May 30, 2023


When the Appalachian Trail project began, volunteer clubs up and down the length of the trail committed themselves to first scouting, then building, and then maintaining the trail.

In the last episode of season two, we are digging into the critical role women played in the early years of the AT. They played such a big role, some trail clubs limited the number of women allowed to join. 


Further Reading:

Gwenyth Loose, We Were There Too: Pioneering Appalachian Trail Women (Pennsylvania: Appalachian Trail Museum, 2020).

Sarah Mittlefehldt, Tangled Roots: The Appalachian Trail and American Environmental Politics (Washington: University of Washington Press, 2014).

Johann N. Neem, Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).

Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 487.


Note: This transcript was generated by with light human correction


MILLS KELLY: Hello and welcome to The Green Tunnel, a podcast on the history of the Appalachian Trail. My name is Mills Kelly and I’m your host. Today in the Season Two finale of our show, we’re digging deep into the history of the trail clubs who work tirelessly to maintain the Appalachian Trail. And speaking of maintaining, because of your support, The Green Tunnel has had nearly One Hundred Thousand downloads since we launched the series back in 2021. We hope you’ve enjoyed the show as much as we enjoy making it for you. Stay tuned later in this episode to learn how you can make your support go even further as we gear up production for Season 3.

KELLY: The Appalachian Trail is a pretty unique recreational resource. It began in the early 1920s as an entirely volunteer operation and, despite becoming a national park in 1968, it continues to be a volunteer project. The National Park Service exercises supervisory authority over the trail, but as far as I know, the AT is the only national park where the Park Service lets volunteers run the thing.

KELLY: When the trail project began, volunteer clubs up and down the length of the trail committed themselves to first scouting, then building, and then maintaining the trail. Volunteers built the shelters and their privies. They negotiated with landowners for easements for the trail’s route. Those volunteers have relocated bits and pieces of the trail hundreds, if not thousands of times. They clear blow downs, cut back poison ivy, pick up trash, educate hikers, and do a ton of trail magic. They even pick up and dispose of those incredibly annoying little green bags of dog poop left along the trail and at trailheads.  

KELLY: The number of trail clubs has varied over time. These days, there are 30 clubs whose volunteers go out to the trail on a regular basis to keep it in hiking condition for the rest of us. I’ve been one of those volunteers for more than a decade. 

KELLY: At the moment, I’m the maintainer of the Manassas Gap Shelter in Northern Virginia, a job I’ve had for almost five years. Before that, I took care of a historic cabin in Shenandoah National Park, and before that was a trail maintainer.

KELLY: When I first began researching the history of the AT, one of the things I noticed right away was that the photographs of trail club gatherings in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s were just full of women. In fact, women predominated in many of those photographs. But I struggled to find more information about many of those women and their roles in the clubs.

SARAH MITTLEFEHLDT: For many women from, especially the upper classes, it was kind of an opportunity for them to step out a little bit of you know, traditional gender roles, but it was still kind of socially acceptable for them to be part of these clubs which did serve kind of a social club function but also had like you know opportunities for them to literally get out of the home and house and you know, become more engaged in in the community and in different ways.

KELLY: That’s Sarah Mittlefehldt, Professor of Earth, Environmental, and Geographical Sciences at Northern Michigan University. Sarah is also the author of Tangled Roots: The Appalachian Trail and American Environmental Politics

MITTLEFEHLDT: There's lots of women in these pictures they were out there, but yeah not necessarily leaving a tangible voice behind it, that people could use to record and to talk about but yeah it's it's kind of an interesting conundrum I guess for for historians like, how do you put the voice of people who didn't necessarily leave those records into historical narratives.

KELLY: Women’s involvement in civic organizations like trail clubs is not unique to the AT. In fact, their involvement has a long history, one older than the United States. Since the 18th century, women have been at the forefront of charitable relief, religious reform, and civic improvement efforts that have shaped American society. During the Revolutionary War, for instance, the Ladies Association of Philadelphia sowed shirts for soldiers in the Continental Army. 

