Women in Surfing: From Shadows to the Spotlight
The roots of surfing can be traced back to ancient Polynesia, but its journey to the West brought with it a gender bias. Mid-20th-century media often sidelined women, casting them as mere spectators to the male spectacle.
This skewed portrayal might have given the impression that the realm of surfing was exclusively male. Still, the tides of time would tell a different story.
Women began to emerge, not just as learners seeking basic surfing instructions but as formidable forces redefining the very essence of the sport. These pioneers tackled the waves and deep-rooted societal norms, demonstrating that the ocean’s call was universal.
The Rise of the Wave Breakers: Women’s Surfing Evolution
In the shadow of the towering waves and the male-dominated arenas of the 1980s and 1990s, a resilient group of female surfers emerged, challenging the status quo and rewriting the narrative of a sport steeped in gender bias.
The glaring disparities were impossible to ignore. The 1989 Huntington Beach OP Pro in California was a stark reminder when a female official decided to axe the women’s event to bolster the prize money for male surfers. Yet, in a move dripping with irony, the bikini contest was retained. This slight did not go unnoticed. Led by the fiery Smith twins, Jorja and Jolene, a protest erupted, culminating in the revival of the women’s event.
But the waves of discrimination continued to crash. Fast forward a decade, and the 1999 Jeffrey’s Bay contest in South Africa was another instance of sidelining women surfers. Delegated to compete in subpar conditions, they chose unity over submission. In a powerful act of protest, they collectively sat at the water’s edge, refusing to paddle out—a moment now etched in the annals of surfing history.
The documentary Girls Can’t Surf illuminated women’s journey in the ’80s and ’90s when the sport was rife with misogyny. These trailblazers faced challenges on and off the waves, enduring discrimination and prejudice.
Trailblazers like Australians Jodie Cooper, Pam Burridge, and Layne Beachley; South African Wendy Botha; and Americans Frieda Zamba and Lisa Andersen, weren’t merely battling for respect in competitions.
They were confronting societal biases, from dealing with discrimination due to their sexuality to facing criticism for capitalizing on their looks for sponsorships or modeling gigs. Among these, Pauline Menczer’s journey stands out.
Despite clinching the world champion title in 1993, she received no prize money and grappled with sponsorships, all because she didn’t conform to the surf industry’s ‘beach blonde’ stereotype. Her tenacity, mirrored by many of her contemporaries, saw them resorting to innovative ways to sustain their passion, even if it meant using board bags as makeshift beds during events.
Their collective struggle paved the way for the next generation of female surfers. By 2019, the World Surf League took a monumental step, announcing equal pay across the board for male and female competitors. Today, when women tackle the formidable waves at venues like Pipeline, the legacy of the women from the 1980s and 1990s resonates.
Their journey—a testament to resilience, determination, and the unyielding spirit of womanhood—continues to inspire and shape the future of the sport.
The Powerhouses of the Waves: Today’s Top Women in Surfing
The realm of surfing, with its roaring waves and the majestic ocean dance, has witnessed a significant evolution in gender equality. No longer is it just a sport dominated by men. Today, women have carved their own path, standing side by side with their male counterparts and, in many cases, even surpassing them.
In a landmark move in 2019, the WSL (World Surf League) announced equal prize money for both male and female winners, solidifying surfing’s stance on gender equality. As we gaze upon the horizon, a new wave of young surfers, both men and women, some even under 25, are making significant strides in the sport.
Let’s dive into the currents of today’s top women surfers after the season’s initial events:
1. Molly Picklum (Australia)
At just 20, the Australian dynamo Molly Picklum holds the top spot. This prodigy, only in her second year on the Women’s Championship Tour, has showcased her prowess, outpacing her rivals and setting herself apart.
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2. Tyler Wright (Australia)
A seasoned surfer, Tyler Wright, has an impressive track record with 15 victories under her belt. At 29, she’s eyeing another top spot this year, previously dominating the waves in 2016 and 2017.
3. Carissa Moore (Hawaii)
Carissa, from the shores of Hawaii, is a legend in her own right. With four world titles and a place in the Surfing Hall of Fame, she’s not just a surfer; she’s a trailblazer.
4. Caitlin Simmers (United States)
Despite being the youngest in the championship, Caitlin’s talent is undeniable. With a victory in Portugal, she’s a rising star to watch.
5. Tatiana Weston-Webb (Brazil)
Tatiana, who started her journey in Hawaii and now represents Brazil, has consistently proven her mettle with multiple victories. She’s a force to reckon with.
6. Caroline Marks (United States)
Caroline’s journey, which began at the tender age of 15, has been meteoric. With multiple victories and a representation at the Tokyo Olympics, she’s a testament to passion and perseverance.
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7. Gabriela Bryan (Hawaii)
Another gem from Hawaii, Gabriela Bryan, is setting sights on the Paris Olympics 2024. Her ambition is only matched by her talent.
8. Bettylou Sakura Johnson (Hawaii)
A young prodigy, Bettylou’s journey in professional surfing has only just begun, and she’s already making waves.
