The Fight for Gender Equality in Surfing

Keala Kennelly, charging at Teahupoo. Photo: Thouard

Surfing is one of the biggest inspirations of my life. It has changed me in ways I can’t begin to understand. And yet — and this is its charm — it is amazingly free; a pure sport dependent only the wind blowing across the sea and my ability to paddle out and catch waves. It’s just me and the waves and the ocean treats everyone the same. So when I am reminded of the long history of discrimination against women in professional surfing I know this has nothing to do about riding waves. Rather it is about some people believing they can control the rights to those who can compete and make a living as a professional surfer. Unfortunately, even now professional women athletes around the world receive very little notoriety or pay compared to men.

A depiction of women surfers over time: from left: Playboy models and wetsuits ads; Margo Oberg, first woman surfer on the cover (1981) and the first all-woman magazine issue (2018).

Sexism isn’t new in surfing and was rampant in the 1960s when big wave surfer Buzzy Trent famously summarized his opinion: “One thing I can’t stand is girls riding, or attempting to ride, big waves…girls are much more emotional than men and therefore have a greater tendency to panic…” (Warshaw, 2010). Indeed, it wasn’t until 1981 that a woman, Margo Oberg, made the cover of Surfer magazine, despite winning world championship competitions in 1968, 1977, 1980 and 1981. Meanwhile, Surfing magazine followed with a Playboy model on the cover in 1981 and debuted an annual bikini issue shortly after that. Woman surfers were depicted as cute beach bunnies but marginalized as athletes. Up until the 1900s, magazines and filmmakers largely ignored female surfers; there were no wetsuits or swimsuits designed for women and prize money was a small fraction of men’s.

If they were being derogatory towards women, it was other women not me. Then it slowly dawned on me [that I was not really part of their world]. It’s like a family you’re not allowed to belong to.” – Pam Burridge, 1990 World Champion

Given this treatment, it’s no wonder that women only made up 3% of the worldwide surfing population. This situation changed in the 1990s when the male-based surfing industry realized female-targeted magazines, clothing, and films could be lucrative (Warsaw, 2010). Lauren Hill describes the shift in Surfing World magazine :

By 1999, the industry was in full swing again, women’s boardshorts were in production by all of the big brands, longboards were back, women’s surf magazines existed, all-girls surf contest circuits ruled, and Hollywood was in the process of making Blue Crush to show the world the struggles and joys of growing up as a girl surfer. In 1999, the year I started surfing, I had the privilege of blossoming in a golden age of women’s surfing. A renaissance. I could rip ten photos of women surfing out of women’s surf magazines and tape them to my wall. It changed the way I saw myself, other women, and what “normal” looked like for a girl.

The increased attention to woman surfers, along with powerhouses such as Lisa Andersen, Layne Beachley, and Rochelle Ballard, helped motivate other women to start surfing and by the late 1990s women made up 15-20% of the surfing world (Warshaw, 2010). It was a new era, and in the early 2000s, surfers such as Keala Kennedy began challenging men by riding big waves at Teahupoʻo, Tahiti.

Layne Beachley won seven World Titles from the tail end of the 90s through to the mid-2000s and never once scored the cover of a national Aussie surf mag. Photo: Servais

But, despite these gains men pushed back when it came to big wave events. And the invitation-only all-men Titans of Mavericks event, which began in 1999, soon became a focal point for inclusion and equity issues for women surfers. The controversy, remarkably, echoed Buzzy Trent’s age-old arguments: women aren’t capable of surfing big waves and will get hurt or die.  Along with that was the self-fulling prophecy that there weren’t enough women to invite to the event. As was seen in the past, lack of female role models impedes the inclusion of women in sports, so this was just another example of the men holding women back for arbitrary reasons. Arguments about ruining the sport and diluting the talent pool are also ridiculous and only weaken surfing in my eyes. It is sad to see how such a free and pure sport has been taken over by corporate interests with a narrow interpretation of how competitions and endorsements should look like. What is even sadder is the successful male surfers that support these injustices.

Sure, some woman will get hurt and may even die in these contests. But so do men. It’s a choice everyone makes for themselves. Anyone that decides to surf in big wave competitions deserves respect. Sure, as with men, women need to be competent to surf competitively in big waves, but saying that experienced big wave chargers like Bianca Valenti, Keala Kennelly, Andrea Moller, and Paige Alms are not qualified is absurd. Together these women, along with San Mateo County Harbor Commissioner Sabrina Brennan and founding counsel Karen Tynan co-founded the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing (CEWS). And CEWS has been instrumental in advancing the equity issue in professional surfing at Maverick’s, one of the most challenging big waves in the world.