KELLY: As Americans struggled with their chaotic experiment in self-government in the early years of the new republic, they became “a Nation of Joiners.” Americans joined humanitarian, charitable, and other voluntary organizations by the thousands. They hoped to improve themselves, and the nation. They created what historians now recognize as the beginnings of “civil society” in the United States, a constellation of organizations and institutions that stood in the space between the individual and the government. 

KELLY: As one historian put it, this “emerging civil society in the early Republic was the major means by which Americans were able, to some extent at least, to tame and manage the near anarchic exuberance of their seething, boisterous society.” 

KELLY: In the 19th century, American women joined clubs in support of the temperance movement, the abolition of slavery, and women’s suffrage. And when they were not allowed to hold leadership positions or speak in mixed-gendered clubs, they formed their own organizations. 

KELLY: Around the turn of the 20th century, women from across the nation joined organizations in very large numbers. They advocated for child labor laws, education reform, basic working conditions, and more. They also continued to champion voting rights. While these organizations were often segregated and made up of middle and upper-class white women, poor women and women of color also formed similar organizations. They promoted similar causes, but also equally important ones, like anti-lynching efforts.

KELLY: But what about conservation and preserving the great outdoors? Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir might be the poster children for the modern conservation movement, but as those old trail club photographs make clear, women played a crucial role in building and maintaining the early AT.

KELLY: To try to better understand how and why, we spoke with Gwen Loose, Vice President of the Appalachian Trail Museum and the author of We Were There, Too: Pioneering Appalachian Trail Women. Gwen has spent years studying the role of women in the AT clubs.

GWEN LOOSE: When they have their club meetings, the women would really help with the committees. They're good organizers, and recruiters,  they would say, well, we need a committee for this, you know, and, and they would take it upon themselves, then to recruit the people. They also added that social element, especially in the Potomac club, they would have square dances, all of the clubs were trying to raise funds. They would have bake sales, or yard sales, or when they had a meeting, they would have some sort of little competition as part of the meeting, you know, put in $1, you know, in order to to be a part of this little raffle or something, you know, so they brought a whole different element. And as a result, things were a lot more fun. And they and they had better ideas as to how to bond together as a club.

KELLY: But women didn’t just add an element of socialization. They were out on the trail swinging axes, running saws, digging, cribbing, moving rocks, and clearing brush, just like their male counterparts.

LOOSE: We have women down there with their pink T-shirts, but they're covered with mud, and they're in mud up above their ankles and they're cleaning up this trail.

KELLY: When you look carefully through the photographs in the archives, you see images of women out on the trail with heavy tools, dirty just like the men, doing the same labor. But just because women were enthusiastic trail maintainers, hikers, backpackers, and trail club members, that doesn’t mean that traditional gender roles or expectations vanished out on the trail.

LOOSE: We did find some of the early pictures of women helping. We have an excellent photograph of some women. And they were cleaning out one of the shelters. That's a very domestic role. You know, and they have the head scarves around them. And they have the mops and the brooms, you know, but nevertheless, it was hard work. And they were out in the middle of nowhere.

KELLY: One of the things that surprised me when I started looking more closely at the role of women in the trail clubs before World War II was the fact that some of the trail clubs instituted 50/50 rules to limit the number of women taking part in club activities. One such club was the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club.

MITTLEFEHLDT: Well yeah sure that it's interesting, you mentioned the GA club, because they were the ones who actually implemented a quota on the number of women, because there were so many women interested in joining the GA ATC that they actually put a quote on there, they have to cap it because they didn't want to become overrun by the women.

KELLY: The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club instituted a similar rule.

