Woodswomen, Inc.

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Woodswomen, Inc. logo, circa 1979

Woodswomen, Inc. was a nonprofit organization focusing on education and adventure travel run by women, for women out of Minneapolis, Minnesota, from 1977 to 1999. Woodswomen, referred to as the 'grandmother' of women's outdoor adventure groups,[1] was one of the first adventure travel companies serving exclusively women and served more than 8,000 women 1,200 children in its tenure.[2]


The name 'Woodswomen' was first used in 1977 when Judith Niemi, Elizabeth Barnard, Shirley Heyer, and Trudy Fulton organized a Boundary Waters Canoe Area trip for women.[1] Though three women—Judith Niemi, Denise Mitten and Elizabeth Barnard—are generally credited with the initial organization, they maintain that it was founded organically. This means that each woman has her own Woodswomen history and no one person started out to make a business out of adventure travel for women.[3] For example, Judith Niemi's personal Woodswomen began when she decided that women needed an organization that would run outdoor trips solely for them after a trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area where she saw no other women for two weeks.[4]

In 1980, Woodswomen launched a women-and-leadership course which turned into a well-respected leadership program that trained many women who led Woodswomen trips and trips for other companies.[1] Woodswomen was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1982. Also in 1982, the organization organized and sponsored an expedition commemorating Mina Benson Hubbard's 1905 George River trip in Labrador, Canada. A seven-member expedition team traveled for four weeks on a 200-mile journey following Hubbard's route.

In 1985 Kathy Phibbs opened the Northwest office of Woodswomen and served as its director. Two years earlier she had organized the first meeting of Women Climbers Northwest (WCN) in 1983.[5]

In 1987 Denise Mitten secured a grant from the Emma B. Howe Foundation and started the Women and Children Bonding in the Outdoors Program. Expanding their reach, in 1989 Mitten answered a request for proposals from the Minnesota Department of Corrections and secured funding for the Wilderness Experiences for Women Offenders Program.[6]

In 1990 Woodswomen sponsored the 100th year Commemoration Climb of Fay Fuller's assent of Mount Rainier, Washington. Kathy Phibbs and several other women lead the climb which included over 30 women, many wearing dresses, and one woman who completed the climb with an artificial leg.[5]

In 1992 Woodswomen started Minnesota Youth Outdoors programs for lesbian, gay and bisexual youth. Youth participated in a series of one to two day trips. Woodswomen guides and "adult supporter team members hope that sense of self and success will help gay and lesbian youth negotiate a time fraught with difficulties."[7]

In 1993 Woodswomen had 59 domestic trips and 11 international trips ranging from cross-country skiing in Minnesota to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.[8]

Woodswomen closed its doors in 1999, passing on the mailing list to Marian Marbury, who went on to found Adventures in Good Company.

Woodswomen guide and Executive Director Denise Mitten using a body belay while guiding in Joshua Tree National Park in the 1980s. Photo by Kathy Phibbs.

Philosophy and trip outcomes[edit]

Woodswomen's mission was to "offer supportive and challenging learning opportunities for women and for women and children to help foster individual growth, responsibility, and relationship skills."[9] Woodswomen was set up with feminist and environmentalist ideals in mind, and as such empowering women and protecting the environment played a large role in the choices of directors and guides.

Woodswomen was a unique organization that pioneered several important programatical aspects of adventure therapy and adventure education; this was done because of the overarching values guiding the organization and staff including:

  • Valuing emotional safety as well as physical safety, thus attending to emotional safety
  • Valuing personal choice and individual goals, thus understanding the necessity of personal choice in participation and providing a wide platform of choice
  • Valuing healthy relationships with people and the environment, thus hiring and training staff who could exemplify healthy bonding both within the group and with nature and not using the wilderness as a place to prove competency over the environment
  • Valuing women and women's ways of knowing, thus hiring and training staff who could model that women's strengths are an asset to outdoor living and traveling (i.e. women do not need to be changed to fit into adventure programs or "taught' in order to be good enough)[10]

Judith Niemi explained part of Woodswomen's philosophy as "Not worrying about competition, achievement, ego. Especially not thinking we are conquering nature."[11] Many people go into the wilderness with the mindset of "conquering the great outdoors." Woodswomen trips worked to counter that mindset and instead learn through nature, getting to feel comfortable, and ending up feeling blissful, in the outdoors.[12] In addition, Woodswomen staff worked to be process oriented. The idea was that it was not important how far you went, how fast you climbed, etc., but rather what you saw, what you experienced, what you did.[13] For guides, a great deal of emphasis was placed on leadership styles, and guides completed extensive guide trainings. Woodswomen directors would look for "alternatives to hierarchical leadership and centralized authority," working to have everyone participate in decision-making.[3]

Woodswomen directors maintained that learning outdoor skills from other women is better for women than learning them from men. Especially in the early years of Woodswomen (1970s and '80s), many women did not have strong outdoors skills because they had not been given the opportunity to learn them. This would lead to women on outdoor trips being marginalized for their lack of skill and not getting the opportunity to learn. When men on trips would teach women some skills, it would be condescending and hierarchal, and women would get frustrated when they didn't get it right away. When women learn from women, there's not as much of the condescension, and women are able to take more control of their learning—"When women learn from women, they take more credit for learning," said Elizabeth Barnard in an interview.[4] Traveling with other women also gets women out of passive roles they may take at home and on trips with men, where they are marginalized in favor of having the supposedly stronger and faster men do the job. When men are not around, it's impossible for women to fall into gender roles in terms of the tasks they perform and the skills they must learn.[14]

In addition to learning new skills and becoming comfortable in the outdoors, one of the main byproducts of Woodswomen trips was increased self-esteem in participants.[11] Women coming back from Woodswomen trips reported an increase in confidence, saying things like "now I know I can go for that job promotion."[4] Woodswomen affiliates did research over the years about outcomes of trips, and learned about how empowered women felt after trips.[9]

1988 Woodswomen Denali Climb on the west buttress of Mount McKinley, AK. Climb guided by Denise Mitten and Kathy Phibbs. Photo by Denise Mitten.


