As we exit Women’s History Month, I wanted to first share an article (linked below) that impacted me greatly when I found it in 2018. At that time I was very hard on myself, pushing myself to be “as good as the guys”, always trying to prove I belonged in male-dominated spaces.
While I’ve never done anything quite as intense as these ladies’ Antarctic expedition, I resonate with every word from their story. Being a woman in the outdoors is truly a different experience. There is greater weight to your limitations culturally and socially: they can get attributed to your entire gender, reinforcing ideas of being “weaker”. Things are changing now, but as an adolescent climbing the bigger mountains I would count the women we passed, because there were so few of them. I could often count them on just one hand.
Even still today, when seeing other women on the trail is common, on long-distance backpack trips I usually only see other women for the first four, maybe five days. Anything beyond that and it’s stepping into a man’s world. Male backpackers sometimes comment on how it’s surprising to see me so far from a trailhead. Even today when I backpack solo, people sometimes stop me in disbelief, asking how I’m so brave.
On one such solo trip, an older man took it upon himself to interrogate me in the parking lot about how much water I was bringing (plenty) and then warned me that I would probably have a difficult time further up the trail in the snow. However, when I got there it was only a small flat patch about 50 feet long, and easy walking. I had been singled out and my competencies grossly underestimated, because of assumptions that were made just by looking at me.
A stranger hit on me during a life-or-death situation ice climbing a treacherously steep glacier at 10,000 feet altitude. I’ve been taught I should feel flattered by this – because apparently the male gaze determines my worth.
Sledding down a steep snowy slope with my male best friend, I was having the time of my life – at first. We were chatting and hooting and hollering from a distance with a couple of men who were there adventuring as well. When we walked up closer however, one of the men’s demeanor suddenly changed. After exclaiming “Oh! You’re a girl!” his tone changed to mimic how you might talk to a child and he called me “sweetheart”. Apparently my bulky snow gear and hat had hidden my womanly figure and long hair, allowing normal human interaction between us until my gender was discovered. When my best friend spoke up saying “She’s not your sweetheart”, the man became irate, cursed at us, and marched away over the crest of the hill, friend in tow. The wilderness should be a place where all is natural and in balance as it was intended to be. But for women this is often not the case.
I’ve heard men I’m close with make hurtful jabs at other women on the trail: “She sure is gutsy to do this alone!” “She’s probably meeting her husband”. “Maybe someday you’ll take up needlepoint instead.” These are actual comments I’ve heard over the years from men who know me well. At a young age it became clear to me the summit could only be reached by breaking through an ice ceiling.
The way I was received as a woman climber and backpacker taught me to view myself as an anomaly. Women were generally weak and helpless but I was somehow an exception. I was still, of course, a class below the men but allowed to be there nonetheless. It became increasingly difficult to love my womanhood while believing the traits I loved most about myself were manly, and rare happenstance for a woman.
There is more equal representation in the backcountry now than ever before, thanks to ground-breaking women who have mountaineered before us. But the fact that I’ve witnessed the shift even just in my own lifetime speaks to how a woman’s experience in the outdoors community is unique from that of a man’s. Eliminating the discrimination we face still has a long ways to go. I’m thrilled by the history-making women in this article and by all women everywhere who are unapologetically blazing trails in whatever form that takes for them. Every day we ascend new heights!