LOOSE: It was decided at one of their board meetings, that they were going to put a moratorium on women joining. No more women. For a while they didn't designate how long this moratorium was going to go on. But they wanted to try and get their membership to as close as they could to 50/50. 50% men 50% women. Some of that was because of the social activities that they were involved in. Because they did a lot of square dancing. But what was happening was on these day long and sometimes weekend long excursions, more women were showing up to ride the bus to do those. And I think it's because the women wanted to make sure they got there because they didn't want to go out and do these things on their own. You know, even like one two or three women, they felt more comfortable meeting with the club and going out for the day or the weekend with the club. And so there were more women getting on the bus and doing these things. 

KELLY: According to historian Amanda Regan at Clemson University, the fact that so many women wanted to engage in the kinds of challenging physical activities like hiking, backpacking, or trail work, isn’t really surprising. In fact, Amanda says that the sort of exercise one might get as a trail club member fit nicely into an emerging interest in physical activity for women in the early decades of the 20th century.

AMANDA REGAN: Women begin engaging in what today we would call very gentle stretching. They called it calisthenics. So it was lifting, you know, one or two pound weights that were shaped like bowling pins, they were called at the time Indian Clubs, which has a very complicated history. And they would do you know, essentially what we would describe as as vigorous stretching. One of the things they never did, or you didn't do, you was not approved of was running, because they were literally afraid that your uterus might fall out.

KELLY: That particular fear gives you a sense for how little the medical profession actually understood about women’s bodies at the time. Amanda explains that in the view of many doctors at the time…

REGAN: Women's bodies are meant to do the work of being a mother and a housewife. And not the work, of men, which would have been, oftentimes physical labor. Right. And so their bodies were necessarily built differently. I think there's also when we say expectations, that assumes that Americans understood the female body, which I don't think they did. And, you know, it sort of gets at the idea that the medical establishment and honestly, even physical educators are still trying to understand the expectations of the female body themselves.

KELLY: Increasingly, women challenged the view that their bodies were incapable of vigorous group exercise.

REGAN: There's lots of evidence to suggest that women did what worked for them on a daily basis. Right and so if their passion was the trail and hiking the trail and helping maintain the trail, it did doesn't surprise me that that's what they did.

KELLY: And joining an Appalachian Trail club turned out to be a great way for women to participate in physical activity in a group setting.

REGAN: There are fantastic newspaper articles from the early 20th century that describe how you might use your broom as a dumbbell or you know, how you might use the stairs to get a workout in. And in that scenario, it's a very individualized thing. But in terms of sports, it becomes much more of a group activity when you're talking about team sports. So things like basketball, baseball. Swimming was, especially in the early 20th century, it tended to be a group sport, when you were swimming for exercise. In terms of hiking, there's a long precedent for being a group activity.

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KELLY: Gwen is currently working on an exhibition about pioneering trail maintainers for the Appalachian Trail Museum in Pine Grove Furnace, Pennsylvania and one of the women she plans to feature is Madeline Fleming. Madeline really fits into the picture Amanda Regan describes.

LOOSE: She was with the York hiking club early on in the 1930s. But she also worked with the ATC to help get the Mountain Club of Maryland started. And I talked to a lot of people and they always say the greatest things about Maryland Fleming, that, you know, she was really engaged in getting the trail on the ground in Pennsylvania, all the way down through Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia. I do have some beautiful quotes by Madeline Fleming that I got from some books, where she talks about joining different trail groups and working really, really hard with sore muscles and sore backs at the end of the day and how great she felt. 

KELLY: As Gwen tells us in her book, women held many leadership roles in the early clubs, just not the roles that got them in front of cameras or mentioned in newspaper stories about the trail. In addition to their work on the trail, they organized events, held fundraisers, wrote the club newsletters, and did critical work in club offices. Women including Mary Kilpatrick of the Philadelphia Trail Club took on more and more leadership roles in their organizations, planning and leading group hikes and supervising maintenance trips. Mary also became the first woman to hike every step of the Appalachian Trail, a feat she accomplished as a section hiker in the 1930s. 

KELLY: The trail clubs would not have been as successful as they were without their female members. At the same time, the existence of the clubs gave women easier access to the mountains, to hiking, and to camping. 

