Decades before Boy Scouts went coed, Girl Rangers broke gender barrier

Laura Perricone
 |  Special to The Herald-Journal

In 1970, before the Boy Scouts of America decided to go coed – long before – a group of teenage girls from Spartanburg broke the gender barrier by signing up with a newly organized BSA Explorers troop called the Girl Rangers.

Some of them believed they were part of a movement for women’s equality that would define an entire decade. Others simply wanted to do something more exciting than selling Girl Scout cookies. Regardless of what side of the coin they were on, the Girl Rangers troop was groundbreaking, changing long-held traditions that had been set by their male counterparts at the turn of the 20th century.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Girl Rangers, but little has been documented about it. Nothing, in fact. Aside from a collection of photos, old uniforms, and fantastic stories of adventure, there is no official BSA record that the Girl Rangers ever existed. Until, of course, those same implacable girls became women and started digging for answers.

Girl Rangers broke glass ceiling

Lisa Shingler, Susan Fretwell, Betsy Teter and Susan Dunlap were members of the Girl Rangers in the 1970s and are counted among the early pioneers who changed the face of the Boy Scouts in Spartanburg, if not nationally. There are others, too, scattered in different parts of the country with their own memories about the BSA Post 1 Explorer troop.

Where it gets fuzzy, and what basically opened this can of worms, was when the BSA announced in 2018 that it was accepting females into its programs. Teter, for one, was nonplussed. She and her fellow Girl Rangers had already broken that glass ceiling a half-century ago. The problem was there was no mention of her troop anywhere. So, Teter went on a mission to unravel the mystery of what happened to the Girl Rangers and published her findings online with Outside Magazine.

What Teter was able to flush out from old newspaper articles and her own memories, was that the Girl Rangers came into being after four junior high school girls approached the head of the local BSA Explorers program and asked if they could join. The Explorers had been an all-boy outdoor adventure program up to this point and it was filled to the max, according to the program director back then, George Withers. But the leader devised an alternative plan: create an all-girl program and model it after Explorers. It was to be called Girl Rangers; the first of its kind in Spartanburg and most likely, in the country. It certainly was the first of its type to be chartered.

With an emphasis on hiking, canoeing, and horseback riding, the Girl Rangers held its own as an all-girl program that was aligned with BSA but not necessarily part of the Boy Scouts. The following year, the national Explorers program (but not the entire Boy Scouts organization) opened its doors to girls who were already involved in female scouting, like the Girl Scouts and Campfire Girls. In spite of that, the Girl Rangers remained a one-of-a-kind as an all-girl BSA program.

‘We did hard stuff’ 

The novelty of the Girl Rangers was not lost on Lisa Shingler or Susan Fretwell, either. Both were among the original members. Shingler was 13 at the time and Fretwell was turning 15, but neither of them thought much about the implication of signing up for a Boy Scout program. Neither did Teter, who joined in 1972 nor Dunlap, who was one of the last Girl Rangers before the program folded somewhere in the late 1970s or early 1980s. They were all just kids then who wanted to do more than what the girl scouting programs were offering. It was in hindsight that they realized how significant their role was as a Girl Ranger.

“There were a lot of adventures. It was so much fun,” Shingler said. “We did hard stuff … and I learned some hard lessons. Not many people have done what the Girl Rangers did. But it was the ’70s.”

Every Monday night the Girl Rangers would meet at the Episcopal Church of the Advent in downtown Spartanburg. They recited their oath, very similar to the Boy Scouts, and went over what their outdoor adventure would be for that month. At the first meeting, 17 recruits showed up. At the next, 28. Eventually, they would reach at least 55 girls. All told, Teter estimated 200 girls went through the program through the years.

“I didn’t know there were so many girls (in the program),” Shingler said. “When we went hiking there would sometimes be 30 girls (walking) on the trail.”

‘God, Country, Family, Girl Ranger’ 

At the first meeting, the girls were issued uniforms that certainly did not resemble the durable green outfits of the Boy Scouts. Actually, they were blue Speedo warm-up suits that, once adorned with the Girl Rangers’ triangle patch, were worn with pride. “God, Country, Family, Girl Ranger,” it read. There were other merit badges fashioned after the BSA program, each had to be earned through hard work as a Ranger. A few years after, the girls switched to the classic shirt and pants worn by the Boy Scouts.

Dunlap remembers purchasing her Explorer uniform at Crutchfield’s on South Pine Street after she joined the group in 1978. It was the second reason she wanted to be a Girl Ranger. 

“I was a Girl Scout from the age of 6. I was a Brownie, then I was a Junior, then I was a Cadet. My mother would drop me off at churches around town where I didn’t know anyone and she’d be like, there’s the door … go,” she laughed. “But in the late ‘70s, there was not a senior Girl Scout troop, so I ran out of options and I joined the Girl Rangers. The other really exciting reason I joined was that I got to wear pants.” 

True weekend warriors

Girl Rangers also had a dress uniform that was worn on Scout Sunday, once a year. On that day alone, the girls had to put on a white or green skirt, white shirt, and white gloves. The image couldn’t have been further from the true weekend warriors they turned into when they ditched their dresses.

Because camping outside in the woods was not considered a girl’s sport in the 1970s, it was difficult for troop members to find the right equipment for hiking. They had to wear “little boy” boots, Fretwell said, and carry huge backpacks made for males. It was a fitting commentary for the era, given the Girl Rangers engaged in more vigorous outdoor activities than the average scout. 

