcy decided the time was right to implement a plan to desegregate their white suburban day camp. While there were some ups and downs in carrying out their plans, they persisted and found that desegregation was good for camp and good for the campers.

ACA’s history is full of such inspiring women, many of whom remain involved with ACA for years after receiving their DSA recognition for noteworthy work done for the association. Jean McMullan, consulting director of Alford Lake Camp and a former national president, was instrumental in establishing the American Camping Foundation and putting ACA on a stronger financial footing. She is an advocate for international camping and continues to be an inspiration to new camp professionals. Connie Coutellier trained new camp directors all over the United States and the world, first with Camp Fire, then as ACA president, and now as a volunteer. Her work with risk management and her prolific writings make Connie’s name familiar to most camp professionals.

The list can go on and on, from Camp Fire founder Charlotte Gulick, who started the WoHeLo camps in Maine and was the first president of the NADGC, to Catherine T. “Kit” Hammett, a 60-year Girl Scout professional who wrote Your Own Book of Campcraft, which sold over 1,000,000 copies and is most likely found in all camp libraries. More recent notable women in the camp industry range from everyone’s favorite camp nurse Linda Erceg, whose countless presentations and writings have made camp healthier; to the queen of funds development Posie Taylor, who inspires and emboldens camp professionals to “make the ask” of prospective donors to camp; and Linda Pulliam, whose advocacy for international camping has been recognized world-wide. Recent past national presidents like Marla Coleman, who spearheaded ACA’s rebranding effort, and Tish Bolger, the longest-serving ACA president in our history, continue the legacy of significant contributions to the field of camping by women. Like 2018 DSA recipient Peg Smith, under whose leadership ACA became the voice we had always hoped we could be and who provided a solid foundation for ACA’s growth in the youth development field, there are hundreds of women who are to be celebrated, thanked, and remembered during Women’s History Month.

Here’s to every woman in camp who is making a difference in the lives of the children, youth, and adult participants at camp – a true collective force for good. Thank you for what you do and happy Women’s History Month!

Learn more about the early history of ACA and Laura Matoon’s work in the merger of the two organizations.

Ann Sheets is President/CEO of Camp Fire First Texas in Fort Worth. She served as ACA National President from 2005 – 2008.

Photo courtesy of Appel Farm Arts Camp in Elmer, New Jersey