For Women’s History Month, let’s salute five female Scouting pioneers

Mary Portis was the first female Scout executive in the BSA. Photo courtesy of Randy Ritter

When the news broke that Catherine Pollard had won her 14-year battle to become the BSA’s first official female Scoutmaster, she got a basket of flowers from three women in Georgia.

These women, Pollard later told The New York Times, were “running a Scout troop under the table” and were “so glad the ice is broken.”

“I raised boys — I know what life’s about,” Pollard said. “Times have changed. It’s about time they realized anybody can do anything if your character is good.”

We’ve come a long way since 1988, when the BSA executive board unanimously voted to allow women to lead Boy Scout troops. But that historic occasion 34 years ago was hardly the first impactful moment in the history of women in Scouting.

Women have been a vital part of the Boy Scouts of America since the beginning — serving at the unit, council and national levels to help shape this life-changing program.

Today, in honor of Women’s History Month, you’ll meet five of those women. As impressive as this quintet of women might be, they represent just five of the countless female Scouting pioneers throughout history.

Catherine Pollard, the BSA’s first official female Scoutmaster

When no male leaders volunteered to lead Troop 13 of Milford, Conn., Catherine Pollard stepped up. She served as the troop’s unofficial Scoutmaster from 1973 to 1975, according to the Associated Press. Under her leadership, Troop 13 more than tripled in size and produced five Eagle Scouts.

She was a self-proclaimed “tomboy” who loved camping, chopped her own firewood, drove a tractor and rode a motorcycle, The New York Times wrote.

But her status as the top adult volunteer in Troop 13 wasn’t formalized until February 1988, when the BSA eliminated gender restrictions on all volunteer positions.

Pollard, who was 69 at the time, put her old uniform back on (“I can still get in it,” she told The Times) and returned to her post — this time officially.

“I do think that this is marvelous, because there have been women all over the United States, in fact all over the world, that have been doing these things for the Boy Scouts because they could not get a male leader,” Pollard said. “But we could not get recognition for the things we’ve done.”

Mary Portis, believed to be the BSA’s first female Scout executive

Photo courtesy of Randy Ritter

The candidate for Housatonic Council Scout executive was listed simply as “M. Portis.”

As the committee reviewed applicants, it became clear that M. Portis had the right skills, experience and demeanor for the position. She was, as it turns out, the right woman for the job.

M. Portis was Mary Portis, and she had used that abbreviated first name to stave off any gender bias, even of the unintentional kind. When the council made its hire official, they made Portis the first female Scout executive in BSA history.

“We knew we were breaking ground, but mostly we were very comfortable with the person we hired,” says John Rak, who was the council’s president at the time. “She was a great person. Very outgoing. Very friendly. And also, very knowledgeable. She knew what our needs were, and she addressed them in the interview. It was actually an easy hire.”

You can read more about Portis, who died in 1992, in this touching tribute by Aaron Derr.

The post generated several supportive comments from Bryan on Scouting readers, including this one from a reader named “friendofall”:

Mary was our district executive for [the] Saginaw District in Stratford and Bridgeport, Conn., at a time when I was both lodge chief for the Order of the Arrow in Fairfield County and active in the district running camporees. I can’t say enough good things about her. She truly was both the consummate professional and a warm and dedicated Scouter. I’m glad to see that her contributions to both councils are remembered and that her amazing achievement is memorialized in this article. May her memory be a blessing to us all.

Ellie Morrison, the BSA’s first female national commissioner

Ellie Morrison signed each of her Commissioner’s Corner columns the same way: “Yours for Better Scouting.”

That was fitting, given that Morrison has made Scouting better throughout her time as a volunteer.

In 2018, she became the first female member of the BSA’s National Key 3 when she was named the 11th national commissioner. That’s a role first held by Daniel Carter Beard, the outdoorsman and author who was one of the BSA’s founders.

Serendipitously, Morrison’s two-year term as national commissioner included Feb. 1, 2019, the day girls were officially welcomed into Scouts BSA.

“As those young women earn their Eagle Scout Award, they will take their place alongside young men,” Morrison said in 2019. “Only time will tell where that will lead them and our country, but we know they will be prepared to do great things together.”

Morrison’s own list of “great things” began long before that exciting day.

She chaired both the New Unit Task Force and the team that created the Commissioner Award of Excellence for Unit Service — an honor for commissioners symbolized by a gold square knot on a red background.

She’s also a recipient of the Silver Buffalo Award, which is the BSA’s top honor for volunteers. Through it all, she has been steadfastly focused on ensuring that families new to Scouting feel welcome and supported.

“When men and women work side by side with respect and towards a common goal, great things happen,” she said. “That can be seen in action every day in the BSA.”

Ann W. Nally, the first woman to serve on the BSA’s National Court of Honor

The volunteers on the National Court of Honor have the final say when determining which Scouts and Scouters should receive lifesaving awards like the Honor Medal, meritorious action awards like the Medal of Merit and distinguished service awards like the Silver Buffalo Award.

Today, that group includes a number of accomplished female Scouters. But in 1984, Ann W. Nally became the first woman to join this important committee.

That was just one in a string of firsts for Nally.

In 1969, she became one of the first three women invited to the national Cub Scout committee, joining LaVern W. Parmley and Solveig Wald Horn as women shaping Cub Scouting’s future at the national level.

“When they joined the national committee, a lot of innovative things started to happen,” says John Horn, another member of the committee.

In 1971, Nally became one of the first recipients of the Silver Fawn Award, presented for “outstanding service by lady Scouters.” That award was short lived. In 1974, the BSA announced that all Silver awards — Beaver, Antelope and Buffalo — could be awarded to both men and women.

Sure enough, in 1975 Nally was one of the first women to receive the Silver Antelope Award, presented for outstanding service at the region (now territory) level.

Nally led the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Cub Scout program in 1980, wrote about Cub Scouting for Scouting magazine, and presented the Silver Buffalo Award to, among other high-profile individuals, William H. Webster, who is the only person to have been director of both the CIA and FBI.

Nally herself received the Silver Buffalo Award in 1982, with her citation noting she was a “community servant, parent and dedicated Scouter.” Others who received the red-and-white Silver Buffalo medal that year included President Ronald Reagan.

Some of the members of the inaugural class of female Eagle Scouts

The inaugural class of female Eagle Scouts

For our final pioneer, we couldn’t pick just one. So how about 1,000?

No list of female Scouting pioneers would be complete without the inaugural class of female Eagle Scouts — a group that includes any young woman who became an Eagle Scout between Oct. 1, 2020, and Feb. 8, 2021.

These were the first young women to earn the BSA’s highest rank — but they won’t be the last.

Michael Freeman introduced you to a few of these impressive young women last year — Eagle Scouts like Radha Carollo of Troop 1667 in San Diego.

“Eagle Scouts are leaders within Scouting but also leaders of innovation and social justice within the wider community,” Radha says. “I am proud to be an Eagle Scout and a mentor to younger girls who aspire to the same.”

Radha, like all the women on this list, prove that women have been a driving force behind the continued success of Scouting. And they’re just getting started.

About Bryan Wendell 3270 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.