Women are flourishing in climbing today. Just look around and it’s hard not to admire how incredible and far-reaching the female presence is in our sport. It’s true at every level, too—from the very best female climbers who are pushing the limits all the way down to average female climbers, whose opportunities and support abounds.
Lynn Hill freed The Nose (5.14a) of El Capitan and then free-climbed it in a single day—two achievements that are still amazing, if not unmatched, more than two decades later.
Beth Rodden climbed the first ascent of Meltdown (5.14c), one of the hardest crack climbs in the world. And it’s still awaiting a second ascent after thwarting strong guys like Tommy Caldwell and Carlo Traversi.
There are women’s climbing events popping up all over the country, too. There are weekly women’s specific events held at many gyms. Chicks with Picks has multiple events each year. Steph Davis holds a popular women’s crack-climbing clinic in Moab. And Flash Foxy holds a few women’s specific climbing events as well.
The media has produced multiple articles, issues, and magazine covers that highlight women’s achievements in the sport, and discuss women’s-specific issues. There are tons of female-oriented climbing blogs, Facebook groups, and other online outlets for women to connect.
Despite the success, opportunity, and inspiration that I consistently see around the climbing world, I’ve been somewhat confused and disappointed by the recent spate of articles and online commentaries that suggest that women climbers are being held back by a community that is slow to accept their presence. All of which has been launched under the guise of “feminism.”
I’ve read these articles, and I must say: They do not fit the reality I know as a woman and a climber in 2017.
What is Feminism?
The concept of feminism has evolved over the years since it was first introduced during the American and French Revolutions in the late 18th Century. But perhaps feminism’s most consistent ideological bedrock is the idea of “equality between the sexes,” a phrase that still appears in just about every dictionary definition of the word.
Shelma Jun is the founder of female/climbing-empowerment website Flash Foxy, as well as the Flash Foxy Women’s Climbing Festival. She’s been a huge force for female empowerment in climbing, and one of the reasons that we women have it so great in climbing today.
But her article “Adapt and Accept,” which recently appeared in Climbing’s “Women’s Issue,” felt off to me. She began her story describing two experiences climbing the same scary boulder problem: The first time it was with male spotters only, and the second time it was with just female spotters. She describes feeling fear in both situations, but says she only felt comfortable verbalizing that fear in front of the group of women.
After explaining how she got into climbing, she returns with the blunt assessment that, “It’s almost as if women can’t just go out and climb in mixed company. There’s a constant pressure to prove ourselves as strong and capable climbers. With more women than ever climbing, and numbers only going up, marginalizing a huge chunk of the climbing populace doesn’t do anyone any good.”
I don’t want this to come off as a personal attack on Shelma—at all. Like I said, she has been a positive and empowering person in our community who we can all admire. But I do question the logic of her article. Mostly, I wonder how Shelma was actually “marginalized” in her anecdote?
Her female friend offered this bit of advice: “You can bail or try the crux, whatever you want to do, I’ve got you.”
Her male friend, meanwhile, said, “You’ll be fine, just do the move.”
To me, both seem like normal, encouraging statements that climbers make without putting too much thought into what they’re saying. But Shelma tries to argue that this is why “women still feel outnumbered, unwelcome, unsupported, or intimidated” in the climbing community.
Her prescription for this problem? “Climbing’s historically mostly straight, white male population is now seeing more women, people of color, and queer folks, and we all must accept and embrace that change.”
In fact, I would argue that if Shelma herself changed and tried voicing her fears openly to her male climbing partners, instead of harboring an internal resentment toward them, she might have found a type of support that she’d never expected.
As a woman, I understand the need for feminism, but this brand of feminism worries me—it does our gender more harm than good, especially in the climbing field we all love.
Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has identified this “complaint feminism” in many fields. “Today’s feminism,” she writes, ”is not merely out of touch with everyday Americans; it’s out of touch with reality. To survive, it’s going to have to come back to planet Earth.”
Dr. Sommers sees complaint-feminism “drowning in myth-information.” It is deeply hyperbolized. It exaggerates slights in order to provide social justice warriors with a blunt, heavy sword that they can use to clobber any behavior, word, or judgment that they don’t like.
Somehow “equality between the sexes” has devolved into silencing those whose opinions differ from your own.
