In 1965, in northern Minnesota, 24 teenage girls had an experience that changed their lives. For 30 days, they lived in the wilderness. At the time, girls were considered to be “soft, pampered creatures,” as one observer put it.
One of those 24 girls in the Minnesota class of 1965 was me. Were we soft creatures? Or, as girls, had we just not been allowed the chance to find out what we were?
Many of us by then had watched Miss America walk her runway with tiara and tears. We wouldn’t see the likes of Venus Williams or Hillary Clinton for years. We each had different reasons for signing on, but none of us knew how those weeks would change our lives. We boarded a bus in Duluth that took us to the edge of a wilderness backcountry that covered 2.2 million acres of lakes, rivers, granite outcroppings, bogs, rivers, and waterfalls.
Under the leadership of director Jean Replinger, we quickly learned that we’d get dirty and wet. But we could also clean up and dry out. We paddled white water. We climbed rocks and ropes and plunged into cold water. In training, we gained the physical strength and mental tenacity to travel safely in brigades through the wilderness for 16 days.
We came to Outward Bound with different backgrounds, abilities, and weaknesses. When we left, many of us took something with us that we didn’t realize we’d found – what I call “grit.”
More than 50 years have passed since then. Today I think American girls need grit more than ever. What is “grit?” I define it as perseverance, cooperation, risk-taking, dreaming big.
How do we develop those qualities in girls? Whether a girl wears shorts, a hijab, or a sari, when today’s girls take leadership roles as women, our world will be better for it.
As a filmmaker, I directed the documentary “Women Outward Bound,” which consists of photographs, video, and interviews with many members of that 1965 group of girls, who are now women in their 60s and 70s. I wanted to take the rare opportunity to show how a group of girls, who early on learned to value grit, took those lessons into their lives as women.
So many girls and women continue to feel judged for everything, from their looks to their grades. Trees, water, and rocks don’t care what you look like. They don’t judge. When a girl fords a brook, climbs a rock-face, or sits quietly listening to the wind, she can be herself.
How girls and women change when they spend time in nature is difficult to explain. My intent with “Women Outward Bound” is to show it.
“Outward Bound has taught me that accomplishment is the best when you use your strengths to help someone else rather than to get to the top first.”
The Outward Bound program launched in Great Britain in 1941. Its mission was to give young men the ability to survive an intense experience facing natural challenges, by building a sense of self-confidence and an awareness of human interdependence. The first U.S. school opened in Colorado in 1962.
Jean Replinger, director of the first group for girls, was awarded a “Women Who Dared” award in June. She was picked for the job after suggesting to someone who led a program for men that “there should be such an opportunity for girls, and I would like to direct it.”
When that first group of 24 young women arrived, “there was a full range, from eager anticipation to anxiety and nervousness,” Replinger recalls. “They came with such differing expectations, for a wide range of reasons.”
Some of them signed up because of their own interest. Others were sent by caregivers.
What Replinger learned from that first group was “how much I loved sharing these experiences. How much I loved seeing young women finding their own strengths, and overcoming fears and supposed limitations. How much I loved seeing them find and own the power of cooperation — strengths they could use in tough times throughout their lives.”
Instructor Lynn Cox was one of the four instructors. “Although I was only seven years older than most of those students, I was a college graduate and married, having been a teacher, and having been a canoe trip leader into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area,” says Cox. “As a young adult, I had been a seeker of opportunities beyond the ordinary. This was before Title IX, but I was motivated and chose to play basketball, volleyball, softball, and field hockey.”
Cox says it required patience to help move students through new experiences. “It also was a joy to see the girls learn to respect and appreciate the natural rhythm and inner peace of being in the wind and weather, experiencing those sunrises and sunsets.”
Since then, Cox has provided opportunities for her children and grandchildren to build character in wilderness challenges, as well as experience the peace of canoe trails. “Not every young person can go to an Outward Bound course,” Cox says, “so I ask the question, ‘How do we keep the flame alive? How do we connect our wisdom gained from such an experience to a younger generation?’”