Woodswomen Inc.'s primary function was to offer adventure travel trips for women. In 1993, Woodswomen ran 70 trips in 8 different countries, and when it closed in 1999, Woodswomen had served over 8,000 women and 1,200 children through its outdoor adventure programs.[2] Woodswomen ran trips focusing on activities including biking, rock climbing, backpacking, cross country skiing, kayaking, canoeing, whitewater canoeing and rafting, winter camping, sea kayaking, snorkeling, SCUBA diving, mountaineering, horse packing, llama packing, wild ricing, and dogsledding.[15] Trips were geared to serve women with no outdoor experience to women with extensive outdoor experience, and a range of women participated in the trips, from professionals to housewives to low income women on scholarships (Woodswomen had a scholarship fund, sponsored by former trip participants and others, to defray the cost of trips so that low income women could also attend).[3]

Woodswomen guides completed an extensive guide-training program, focusing on leadership styles, group dynamics. Hollis Giammatteo, writing for Ms. magazine, took a leadership course that included climbing Mount Adams in Washington state. According to Giammatteo, Denise Mitten refined Woodswomen's acclaimed leadership program, creating a style stressing ethical and inclusive leadership. For Woodswomen guides, leadership was viewed as a role that encourages appropriate participation, not as a characteristic of a personality type. The idea rigid of goal-setting and the language of right and wrong were removed. Woodswomen guides, for example, would avoid words that connote domination, such as 'attack the trail,' summit assault,' conquer the mountain.'" Rather, they would say things like "'run the rapids,' 'climb the mountain,' or 'let's start hiking.'"[8] Giammatteo wrote that Mitten taught the hostess concept, meaning that one guides in areas in alignment with one's ability. Just like one would throw a party in a place where one is comfortable and know where things are, ones leads trips in an areas where one is comfortable.[8]

Woodswomen ran a number of special programs along with the adventure travel trips. One, called Minnesota Youth Outdoors, was a program which served gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth and allies. Minnesota Youth Outdoors ran one and two day trips to various locations in Southern Minnesota, giving participants opportunities to go rock climbing, canoeing, skiing, and hiking. Trips were designed to expose LGBT youth to the outdoors and to provide them with positive interactions with adults, potentially leading to higher self-esteem, a greater affinity for nature, and hope for the future.[7] Wilderness Experiences for Women Offenders was another of Woodswomen's special programs. Through this program, women felons would go on three-day outdoors trips, gaining confidence and trust in themselves and other participants.[8] Another program was called Women and Children Bonding in the Outdoors and provided opportunities for low-income women and their children to experience outdoor activities. This program was designed to expose inner-city women and their children to outdoor activities; in the process women and children would gain self-respect, the courage to accept challenges, cooperation skills, and respect for nature.[6]

Woodswomen affiliates taught various classes and workshops about the outdoors at colleges and schools around the Twin Cities metro area, in subjects ranging from log-cabin building, Minnesota ecology, feminism and ecology, botany, the history and literature of women and living in the wilderness, first aid, knots and ropes, bike touring, kayaking, bird watching, orienteering, working consciously and conscientiously with women in the outdoors, and camping with children.[11][14]


  1. ^ a b c Winegar, Karin. "On top of the world." The Star Tribune. September 19, 1997.
  2. ^ a b Winegar, Karen. "No yelling: Women-only travel finds firm niche." Sunday Standard-Times. March 7, 1993
  3. ^ a b c Niemi, Judith. "Talking with Woodswomen." New Women's Times. April, 1982.
  4. ^ a b c "Women growing stronger outdoors." St. Paul Dispatch. October 24, 1980.
  5. ^ a b Bentley, Judy, Burton, Joan, Thornberg, Lace, and Firey, Carla. "The First Ladies." Washington Trails. March and April, 2011, page 25
  6. ^ a b Winegar, Karin. "Mothers and kids get acquainted with the outdoors." The Star Tribune. September 24, 1988.
  7. ^ a b Dochterman, Robin. "Calling all gay and lesbian youth!" Equal Time. October 9–23, 1992.
  8. ^ a b c d Giammatteo, Hollis. "Into the Woods: Woodswomen brings feminism to the great outdoors." Ms. Magazine. March/April, 1993.
  9. ^ a b Mitten, Denise. "Empowering Women and Girls in the Outdoors." Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance. Reston, VA. February, 1992.
  10. ^ Mitten, Denise. "A Philosophical Basis for a Women's Outdoor Adventure Program." Journal of Experiential Education, Summer 1985, Boulder, CO: Association of Experiential Education 8(2), 20-24.
  11. ^ a b c Korn, Ben. No title. The Minneapolis Tribune. Minneapolis, MN. December 30, 1979.
  12. ^ Frommer, Arthur. "Women-only tours gaining popularity." Chicago Sun Times. June 21, 1987.
  13. ^ Cook, Sam. "It isn't how far you've come, but where you are, that's important." News—Tribune & Herald. January 26, 1986.
  14. ^ a b Winegar, Karin. "Woodswomen tackle nature's wilds, but with a very casual air." The Minneapolis Tribune. Minneapolis, MN. September 26, 1982.
  15. ^ Kloppenburg, Dick. "Woodswomen: Minneapolis company shows outdoors is women's business." Daily Herald, Wausau-Merrill, WI. August 23, 1984.