Unfortunately, complaint-feminism seems to have invaded climbing.
Erin Monahan’s article, “I’m Not Your Babe, Bro,” describes a women’s climbing night at the gym where she works. Her male boss wants to call it “Beta Babes.” Erin, however, finds the term deeply offensive, oppressive, and demeaning.
“Babe,” she writes, “literally means a baby. Informally, it means an affectionate form of address, typically for someone with whom one has a sexual, or romantic relationship with. It can also mean a sexually attractive young woman or girl.”
Sure, she’s got a right to that opinion, but please show me the harm in that term. I’ve been called “babe” and experienced no personal or systemic danger. When I don’t like it, I just tell the person I don’t like it.
Ironically, Erin stopped hosting the women’s climbing night at her gym—probably missing out on a bunch of cool experiences in her protest over a rather benign name.
Further, there’s a level of hypocrisy at play in terms of what we women accept, and what we don’t. It’s interesting that “Beta Babes” is somehow more offensive than “Flash Foxy.” Both catchy names hinge on seemingly sexualized terms. The only difference is that a man came up with one name and a woman came up with the other.
(Again, I respect Erin, her right, and everyone else’s right, to express their opinion on this subject. I’m not trying to call out her character—I just have a different point of view on these issues.)
Is this really the kind of “equality between the sexes” that we’ve been fighting for? More than anything, are we really that sensitive?
Jumping on the Bandwagon
Monahan also suggests that women are often demeaned in bouldering when men touch or grab them in a sexualized way while spotting them. In my experience as a woman who boulders a lot, 99 percent of the time that a man (or a woman) has spotted me, it seems to be with the intention of preventing me from falling and landing in a dangerous, injurious way.
Sometimes men or women touch the other sex inappropriately while spotting. Yes these actions are inappropriate, but they are actions by individual people and they do not reflect systematic oppression.
Also, if a woman (or man) feels uncomfortable with a spot, regardless of the intentions of the spotter, couldn’t she/he just ask not to be spotted?
Other articles I’ve read have used the pretense of sexism to describe situations when men hit on women, stare at them, or give them “unwanted beta.” Yet many women, including me, have given male climbers beta—some of it, sometimes, unwanted. And climbing gyms, like all gyms, can be good places to meet romantic interests. I hit on my current boyfriend at the gym, asking him out on our first date after working on a boulder problem together and having a good time.
These situations may be uncomfortable for some of us … but demeaning, dangerous, and oppressive? I don’t see it.
Again, in these situations, I do not see sexism. I do not see oppression. But I am seeing more and more women jumping on the bandwagon of “complaint feminism”—to our own detriment.
There’s a certain “tribe” mentality at play. You can see this in the way some of these articles and commentaries are being shared by other women online. Women who might not have thought twice about that piece of beta they received from some dude in the gym earlier that week now suddenly see themselves as victims of a male-dominated sport. Their identities as climbers aren’t tied to the routes and boulders they do, but to their ability to consistently vocalize a feminist agenda that scapegoats a part of the male climbing contingent. The result? Often, a shower of affirmation from all the other women in their online circles.
Why are we trying to come together as women at the expense of our male climbing partners?
By calling so much attention to little slights and our own subjective micro-judgments of other people’s normal actions, aren’t we women acting grossly entitled and self-involved? Even worse, by focusing on “micro-aggressions,” aren’t we inadvertently diminishing examples of true aggression in the world: the sexism, violence, and suffering that truly prevent women’s participation in business and government, or access to education?
Dr. Sommers’ position on this point makes very good sense: “Exaggerated claims and crying wolf discredit good causes and send scarce resources in the wrong direction.”
Lets Share the Blame
I decided I needed to ask my climbing friends, female and male, how they felt. Did the recent articles and commentaries reflect reality as they see it? Or did parts of this discourse bother them, too?
After interviews via phone, email, and in person, I discovered that there were many women and men who were afraid to share opinions that didn’t align with the “complaint feminism” narrative about sexism and oppression in every corner of our sport. They were afraid of scrutiny and wanted to avoid being attacked online.
One male friend told me that if he said any of the things he had heard me say, “I would be called out as a sexist, a woman-hater, and probably alienate a good chunk of my friends.”
