Final Paper- The Climb of Gender Equality: Women’s evolving role in the sport of mountaineering

Mac Gwinner
Dr. Greene
HSTR 4/001
5 May 2016
The Climb of Gender Equality
In the year 1838 in the heat of August, Henriette d’Angeville became one of the first women to attempt and summit Mont Blanc, just outside of Geneva (Brown, 14). The accomplishment of such a task and summiting Mont Blanc was one to be hailed whether performed by a man or women due to its difficulty. When one views mountaineering from the outside perspective they see a sport primarily dominated by males for a quite a length of time. However, due to women such as d’Angeville women, for the past few centuries have been steadily gaining rights, recognition and privileges when it comes to mountaineering. As the nineteen hundreds progressed, it is stated in an article by Katie Ives from the Alpinist, “Gradually, more women started to image themselves into pictures that once seemed to belong only to men” (Ives). This trend of women steadily gaining an image in mountaineering continued throughout the better part of the nineteen hundreds and into the twenty first century. It was not, however, without its many obstacles similar to those faced by women in general society. Ever evolving, however, was the role of women in society and in mountaineering. Due to the work of women throughout the western world the role of women in mountaineering would continue to evolve and become ever more prominent.
The history of women within the sport of mountaineering is a complex history, which has many times been swept underneath the rug. Since the late eighteen hundreds there has been a strong background of women climbing many of the same mountains in conjuction with men. For both men and women alike in western society mountaineering represented a “certain amount of breaking of convention” which allowed freedom from the usual constraints of a verging industrial society (Brown 6). For women throughout western society especially, the sport presented women with an early outlet to break from the domestic sphere and finding a way of “enjoying a freedom of physical expression largely denied in other spheres of life” (Brown 7). Indeed, throughout much of mountaineering women were present in the sport of mountaineering. They made advancements in the sport that were largely ignored by society because they were performed in tandem with male accomplishments. It is not until the modern era with the introduction of multiple waves of feminist movements and many rights being afforded to women that they gained prominence and recognition within mountaineering.
While women were present in the mountaineering community in the early nineteen hundreds and late eighteen hundreds, they were by no means as present or prominent as men during this time period. This is due in part to a lack of writings coming from the women’s sphere on the subject of mountaineering. It was not until the early twentieth century that women would begin to write their own publications and exploits in mountaineering through mediums such as the Ladies Alpine Club in London (Brown 94). However, even with mediums to speak of their exploits in the sport, women’s publications did not attract the same amount of attention as their male counterparts due to their submissive and domestic role within society.
As beliefs in the nineteenth and twentieth century progressed more and more women were becoming accomplished mountaineers in their own right (Brown 99). Many accompanied their husbands on numerous expeditions into the Alps, while others set out on their own climbs. At the same time women were making their own path in the world of mountaineering, however, it was not without obstacles many met fierce male antagonists who sought to keep women in the shadows of mountaineering, by silencing their voice (Brown 99). Indeed, as a western culture women were often regarded as unable to participate in serious climbing adventures. Women were regarded as equals with men in going on nature “walks” and hikes even outnumbering men in such activities (Brown 123). However, they were seen as unable to participate in anything more serious than these simple hikes with males.
As the twentieth century progressed, following the first wave of feminism, the golden age of mountaineering emerged. Yet, women remained in relatively the same position as they had been in the previous decades. As increasingly more stories of men climbing Himalayan mountains began to emerge, women were largely discluded from the discourse (Ives). With the change of time the 1950’s were seen as a time when women and men’s gender roles were clear cut and easy to see. However, as it is stated in Kate Ives article the gender roles were anything but clear. It is true that there were fewer women climbing mountains than men during this time due to the general oppression of women in western society.
There were a few women who saw the postwar years as a time of “bold exploration” of mountain terrain (Ives). None the less while women were making progress in the mountains their accomplishment in all walks of life were being largely ignored. Many during this period, like other eras, would question women’s motives for climbing many believing they were crazy or selfish for leaving the domestic lifestyle. It is best put by Nea Morin as to why women climb, “I imagine the answers must be much the same for women as for men” (Ives). While women would not during the fifties receive the same recognition until much later as their male counterparts they were largely equal in the difficulty and skill of climbs that they were attempting.
