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When I think about key words to describe 1950s America, I often think of the word conformity. I do not consider the 1950s some bygone golden standard of ‘goodness,’ because any person who has lived through or read accounts of life in 1950s knows it was a mix of good and bad, like most decades.

Some scholars dub the 50s as an age of consumption or the rise of consumerism, as the US economy shifted from production-based to consumer-based. Some call it an era of prosperity. The US did not return to the Great Depression, as many feared at the end of WWII, but the prosperity reached mostly white Americans, not the African Americans due to institutionalized racism or to the Hispanic Americans who arrived in large numbers through the bracero program. I think conformity is a better descriptor for the decade because of the role of fear in society – fears of integration, fears of communism, fears of being ‘different,’ fears of nuclear weapons, fears of a return to economic depression, and fears of another world war. Often, people respond to fears by ‘circling the wagons’ and focusing on conformity. While most in the US did not conform to the ideal of a white suburban family with a few children and a stay-at-home mom, many Americans seemed to uphold this ideal, despite being unattainable for most Americans.

American evangelicals seem especially prone to conformity, particularly in the 20th century. When we think of groups at the cutting edge of society, do we think of evangelicals? When we think of people pushing boundaries and change, do we think of evangelicals?

The Pioneer Girls Clubs and camping programs, established in the 1940s by a group of women at Wheaton College, pushed against the idea of conformity in the 1950s. The Pioneer Girls encouraged women to be leaders and serve God, whether as overseas missionaries, through local missionwork, and even careers in evangelical organizations. Pretty edgy for the 1950s, no?

The Pioneer Girls purpose, as outlined in a brochure:
TO WIN girls to a personal knowledge of Christ as Saviour. TO BUILD them spiritually through experiences which encourage good habits of Christian living and lead toward Christian maturity. TO DEVELOP in girls well-rounded lives and gracious Christ-centered personalities. TO TRAIN them in effective Christian leadership and emblem

Camp Cherith (KEE rith), the Pioneer Girls camping program, underlined the importance of teaching girls leadership skills to use in the evangelical church and wider community. While at the same time instilling ‘feminine’ qualities and skills that corresponded with domestic work, the Pioneer Girls also professed a commitment to evangelical leadership training for women. As the historian Timothy Larsen notes, “for Pioneer Girls in mid-twentieth century America, being ‘Career Girls’ was not a term of suspicion or disapproval, but rather an option in life to which girls were explicitly invited to aspire.”

Joan Killilea encountered the Pioneer Girls, gave her life to Christ, pursued a degree at Columbia Bible College, completed a graduate program in missions, and spent her career in the mission field. In fact, Killilea had the opportunity to marry, but “had her eyes fixed on another goal.” Killilea’s story, published as a biography by the Pioneer Girls, exemplified the desire of the Pioneer Girls to nurture and promote successful evangelical women with careers in ministry. PG girls campThe Pioneer Girls considered her a role model to emulate and Killilea’s biographer noted that many Pioneer Girls became Christians and entered the ministry as a career because of Killilea. Most of the directors and leadership of the Pioneer Girls were single women who, in the 1950s, allowed women to “envision a life of singleness or a career outside of being a housewife and mother.” The Pioneer Girls did not explicitly encourage women to remain single, but it did encourage young postwar girls to pursue God’s work, whether through marriage and family, part time work, or through full time ministry. The emphasis was on answering God’s call, not the social appropriateness of the work God called these women to do.

How refreshing!

The Pioneer Girls provide a useful complication to the traditional historiography of the postwar period as a period that primary emphasized careers of motherhood, even if the Pioneer Girls themselves did not envision themselves as actively pushing gendered assumptions about women and work in postwar America. While the Pioneer Girls did not encourage women in pastoral ministry or attempt to groom female leadership in the traditional church leadership channels long dominated by men, I find it reassuring and encouraging to see this small group of evangelicals pushing back against the conformity of the era.

What are evangelicals doing now to push against conformity?  If evangelicals pushed back in the 1950s, an era of conformity, surely evangelicals can push back in this era.  If Romans 12 urges us to avoid conforming to the patterns of this world, where is this happening? How can we be better informed of evangelicals who are already doing this and supportive of ways to push against the tide?

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    This was a good reminder and a thickening of the narrative. Thanks.

  • Doris Rikkers says:

    Thanks for sharing this history. I never knew this! Although I grew up Christian Reformed in NJ, I was a Pioneer Girl at my aunt’s baptist church and thoroughly enjoyed it. In the summer after my freshman year at Calvin, I became a camp counselor at Camp Cherith–a rich and eye-opening experience. I think this had a greater influence on my life than I realized.

    • Rebecca Koerselman says:

      I’m so glad you had a positive experience with PG! I love how explicit they were about training up female spiritual leaders in a time when that wasn’t exactly encouraged.

  • Marjorie A Vander Wagen says:

    As a mother of 3 daughters, I tried, really tried to establish a Pioneer Girls group at my church. I thought it would help my daughters and all the other girls in church and friends they might invite. I ran into 2 large road blocks. The pastor would not sign the forms to establish a program at our church. The second roadblock was a mother of boys who was against it because I didn’t offer and run a program for her boys.
    I am sorry I missed out on a valuable opportunity.

    • Rebecca Koerselman says:

      Interesting and disappointing. Ironically, the Pioneer Girls were started because there was a Christian program for boys, but not for girls, so women got together to create the Pioneer Girls.
      What were the reasons for not allowing the program at your church?

  • So campy! 😉 Thanks, Rebecca (and welcome back!).

    • Rebecca Koerselman says:

      Thanks, Buffalo Doug! The weather gets warmer and I start to think of camping….summer camps….working on an article about summer camps…. 🙂

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