Unsung heroines: Celebrating the woman behind Outward Bound
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Unsung heroines: Celebrating the woman behind Outward Bound

International Women's Day

This year's International Women’s Day campaign is #BalanceforBetter – calling us all to action to continue driving gender balance across the world. No doubt we are off to a good start, women everywhere – whether athletes or businesswomen – are making waves in the outdoor industry. But there is always more to be done.

At Outward Bound, 20% of our instructional staff are female. This mightn't sound so high, but it’s actually pretty representative when put in the broader context of outdoor industry demographics. We’re currently undertaking a project to explore our instructor diversity, and initial findings show that unsurprisingly, females are significantly under-represented across the board.

There have been some really impressive women in the news of late – British fell runner Jasmin Paris recently broke the Spine Race record and won the race outright. Jenny Graham set the record for the fastest woman to cycle around the world. And in our staff team we’ve also got a wealth of talent, including the first person to solo kayak the 2,700m trip around Britain and Ireland. What’s more, their presence is such that you’d never believe they only made up 20%.

Of course, countless others slip under the radar unnoticed. So we thought there was no better opportunity than IWD 2019 to shout about one particularly amazing but little known outdoor woman, who is very close to our hearts here at Outward Bound. So exactly who was Marina Ewald?

Marina Ewald

Anyone who thinks they know the history of Outward Bound, but hasn’t heard of Marina Ewald, should think again. It almost seems surprising that, given her founding role in the origin story of experiential learning, she isn’t a household name. Or maybe it doesn’t – after all, we’re still fighting #BalanceforBetter 95 years after some of her defining contributions.

Marina was a childhood friend of Kurt Hahn, co-founder of the original Outward Bound Sea School in Aberdovey in 1941. Hahn was an educationalist who also founded the Salem School in Germany in 1920 and the Gordonstoun School in Scotland in 1934. At both of these schools’ expeditions played a prominent role in the education of the students. Both Hahn and Ewald were proponents of the Lietz Country Boarding Schools, founded between 1898 and 1904 and based on a new philosophy of education, orientated towards sociological principles – principles that both Hahn and Ewald took forward in their work.

Marina was a teacher at the Salem School from its inception, and became director of Spetzgart, an expansion of Salem, in 1929. Hahn described Ewald as “a co-founder of Salem. She was a partner in all the major decisions – an educator in her own right…Her contribution is held in high regard.” (1968: 1)


One of Marina’s most notable gifts to the future of Outward Bound came in 1925. Along with another teacher from Salem, she took 20 students on a 4-week expedition to Finland. The idea for the expedition came from Ewald – she was the leader and only woman on the trip, which was a long and hazardous one. It involved travelling by steamer to Finland, and from there buying boats (barges) that could be tied together. The trip started on Lake Saimaa and involved travelling overland by truck and then putting the boats back onto the water on Lake Paijann and sailing down to Lahti in the south. The party camped on remote islands and lived partly by shooting and fishing.

This expedition marked a key turning point in Kurt Hahn’s pedagogical approach. Ewald herself understood the profound impact it had both on the students and on future educational programmes, describing it as:

…like a voyage of discovery. For all the participants it was one of the happiest experiences of those years. Because of its success, Kurt Hahn therefore attached the greatest importance to expeditions carefully planned beforehand and carried out with endurance. They have become an essential part of his educational programme.
Ewald 1970: 34

The success of the Finnish expedition was a key factor behind Hahn’s adoption of strenuous expeditions as an essential part of his educational philosophy. It is perhaps curious, given Hahn’s focus on the development of character in young men as opposed to women, that he didn’t publicly revere Ewald for possessing what might well have been perceived as a quite extraordinary spirit.


Hahn was Jewish, and his fierce public opposition to the Nazi regime meant he was forced to leave Germany in 1933 and move to Britain. Ewald kept in touch with Hahn and visited him until the outbreak of World War II. Ewald continued to be the driving force at Salem during this time, but in the years of the Nazi regime the school went through the most difficult period in its history.

In 1941 the Nazis took control of the school and eventually shut it down in July of 1945. However, just a few months later, Ewald reopened the school free from Nazi influence. Salem was able to pick up where it left off and thanks to her leadership, the school is still thriving today.


So there you have it. The next time you find yourself talking about the history of outdoor education and the inception of the ‘Outward-Bound style expedition’ (and let’s face it – there’s no better dinnertime conversation), you should probably include that the first trip was led by a woman named Marina Ewald. Of those closest to Hahn who had a strong influence on the development of outdoor experiential learning, we’re not sure any can match Marina in having such a defining role. And by the way – all the others were men.

But the fact that Marina’s story is so little known is sadly, not a shock. We know that we still have a long way to go before we have an industry that values and promotes the skills and successes of women as much as men.

Some 2018 research by Land & Wave Adventure shows that in the UK, only 28% of permanent and full-time seasonal staff within the sector are female, and 33% of managers are female. A 2017 study by Camber Outdoors looking at gender equity in outdoor industries shows that there is also still a significant gap between women’s and men’s views of gender discrimination. The study focused specifically on five areas that represent potential hurdles with respect to gender equity and women’s leadership: workplace values; leadership and advancement opportunities; balancing family and career; equity in compensation; and discrimination and sexual harassment. The findings indicate an urgent need for companies to model inclusive behaviour and foster an environment where all employees feel included and respected.

Fortunately, there is some great stuff going on too. Sport England’s #ThisGirlCan nationwide campaign has been getting women moving since 2015. And they’ve just launched their latest initiative – Fit Got Real. Last year, we joined forces with The North Face as part of their #SheMovesMountainscampaign which celebrates a new generation of female explorers. As part of this, The North Face pledged to make changes within their company - starting with equal representation of women in all marketing and content. And they continue to support us in 2019, helping more young women aged 13-19 to take part in summer adventures with Outward Bound.

We think these campaigns are brilliant. But we always want more. More equality. Less bias. That’s why we’re working hard to understand the (lack of) diversity within our instructor team, and the broader challenges that females face within the industry more broadly. If you want to read more (and let’s face it, who wouldn’t?) then our diversity project manager Kate O’Brien has written elsewhere about gender bias –
click here to give it a read

Ewald, M. (1970). Salem School, 1919–33: Foundation and expansion. In H. Rohrs & H. Tunstall-Behrens (Eds.), Kurt Hahn (pp. 22–38). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
Hahn, K. (1968). Letter to Skidelsky, from 7777 Salem, Baden. Dated 14th August 1968. Available from Gordonstoun School Archive, Gordonstoun School, Elgin, Moray, Scotland.

Further Reading

Exploring our Diversity

22 January 18

Creating a diverse team.

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The Importance of Equality at Outward Bo...

12 December 19

Instructor and mentor Nick shares his experience of equality at Outward Bound

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A Career in the Outdoors: Not for me?

11 December 19

Find out what it takes to become a great female leader at Outward Bound.

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