For many femininity and women possessed a threat to the stability of nations throughout the western world. With men such as Teddy Roosevelt referring to the feminizing, especially in the outdoors, of nation being a danger to men throughout the country (Bayers 22). With the advent of the 20th century and the subsequent increasing freedoms that had been attested to minority groups white males felt their grasp on many of the institutions slipping. This idea holds true for the sport of mountaineering which had progressively seen an increase in female and minority participation throughout the twentieth and twenty first century. Males had long seen mountaineering as a form of proving one’s own masculinity. One can see this trend dramatically increase with the advent of the industrial revolution. During this period of time, and with the end of the frontier many, throughout america, believed civilization was becoming too feminine which would threaten the very values that the “nation’s identity” had been built upon (Bayers 18). For many upper and middle class men mountaineering was an enticing form of proving one’s masculinity and ruggedness in an ever more feminine world (Bayers 18). For many men mountaineering represented a reprieve from women in society. For many femininity and the attributes that were feminine were associated with the domestic, whereas traditional male attributes were more broad and related closely to nature and bravado. It is due to this thinking that many women were denied well deserved recognition and privilege within the sport of mountaineering because for many persons in the United States and the western world femininity had no place in the outdoors. This is best shown in the article Wanting the Children and Wanting K2 by Susan Frohlick, “In many societies being feminine has been defined as sticking close to home. Masculinity, by contrast, has been the passport to travel.” (Frohlick 479). This passage clearly exemplifies the clear distinction between masculinity and femininity and why to many femininity in nature was widely regarded as threat to the status quo.
There were a number of tactics and strategies employed by males within society in order to condemn women who participated in mountaineering. One of the most prominent and long lasting arguments by males within mountaineering is that women are selfish to leave behind their families in order to climb. Women throughout american and much of western history were expected to remain at home with the children in order to take care of the domestic while the husband earned the wages and participated in the public sphere (Frohlick 478). Women who ventured on mountaineering adventures either on their own or with companions while leaving behind children were many times regarded as “bad” mothers (Frohlick 479). Many of these women who were modern women were seen as “selfish” and trying to act like a man, rather than just women attempting to participate in a sport (Frohlick, 478). When it came to men they were very rarely questioned when they left behind a family and their families sacrifices and roles in their careers were oft overlooked by the media. This issue has been improved on in the past few decades, however, there are still undertones of this double standard present within the mountaineering culture.
The next issue that plagues women in mountaineering is the idea of first female ascents. By defining ascents by gender one is inevitably creating a divide between both women and men in mountaineering. It appears that through defining an ascent as female that one is almost calling into question a woman’s ability to climb. It is stated by Ives, “It seems odd to think, in 2015, that we might still need to defend the idea that women can be creative, exploratory alpinists” (Ives). By creating a strict barrier between the two sexes in their ascents one does just this. The idea of defining ascents by one’s sex is a barrier that continued to restrict many women in how their climbs are viewed by the western population in general.
A more subtle obstacle that women face in today’s mountaineering industry is the equipment. It is an issue that plagues not only the mountaineering market, but all of the women’s sport clothing markets. In an article by Gwen Cameron, who was writing a review on a harness for the Alpinist she states, “It seems like much of the “women-specific” clothing and equipment on the market is renamed men’s versions that are painted pretty colors” (Cameron). It truly seems that as this passage suggests there is little thought put into women’s sporting equipment and when there is, an assumption is made that all women would appreciate wearing a bright pink peacock on their feet or body. This issue of gendered sport wear, however, is slowly beginning to dissipate like many of the other issues that face women in sports such as mountaineering. The article later goes on to say that the harness, that is specifically tailored to women, was nothing like a man’s harness, rather it was a well thought out and wonderful product that contoured to women. While some of the mountaineering equipment made for women was simply gendered by its color there has been a conscious effort by some companies to produce well thought out gender specific equipment.
With the emergence of the 1970’s and the modern era one can see a clear increase in the role of women in mountaineering. The onset of the second wave feminism in the late sixties and seventies and subsequently third wave feminism, women within the greater western society began to gain more and more recognition and rights. This held true especially in the mountaineering community. Entire books were beginning to be written on women in mountaineering and they were finally it seemed gaining their overdue recognition within the sport. In the more modern age women are regarded, by female and male authors, as some of the “world’s best climber” a far cry from how they were referred to in previous decades (Noble xiii). However, what might seem like full equality at times is often only half hearted attempts shams of equality. Which, do not accomplish the goal of women and men being seen as equal in the sport. Do not mistake in the modern era that women have made leaps and bounds in the sport of mountaineering. They have transformed their role in mountaineering and through their influence made it a less masculine