9. Stephanie Gilmore (Australia)
Arguably the best female surfer in history, Stephanie’s accolades speak for themselves. With eight world titles, she’s a legend in the surfing community.
10. Isabella Nichols (Australia)
Isabella, another Australian powerhouse, has showcased her talent repeatedly, with victories that have solidified her place among the elites.
As the season progresses, these rankings might shuffle. But one thing is sure: these women are not just participants but pioneers, redefining the surfing landscape.
Stay tuned for more updates as we navigate the thrilling waves of this championship season.
Conquering the Legendary Pipeline
Anzai Pipeline, located on the North Shore of Oahu, is one of the most iconic and revered waves in the surfing world. While the Pipeline Masters was an exclusive domain for male surfers from its inception in 1971, the winds of change began to blow in the latter part of the 20th century.
Pioneers like Joyce Hoffman made a mark in the early days of women’s surfing at Pipeline. Widely credited as the first woman to surf Pipe, Joyce and others like Candy Calhoun and Nancy Nelson were foundational figures in the wave’s contemporary history, bravely venturing into the fierce break and laying the groundwork for future generations.
The 1970s and 80s saw the rise of a new breed of female surfers. Margo Oberg, Lynne Boyer, “Banzai Betty” Depolito, and Becky Benson became prominent figures, tackling the North Shore’s heavy waves with determination and grit. Jodie Cooper was particularly notable, recognized as one of the first women to master heavy barrels at adjacent spots like Backdoor and Off the Wall.
The turn of the century brought forth the “Blue Crush Era.” Surfers like Keala Kennelly, Rochelle Ballard, and Lisa Andersen were trailblazers, fearlessly charging Pipeline and expressing their dreams of winning contests at this world-renowned break.
The following decade, from 2010-2020, saw growing demands for women’s inclusion in high-profile contests at Pipeline. This culminated in the city council of Honolulu voting unanimously in January 2020 to support the inclusion of women in North Shore contests.
By December 2020, the Women’s Championship Tour (CT) final was moved to Pipeline, marking a significant moment in women’s surfing history. Tyler Wright, winning the first-ever women’s CT contest at Pipe, reflected on the importance of this event, emphasizing the challenges faced by women in getting practice and recognition at this iconic break.
Fast forward to 2022, the Women’s CT saw its first official event at Pipeline. North Shore local Moana Jones Wong outperformed all, including reigning world champion and Olympic gold medalist Carissa Moore, showcasing her prowess as a Pipeline specialist.
The legacy of these women and their contributions to the sport is undeniable. Their tenacity, skill, and determination have paved the way for future generations of female surfers to take on the legendary Pipeline, proving that the wave knows no gender bounds.
The Olympic Wave
Women in Surfing Olympics: Breaking Waves and Making History
Surfing’s Olympic debut at the Tokyo 2021 Games was a significant milestone not only for the sport but for women in surfing. The inclusion of surfing in the Olympics demonstrated a global recognition of the sport’s cultural and athletic importance, and for female surfers, it marked an equal playing field—both in waves and in representation.
The Tokyo Olympics ensured equal participation for men and women in the surfing competition, echoing the sentiments of gender equality that have been gaining momentum in the surfing world. This wasn’t just a nod to modern inclusivity but also a testament to the struggles and strides made by the women of the waves.
Carissa Moore, a name synonymous with surfing excellence, clinched the gold for the USA, becoming the first woman to win an Olympic gold in surfing. Her victory was not just a win for her country but a beacon of inspiration for young female surfers worldwide. Moore’s story, as we’ve previously touched on, is a testament to the dedication and indomitable spirit of women in the sport. Her Olympic success further cements her place as one of the trailblazers in women’s surfing.
But it wasn’t just about Moore. The Olympics showcased talent from around the globe, highlighting female surfers from various backgrounds and narratives. From Brazil’s Silvana Lima to Australia’s Stephanie Gilmore, the diversity of talent was evident, and the stories of perseverance were aplenty.
The Olympic stage also highlighted the next generation of female surfers, signaling a bright future for women in the sport. With surfing confirmed for the Paris 2024 Olympics, there is an enthusiastic anticipation among fans and athletes alike. The Olympic waves have set forth a new chapter for women in surfing, one where their stories, struggles, and successes will continue to inspire and break barriers.
The incredible women in surfing have not only learned how to surf but have also transformed and elevated the sport. They’ve shattered stereotypes, inspired generations, and shown that there’s more to surfing than just riding waves.
As we celebrate their accomplishments, we’re reminded of the limitless potential within all of us, whether we’re looking for surfing techniques for beginners or aiming to revolutionize the sport. The waves await, and these trailblazing women have shown the way.
(2019 World Surf League) Tatiana Weston-Webb
The saga of women in surfing is an epic tale of strength, stoke, and an unwavering chase after aspirations. From the trailblazing mavericks who dared to defy convention to the contemporary champions reshaping the surf scene, their narratives are an endless source of inspiration.
As we carve our paths through the ever-rolling sets of tomorrow, their legacy stands tall, a lighthouse guiding us to the boundless horizons of the sea, where adventure knows no limits.
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