I wasn’t able to find a single male friend who would go on record with his thoughts—which is sad, don’t you think?
Fortunately, some of my female friends were willing to speak out publicly and graciously let me quote them here. Each of them told me that the attack-heavy, female-oppressed brand of feminism does not represent them. These friends—all empowered and successful—rejected the idea that our current climbing culture is anything other than extremely supportive of women.
In fact, they pointed out that their “masculine” friends were extremely important to their climbing, both in making them feel uncomfortable when they needed that, and helping them feel comfortable when they needed that, too.
My friend Tessa Jones said, “I have certainly had a few negative experiences with both my female and male climbing partners, but in general they have been very positive. To be perfectly honest I have had more negative experiences with women than men.”
She explained: “Look, every woman has her own experience, but I have climbed with women who did not want me to do well because they were comparing themselves to me, or preferred to be the center of attention. I’ve felt emotionally assaulted by women while climbing, but have never felt intentional negativity from a man.”
Melissa Main, who was the #3 climber in her age group at the World Championships in 2007, told me she felt more judged by women than men. “I’m small and thin and women will say to me, ‘Must be nice to have no body weight.’ In words and tones, they’re telling me I’m not as womanly because I’m not curvy.”
The reality is that we’ve forgotten, in our politically correct culture, that men and women are sometimes rude to one another. This type of behavior may be reprehensible, it may make us feel like shit, but it also has little to do with sexism. Further, using feminism as the tool to fix this leaky roof is doing more harm than good.
“We are all impacted by the people around us regardless of sex, but because of the baggage we carry with us, we may be more sensitive to a specific gender regardless of their intentions,” says my friend Tessa.
I worry that complaint-feminism will result in a climbing community in which women are fragile creatures who can’t even handle an errant touch, a word they don’t like; a glance, frown, disagreement, or even a biting comment—and men are to blame for every little slight.
I wrote this essay because I don’t believe that we should be making enemies and villains out of men in response to our own fear of discomfort. This does no one any good. We should be doing more as women to include men as equal partners, as we expect them to do for us.
Life is supposed to be uncomfortable. The psychologist Angela Duckworth makes this point beautifully in her bestseller, Grit. In this story, her father often told her she was not very smart. This was painful for her and there were certainly some dark undertones to his cruel comment. However, she took that discomfort and turned it into a strength. Someone told her she wasn’t smart, and she proved that person wrong and became wildly successful as a result. This was her grit.
I hear comments from women saying, “He thinks I’m not strong enough to do this climb,” and, “Men assume I’m weak because I’m a woman.” These comments, once again, may be rude, they may hurt, but credit is due where credit is earned. We all must prove we are strong before people assume we are. This goes for everything in life, not just climbing. Show your strengths, have grit, and earn respect.
Likewise, when someone tells you that you’re too short to do a move, or that you’re too weak, or that your beta is all wrong, or that you shouldn’t be afraid in a situation where you are, turn that discomfort into a strength. Prove that naysayer wrong.
What’s interesting, however, is how frequently “that naysayer” is actually just the voice in your own head. So often WE are the ones who are telling ourselves that WE are too short, too weak, and too afraid. It’s time for us to stop blaming that voice on the people around us, and start using it as the grit we need to succeed.
The 65 percent of women, cited in the Flash Foxy survey, who say they’ve felt uncomfortable in the gym (compared to the 29 percent of men) might do well to begin by analyzing themselves first before demanding that everyone around them cater to their every sensitivity.
I don’t deny that real sexism exists in society, but, in climbing, I do not see the same plight. In fact, I see a multitude of opportunities for women to succeed, to continue pushing the sport, and to continue leading by example.
Let’s keep doing that while showing respect to all of our climbing partners.
Davita Gurian, 23, is a University of Washington graduate who lives in Seattle, Washington. Raised in Spokane, she joined a climbing team at 13 but didn’t start climbing seriously until she was 18 and moved to Seattle. She’s been climbing consistently ever since, citing Squamish as her favorite area.
She says: “I credit climbing with giving me confidence that I didn’t know I had, and an amazing community. To all those who supported me in writing this article, and all those I quoted, please accept my gratitude. I also want to thank everyone who gave me feedback on how to improve and edit it.”
You can follow her on Instagram.