and more gender neutral sport than it had been previously (Noble xiii). There are numerous modern books that are dedicated towards children on mountaineering that are quoted as being equally dedicated towards the goal of gaining the interest of boys and girls (Noble, 4). It would appear as if women are regarded in the same light as men within mountaineering, however, they are still separate from men. Many articles for the Alpinist demonstrate this with headlines such as All Women’s Team Scales So and So Peak with many articles about women holding a similar title to this. While it is wonderful that women are gaining prominence and recognition within mountaineering they are still seen as a separate entity from men which is not true equality. It is stated by Katie Ives, “Stories about women that seem to gain the most attention remain those of first female ascents” (Ives). Through this passage one can clearly see that there is, even in our modern day, a line drawn between women and men.
In addition to this thought women, such as Madaleine Sorkin, who is considered one of the top climbers in the world, are still conscious of their gender in climbing and identify that they are the minority in the sport even to this day(Noble 238). This is not to say that because of this they are more restricted than men in the sport. Rather in the words of Sorkin “women have a different experience than men” for Sorkin it means climbing the same pitches as men and attempting to prove herself equal (Noble 239). This passage perfectly shows how far women’s roles in mountaineering have come. In our modern age there has emerged this mindset that one cannot and should not generalize the genders because each and every individual climber is different in their own right (Noble 227). Indeed, Women’s and men’s strengths and weaknesses are defined not by their sex, but rather by what they as individuals are capable of and what they can improve on as humans. (Noble 226). This is in stark contrast to the previous thoughts on mountaineering where it was almost a strictly male dominated sport.
The progression of women’s roles in mountaineering has been evolving dramatically even in more recent history. An example of this is Lisa Rand, an accomplished climber in her own right grew up in the seventies and eighties directly following the women’s liberation movement, which in theory should have been a liberating experience (Noble 202). This was sadly not the case she says that it limited her in her ability to express herself in climbing she stated that, “Female climbers were not that common” (Noble 202). Indeed, ten years ago she would have said that women did climb differently (Noble 202). It is because of this one phrase that one can see that even in our modern day there is a struggle for women’s roles in mountaineering. They are still evolving to become ever more equal and prominent. However, in the decades following the women’s movement more and more women emerged into the climbing world and she states that “today young women do not approach climbing any differently than men do” (Noble 202). Through the story of Lisa Rand one can clearly see that in the past few decades mountaineering for many has made leaps and bounds.
The future is always uncertain when it comes to society and how certain aspects of it will advance. However, when it comes to equality in mountaineering it looks like a bright future for future generations. With numerous female climbers joining the ranks of their male counterparts and even swelling the ranks of guides to mountains all over the United States and western world (Noble 12). Through texts such as Women Who Dare by Chris Noble the gender equality gap is beginning to narrow much faster than in previous years. It is through the work of men and women within american society and mountaineering that gender equality is slowly becoming a foreseeable future for the mountaineering community. These texts and others like them had created a climate for women to gain a more prominent role and representation in mountaineering. This trend does not seem as if it will alter course which speaks to a brighter future for women in mountaineering and a more equal role within the sport.
The fight for gender equality continues to rage throughout society. Whether it be the fight for equal pay or the fight for equal opportunity and representation in the sport of mountaineering each of these battles are in the name of equality. While american and western society have made massive improvements in this area there is still work to be done. The role of women within mountaineering has evolved from one of oppression and a lack of representation to a role of prominence in which their stories grace the pages of books and they are looked upon as some of the greats of climbing.                             The work for both men and women is not done by any means when it comes to equality, however, through the aforementioned examples in the previous paragraphs one can see that the role of women in mountaineering has come a long way from when it first began.

Works Cited
Bayers, Peter. Imperial Ascent Mountaineering, Masculinity, and Empire. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2003. Print.

Brown, Rebecca. Women on High Pioneers of Mountaineering. Boston: The Appalachian Mountain Club, 2002. Print.

Cameron, Gwen. “Petzl Selena Harness: Women-Specific, but Lacking Function.” The Alpinist. Mountain Standards Blog. 11 January 2011. Web. 23 April 2016.

Frohlick, Susan. Wanting the Children and Wanting K2’: The incommensurability of motherhood and mountaineering in Britain and North America in the late twentieth century. Winnipeg: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2006. Print.

Ives, Katie. “Sharp End: Off the Map.” The Alpinist. November 6, 2015. Web. 26 April 2016.

Noble, Chris. Women Who Dare North America’s Most Inspiring Women Climbers. Guilford: Morris Book Publishing, 2013. Print.

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