LOOSE: Beginning in the 1930s, and I think continuing even today, to a certain extent, the clubs gave the women a structure. And if you wanted to participate, there would be information there that you could follow. In the early days, it would be all the way down to what bus to get on in the morning, what time to get on the bus, where the group was meeting, how they were getting to the meeting site, what to pack for the day, when you would be returning, there was all that structure. So they could do a big adventure in like the Shenandoah was or something, knew how to get ready for it, what was going to happen during the day. And they had a fairly good idea as to what time they would be back. So they could be adventurers. But it wasn't going to be crazy. And even if they would get lost, they would be lost together. Not lost alone. And I think that the women really who gravitated toward this, they wanted that sense of adventure.

KELLY: And, just like their male counterparts, they could use their involvement in the AT as a way to get away from the humdrum of their jobs.

LOOSE: Many of these women were full time workers, and they were at secretarial jobs or were executive secretaries or, you know, did were in decision making positions. Some of them, you know, own their own small companies. So they were their own bosses. But, you know, they really wanted on weekends to be in a different environment. They wanted to be away from the structured way that they were in the office place. They wanted to be more informal. They wanted to be able in early days, they wanted to be able to wear bloomers. You know that was important to some of them. I'm gonna wear some bloomers and I'm gonna put a pack on my back and I'm gonna go hiking I'm gonna wear some old shoes and I'm gonna go hiking, you know, and that was important to them.

KELLY: In other words, the motivations of women in the trail clubs in the 1930s really weren’t all that different from the motivations of women in the trail clubs today.  

KELLY: The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Today’s episode was produced by me. Jeanette Patrick and Jim Ambuske are the executive producers.

KELLY: We want to offer a big thank you to Sarah Mittlefehldt, Amanda Regan, and Gwen Loose for their insights into the experiences of women in the trail clubs. Original music for The Green Tunnel is performed by Scott Miller of Swope, Virginia, and Andrew Small and Ashley Watkins of Floyd, Virginia.

KELLY: That’s it for today and for Season Two of the Green Tunnel. To help us keep making the world’s best podcast about the Appalachian Trail, please go to our website, and click on the Support Us link. From there you can make a donation of any amount to help us keep doing this work. I hope I’ll see you out on the trail soon!

Gwen Loose

Gwen Loose is a lifelong hiker and leader in the Pennsylvania rails-to-trails movement. She is the author of We Were There Too, Pioneering Appalachian Trail Women (2020), which was developed as an extension of the thesis she completed during her graduate studies, which was in American Studies. Loose has served as the Board-Vice President and Museum Curator of the Appalachian Trail Museum since 2009.

Sarah Mittlefehldt

Sarah Mittlefehldt is an environmental historian and a professor in the Earth, Environmental & Geographical Sciences (EEGS) Department, at Northern Michigan University. She is the author of Tangled Roots: The Appalachian Trail and American Environmental Politics (2013), the definite study of the interconnections between environmental politics and the creation and eventual completion of the Appalachian Trail. Mittlefehldt completed the research for her book while thru-hiking the AT, stopping at trail club archives as she worked her way from Springer Mountain to Mount Katahdin.

Amanda Regan

Amanda Regan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Geography at Clemson University. She specializes in digital history as well as late-nineteenth and twentieth-century U.S. history with a focus on women and gender.

Previously, she was a Digital Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow at Southern Methodist University’s Center for Presidential History. She earned her Ph.D. from George Mason University in 2019. From 2013 to 2015 she was a Digital History Fellow at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM). Following her fellowship, she continued at RRCHNM where she served as the Software Development Manager for the PressForward Project and as the Managing Editor of Digital Humanities Now.

She is currently working on a book manuscript entitled, Shaping Up: Physical Fitness for Women 1880-1965, which examines why the fitness of female bodies was a matter of national concern and interest throughout the twentieth century. It is under contract with the University of Virginia Press.