“We did everything the guys did except being remembered by the guys,” Fretwell said, ironically. “In hindsight, I’m more amazed by what we did now than I was at the time.”

Memories and mementos

Shingler, Fretwell and Dunlap kept their uniforms among the other mementos and Teter has the signatures of all the girls in her group. Shingler, who is now a den mother for the Cub Scout program, said she still wears her Girl Ranger jacket from time to time but confesses that is likely because it had been her brother’s before being handed down to her. She also has the original tent and backpack she used when she was a teen. That tent, she said, holds a lot of memories and, evidently, a lot of water.

“It was a plastic tent and it had a blowup triangle that held it open in the front. Water would pour into the tent when it rained,” Shingler said. “It would be a soggy, soggy night.”

In any given outdoor adventure, the girls would hike 50 miles at a time, or carry their canoes to remote riverbanks and paddle 150 miles down a river, or horseback 60 miles a clip or trek at altitudes of 10,000 feet. They would set up their tents, start the campfires, brace themselves for any kind of weather, and hope to sleep long enough before getting up at the crack of dawn when they would get ready to hit the trail again. 

“It was a time when women, nationally, were pushing the Equal Rights Amendment and it was a time when women were stepping into new roles. And even young teenagers, like we were, were seeing new lives for ourselves beyond the ones our mothers led,” Teter said. “At age 14, we could get in a canoe and go down the Edisto River and camp with the snakes. It was a very important cultural moment when all these young girls found each other and pushed each other to do things that girls didn’t typically do in Spartanburg, South Carolina.”

One of Withers’ favorite stories to tell was how two men out fishing had seen the Girl Rangers in action, banking their canoes after a long session on the Edisto River and setting up camp. The men were in such awe, the story goes, that they packed up their poles and left. A little while later, they returned with cans of soda for the girls, saying they had never seen anything like the Girl Rangers.

“I make no concessions because they are girls,” Withers said in a 1975 interview with the Herald. “I found that 14-year-old girls have the same dexterity, agility, stamina, grit, and determination as a 15 or 16 year-old-boy. So, I don’t soft-pedal them.”

In 1973, the Girl Rangers became the first girl troop to attend Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico, and hike mountain ranges reaching almost 12,000 feet. It was an undertaking that not only set an important record it was proof positive that the program existed.

‘Teenage girls saved his life’

Each of the former Girl Rangers told stories of getting lost in the woods, flipping over in canoes, getting snowed on in their tents, eating freeze-dried food for four to five days, and heroic feats to save their leader from a near-drowning. Dunlap remembered that particular weekend adventure like it was yesterday and said the girls followed their training and changed what could have been a disastrous outcome.

The troop was on a weekend canoeing trip. It was fall and the water was cold. Dunlap said she and another Girl Ranger were in a canoe with Withers when things went south, literally.

“We had probably been in the river for a couple of days. (Withers) saw a log in the river that had a big dip in the middle and he thought it would be fun to canoe through that dip. The dip in the log was very shallow and we did not go over it. We hit the log and the current whipped the canoe sideways and immediately sucked the canoe under the log,” Dunlap said. “So, we are all in the water and I opened my eyes and remember seeing my camping gear sinking to the bottom of the river.” 

Even with lifejackets on, the current was fast and Withers was heading downstream, mostly underwater. Dunlap said the girls in the other canoes followed his hat and eventually were able to find him and take him to safety.

“The girls rescued him. They beached the canoes, started a fire and got him (warm),” Dunlap said. “He realized that teenage girls saved his life.”

All this happened on a weekend. On Monday, the girls were all back at school.

Besides Withers, who led most of the expeditions, there was usually a female leader present. But as time went on, finding women to help with the Girl Rangers was becoming difficult. That could have been the catalyst that sealed the fate of this uniquely Spartanburg troop. 

We were doing something groundbreaking

What happened to the girl rangers by 1980 remains a mystery. The church where the meetings were held doesn’t have records of the Girls Rangers, nor did the Boy Scouts.

“I do not know what happened. We (the troop of 1977) could have been at the tail end of it,” Dunlap said.

Nationwide, by the early 1990s, girls made up half of the membership of the Explorers but in 1998, the program ended and split into two different coed groups. Two years after opening its doors to girls, the BSA filed for bankruptcy and its own fate is unknown.

Many of the women who were part of the Girl Rangers program grew into trailblazers in their own right. Shingler went on to become a school psychologist; Fretwell, who was also part of the first coed class to attend Davidson College, is a retired lawyer; Teter is a former newspaper reporter, editor, and founder of the Hub City Bookshop, and publishing company Hub City Press; Dunlap worked 20 years in education and now works in safety and training for a construction company.

“We always knew we were doing something groundbreaking,” Teter said. “I wish this sort of outdoor experience existed for everyone. It was formative.”

Dunlap and the other former Girl Rangers agreed.

“At the time, I knew, you couldn’t be a girl in the 70s, in a Boy Scout uniform, and not think I am doing something different,” Dunlap said.

“We did everything in terms of outdoor adventures that the boys did. It felt like a nice leveling of the playing field. I did not miss having to sell Girl Scout cookies and we didn’t do crafts and we didn’t get badges, it was just ‘where could we go?’ and that was exciting and liberating and equalizing.”

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