Why Feminism in Surf is Needed – A Response30 October 2019
By Danielle Robertson
This piece is a collection of voices from the female surfing community who wanted to respond to a piece printed in Wavelength magazine in July 2019, which we felt didn’t give a fair or global view of women’s surfing today.
Surf related Feminism or ‘Surfeminism’ is a developing movement. The term itself grew out of meetings of the Institute for Women Surfers (IWS), begun in 2014. IWS is a grassroots political education organisation that brings together women surfers and their allies for mutual learning. It’s an ever growing group of people supporting women to access surf and to claim their rightful place in the waves and culture that surrounds it.
“It’s an idea, a network of political relationships, and a feminist and queer vision of how the world of surfing might be. That vision is much larger than women’s equality with men. It’s about economics, climate, media justice, indigenous sovereignty, motherhood, and the leadership of women of colour.”- Prof. Krista Comer, IWS Founder.
To be a surfeminist isn’t always easy; let it be known that you’re a feminist and you open yourself up to torrents of angry opinions (But what about the men?). Some deny a need for feminism all together, denouncing women who are feminists; claiming it has no place in society today and that women and men have equality. This includes men AND women, some who cite that sexism doesn’t exist because they themselves are yet to experience it. But that’s the clever thing with sexism;
“Sexism doesn’t always operate obviously or loudly. Sometimes it’s insidious, and difficult to put your finger on; difficult to name. Sometimes it’s just a feeling, a knowing, that when voiced sounds petty and like an overreaction. That’s sexism in operation – Silencing women’s experiences and opposition to how things are done because they work for those most privileged by them.” Dr. Rebecca Olive, 2019.
Women who ignore the experiences of other women do so because their privilege is working for them. Their privilege is keeping open their spot in the line up, sometimes at the expense of other women. If only the rest of us were so fortunate, “Just because something doesn’t or hasn’t happened to you – doesn’t mean it isn’t happening to others right this moment on their local beach” – Yvette Curtis, Wave Wahines Founder.
Just being more aware of the issues other face makes you a better member of the surfing community and better able to act on it.
Stories of women being targeted in the surf are frequent enough and geographically spread to prove that it’s not a one off. The sea won’t turn you away for being a woman, but the people in the line up sure will.
“…every woman I’ve met has told me stories of becoming invisible whereby men won’t even look at them, of being made highly visible when they got a good wave and then being blocked for the rest of their surf, of being threatened, abused, assaulted and told to go in, noticing that women will never be fully included as surfers because they’re not ‘normal’ in the line-up”
Before you say it – ‘It’s not all men’ – We KNOW.
These stories come from both women AND men, “Many men have told me of the shame they feel at the behaviours of many men in the surf; of watching them act with violence and aggression towards other surfers, often women.”
We know of and are grateful that there are good examples of positive, inclusive spaces for women in surf. The point is that we have to seek out these spaces as women, something that isn’t always easy with one bad experience often enough to stop a woman surfing, “I am blessed to spend my surfing life with several surf groups where there is a strong feminist culture, which is supported by both women and men. It’s not a coincidence – I have purposefully chosen to spend my time with people who respect, support and celebrate women in and out of the water.” – Helen O’Rourke.
If you’ve found one of these spaces, that’s great. However, for many women this isn’t the case. “For years I was subject to belittlement, mansplaining and harassment from men who thought they had the right to comment on everything about me and my surfing, from my choice of board down to how I should look when surfing. Comments about my body were frequent and how I didn’t ‘look like a surfer’ was a regular pre surf discussion”. – Dani Robertson, Founder of Surf Senioritas.
This kind of behaviour only serves to keep women second guessing their right to be surfing and saddles them with many obstacles to navigate in the water, instead of being able to focus solely on the here and now and which wave will be their next.
What does surfeminism look like? Feminism is something that should be aspired to by women and men alike, “I don’t mean some faux-feminist prattling on to gain woke points, but actual decent behaviour: Guys being considerate when it comes to sharing rooms and getting changed. No sexual harassment. No policing women’s sexuality by calling names… Guys taking time to explain things if women ask for advice, but without patronising… Guys acknowledging that there are female surfers who are better than them…” – Helen O’Rourke.
“As women, just pausing to think about how it felt when we first started to surf, when we first put on a wetsuit or our first solo surf at a new break can help us engage in feminism and to extend our privilege and experience to the women behind us, ‘Surfeminism’ reminds me that I need to pay less attention to who claims rights to the inside and the set waves, and instead look back towards the shore and notice who has paddled out after me, and even who hasn’t felt able to paddle out at all”. – Dr. Rebecca Olive.
“This is what sexism in the water means… in my surfing life, there is no space for me to be quiet in the water. If I am not friendly, or flirty, I’m rude. Men consistently get frustrated and angry with me – specifically – if I surf well and they don’t… I have to laugh and joke that ‘I’m a bitch’ to keep the peace. I’m not a bitch. There is no space for me in the line-up. I can fit by their rules, sure, but I can never say anything about them.” – Melissa
Our message should be loud and clear in and out of the water. The sea is here for everyone, regardless of sex, race, gender, sexuality, disability, class or beliefs. The ocean could be the great equaliser and a powerful tool for all those who need it.
“Having a strong feminist culture in your surf community sends out a message that violence against women is not acceptable, that women who are subjected to abuse will be believed and supported, and that perpetrators are not welcome.” – Helen O’Rourke
So, why do we still need Surfeminism? We believe it should be at the core of our surfing communities. Only then will we be able to truly make an inclusive space in the water for everyone, “We need surf feminism in order to ensure that surfing is not yet another arena in which women are victimised, but rather a place of positivity, joy and healing.”
As surfers, we are all aware of the power of the sea and how positively it can affect our health and wellbeing; for so many this precious resource isn’t available, with many barriers standing in the way, “I can’t count the amount of times women who come have said they’d never do this (surf) if it wasn’t as part of a women’s club.” – Yvette Curtis.
This just scratches the surface of the effects that surfeminism is having on surfing communities; In this response, you’ve heard the voices of many women who represent the diverse and ever growing community of surfeminists; who have been positively impacted by the movement and commit to making surfing a better community for all of us. For every woman who claims not to need feminism, there are hundreds who DO need it. We stand with those who need it, we see them even if they don’t see it themselves, and we will continue to make safe surfing spaces for women the world over.
If you’d like to find out more information about surfeminism or about more women led surf projects please visit;