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Leading a Wave of Change

Maribeth and the first Femmes group in 1970
Maribeth and the first Femmes group in 1970
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Last fall, as I wrote the story about Jack Murdock, the legendary director at YMCA Camp St. Croix, I became fascinated as I contemplated his most significant legacy: opening up camp to girls and women in 1974.

I found myself thinking about those girls, the first ones to be there. About the YMCA’s long-standing history of being a “boys- only club.” When and how did YMCA camps evolve to incorporate female attendees? Was it a slow integration? Bumpy? How did it go for those first girls?

This is the story of how young women canoed their way into the culture and history of YMCA Camp Menogyn, and heralded a greater change to come: the integration of girls and women into the YMCA camping community. It’s the story of Terry Klepinski, who organized her own girls trip out of Menogyn as a 16-year-old, and this is also the story of Maribeth Lundeen who followed Terry several years later as Menogyn’s first official female guide leading female trips. And it’s the story of Meghan Cosgrove, first female executive director of Menogyn.

Why not me?

Before a broader integration that came in the 1970s, change was already brewing thanks to a handful of women who were leading the way. One of them was Terry.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, Menogyn was a boys’ camp, but there were female campers who were allowed to come as their own groups although they had to provide a chaperone, transportation, and pay their way. Oh, and they were only allowed at camp during the times that weren’t already filled by male campers. Terry’s story represents these Menogyn women.

Terry heard about Menogyn through a family friend in 1964 and remembers thinking, “our family went camping every year, so I knew I could do it.” At 16 years old, she recruited eight friends and assembled a group. She found a chaperone, raised the money to get there, and took a Greyhound bus to Grand Marais, staying in a hotel the night before they were scheduled to arrive at Menogyn.

The group was assigned a guide and set off on a seven-day canoe trip. “Everyone had a wonderful time, but we wanted to do more. Every time we asked, we were told, ‘Women can’t do that’, so we were limited.”

The following year, she assembled a new group, and that year, they didn’t hold back. “It was rainy, cold, rough. We did all the preparation to go out, took the canoe test, we prepared the food, set up the tents. We went out on trail, canoed all day, moved to a new spot every night. The guide was surprised because he didn’t need to tell us twice — we took things seriously, did things the right way.”

“It was empowering. It put us into situations where we were allowed to do things we couldn’t do at home. We found out what our abilities and limits were.”

Terry remembers going camping with her family after she had been to Menogyn. On that trip, she stood up to her dad, telling him a better way to portage. She shared, “you’ve proved to yourself that you have the ability to make good choices and know what you're doing.

Then-director Armond Paulson (1963-67) was quoted in the camp history “Memories of Menogyn” saying, “The women campers were terrific. Guides would return with tales of trail prowess by the young women that awed everyone. These beginning stages of actively inviting young ladies into the Menogyn experience was an omen of things to come.”

Meanwhile, across the BWCA

Over to the west at YMCA Camp Widjiwagan, female-led women’s trips had been running since the 1950s under director Armin “Whitey” Luehrs (1950-62). “The limits which were placed on women in the mid-fifties were a matter of attitude rather than abilities, either physical or mental.” “Widjiwagan: A History.”

In 1968, director Skip Wilke (1968-82) moved from being the trips director at Widjiwagan to become Menogyn’s executive director. In “Memories of Menogyn” he shared, “As we reflect back, the decades of the 60s and 70s were times of protest, change, and the challenging of values. In sum, I believe Menogyn benefited during these times.” During his first summer as director, he oversaw the first official women’s trip, led by a female guide.

That guide was Maribeth Lundeen.

Maribeth was Whitey Luehrs’ niece and started going to Widjiwagan when she was in 9th grade. She babysat for her cousins, helped in the health center, and at the end of each summer, she went on a canoe trip.

Her first introduction to Menogyn was during a cold, rainy canoe trip. The Widji guide decided they should stop paddling and stay at Menogyn for the night. They were sitting by the fireplace in the dining hall; campers had left for the summer, so it was just staff that was there. The Widji guides and Menogyn guides got into a heated debate about the women’s program. At Widji “they took for granted that women could manage themselves in the wilderness. The Menogyn guides couldn’t believe it and didn’t think it was a good idea.” She remembers thinking, “these guys don’t know what they are talking about.”

Maribeth got to know Skip while she was a Widji camper. He became the director after her sophomore year of college. When he began planning for the women’s program, he interviewed her and she agreed to take a job in the kitchen, and then lead the first women’s trip at the end of the summer.

“I went into the job with some trepidation. People were friendly, but it was a macho culture.”

On that trip, “I felt pressure to make sure the trip went well and that the campers had a good experience. I tried to instill in the campers that going out without a male guide, you can figure out how to do something, take care of yourself and others.”

Several of the women on that first trip returned subsequent years, and eventually went on the first Femmes trip, which Maribeth led in 1970.

Maribeth returned to Menogyn in 1969 for a second year on staff. That summer there were five or six female guides and trips ran for half the summer. The following summer, Maribeth returned as the program director and the women’s program had taken off in popularity, running the full summer.

In the decade that followed, YMCA camps would begin embracing girls and women all across the country. I took a trip to the University of Minnesota’s Kautz Family YMCA Archives, whose research described the shift:

“Girls were integrated into the Minneapolis YMCA Camp programs during the decade of 1970 to 1979. ‘In order to meet the growing needs for service to the total family,’ all camps except Kici Yapi, Ihduhapi, and Warren were now open to girls. Over the course of the decade, the remaining camps were also integrated.”

‘One of the most welcoming places’

In 2017, 49 years after the first official female trip went out with Maribeth as the guide, Menogyn welcomed a new director, the first female director in its history. Meghan Cosgrove arrived at Menogyn with an extensive Y camp background, having been a camper, seasonal staff member, and the executive director of Camp Warren, as well as a wilderness guide in Maine.

Meghan is quick to note that Carolyn Sakstrup and Mo Martin both served as interim directors for Menogyn, so technically, she was the first full-time female director, but they also held the position, albeit temporarily, before her.

Meghan described her arrival to Menogyn as, “truly one of the most welcoming places in the world.” The macho culture that Terry and Maribeth encountered was not what Meghan experienced. She said she couldn’t say when the tone shifted, but that “Menogyn works hard to cultivate a welcoming culture. We are excited to celebrate individuals’ unique contributions to the community, and there’s a natural solidarity that comes from the shared experience of living and working in this remote place.”

She went on to say, that “At Menogyn, there is an ongoing examination of who we want to be as a community. This introspection has always been fundamental to our identity and it allows us to remain relevant with changing times.”

Menogyn has had strong leaders, both female and male, who have kept camp running for over 100 years.

When asked for her thoughts on being a female leader and reflecting on those who came before her, Meghan said, “There have been many fierce Menogyn women who have paved the way for female-identifying campers to thrive at Menogyn. It’s also important to note our commitment to all- gender trips as we evolve our programming into the future.”

And as Menogyn moves into the future, it is those leaders who continue to keep inclusivity in mind as they create programming to give campers an opportunity to grow, learn, have fun, and be part of the legacy of the Menogyn experience.