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Center for Equity in Woman co-founders (from left) Andrea Moller, Bianca Valenti, Keala Kennelly, and Paige Alms. Photos: NY Times.

Because the Titans event required a permit from the California Coastal Commission, CEWS, along with many supporters, such as SurfRider, used that venue to push hard against Cartel Management, the company behind the Titans of Mavericks event since 2014, to include women (see videos below).  In 2017, these efforts were rewarded when two women were invited along with 10 men to Titans. It was a good start, but far short of CEWS goals of parity with the men in contest heat format, the composition of the selection committee, and prize money.

The all-male lineup for the Titans of Maverick’s contest in 2009. Women were not invited to the contest until 2017. And only often strong efforts by CEWS and its supporters. Photo: Mavericks Surf Ventures/Seth Migdail .

To everyone’s disappointment, the 2017 event was canceled when Cartel management filed for bankruptcy as they faced a variety of unrelated lawsuits. In 2018, the World Surf League picked up the event and again, after pressure by advocates who worked for decades to help advance women’s surfing, created the Maverick’s Challenge, which created equity in format and prize money between men and women.  In fact, the victory was much broader as the WSL now has equal prize money for men and women surfers in all of its worldwide events.

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Photo from WSL’s press announcement on equity for men an women prize money in all its events. Photo: WSL.

Like the roles of equity, inclusion, and diversity in our society and institutions, engaging in these principles will only enhance surfing. I have always welcomed the rare woman in the lineup and enjoying watching them surf. Yes, they may surf differently than men but why should they be the same? Each of us brings our own personal experiences and intuitions to riding waves. That’s what’s it all about. So let’s not make arbitrary judgments and create discrimination in our pure sport.

Rell Sunn, one of the most smooth and graceful surfers on the planet. In the 1960s, with virtually no competition for women, Rell entered men’s events, almost always making the finals. By 1975, she and other pioneers had inspired women to take up the sport and found the Women’s Professional Surfing Association and establish the first professional tour for women. Photo: Jim Russi

I feel compelled to address this issue because although the World Surf League has made a major step forward, many issues remain. Challenges include changing the attitudes of sponsors, judging, media coverage, and promoting more women of color into the sport. Organizations like Brown Girl Surf, work to “build a more diverse, environmentally reverent, and joyful women’s surf culture by increasing access to surfing, cultivating community, amplifying the voices of women of color surfers, and taking care of the earth.” The world is changing and surfing, with its transformative and healing abilities, needs to open its doors to everyone.

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The future of surfing: participants in the 42nd Annual Rell Sunn Menehune Surf Contest. Photo:

The obvious truth is that women that ride big waves are strong, fierce, courageous professional athletes. They deserve the respect than men receive for being exactly the same. But instead of listening to my voice, listen to the woman who stepped up in defense of equity against insurmountable odds. And although they have created a huge step forward they very fact that it proved so difficult shows that much work remains.

And if we care to listen, the all mighty ocean is teaching us a lesson here. We are all helpless against its power and surfing teaches us to go with the flow. The waves don’t care about our gender, sexual orientation, or the color of our skin so why should we? Institutions built around surfing should honor that, not create barriers to those that want to make a life built around loving the sea.

Testimony at the California Coastal Commission regarding gender equality for the Titans of Maverick Permit, Nov. 2, 2016.

Sabrina Brennan, San Mateo Harbor Commissioner,  discussing inequity in surfing at Mavericks.

Trailer for It Ain’t Pretty, A documentary about the challenges and triumphs of female big wave surfers fighting sexism in the water, in competition, in the media, and in the surf industry with the support of a closely-knit community of like-minded

Keala Kennedy’s TEDx talk on inequity in surfing and facing the fear of big waves.


6 responses to “The Fight for Gender Equality in Surfing”

  1. What is this progressive bullshit? If women want to surf, they’ll surf. They don’t need you white knighting for them, you male feminist.

    • ikr, it’s not like there was a problem with women surfing in the first place. this is fucking america, not saudi arabia. be grateful that you live in one of the most accepting countries in the world, at least the most accepting it can get. “fight for gender equality in surfing,” who are you fighting exactly?

  2. Great inspiration for all the women. Must stay wonderful blog. I love this! I’ve only surfed once in Hawaii but it was an absolute blast, and this seems like a great experience. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Surfing is a sport that is more about skill and technique and less about strength and overall power. This is one of the main reasons that no matter what the gender of the surfer is, anyone can surf; and there is no perfect age to surf as well. Female competitors have the ability to surf just as well as their male counterparts. While a sport like boxing or wrestling relies greatly on the competitors’ ability to out-power their rival, surfing is all about knowing the techniques, how well you can read the wave, and being able to maneuver and get around without falling down.

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