By Jennifer Chambers
Feminism, as defined by Webster dictionary, is “the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes”. For two centuries, women and men have interpreted and debated this definition and many others within the social constructs of various cultures, whether it be women’s sameness to men or an interpretation of differences between the sexes with equal freedoms, choices and opportunities (Offen, 1988). These definitions and the constructs with which they existed (and continue to) have given the word “feminist” and owning that word gave women a negative rap.
Many women of the baby boomer generation owned that word and wore it like a lapel pin. Gen Xer’s and millennial, however, have been more reserved about the feminist label because the fight has been fought and won and feminism has been construed as radical. Even though it is rare to hear a woman today call herself a feminist, women and men have publicly and privately continued the dialogue about equalizing the playing field between the sexes in the context of a wide range of issues. While the outdoor recreation industry and its participants don’t use the word feminism to discuss equality in the outdoors, this issue is present in the minds of and discussed between people working and recreating in the outdoors. I posit though that feminism is not a radical word but an ideology that provides women and girls the freedom of choice and opportunity without social constructs.
What does feminism look like in the outdoors?
- Women’s confidence to go outside our comfort zones, whether it be a solo hike or trying a new outdoor sport for the first time.
- Women’s confidence to lead our own children or others in the outdoors. Many moms and Girl Scout leaders don’t feel confident adventuring into unchartered outdoor territory. They either don’t go or call upon experts in the field for guidance. However, there is a growing contingent of moms who are leading their children in outdoor adventures.
- Hike, backpack, kayak, bike, and ski alone and feel safe in mind and body. While the occurrences of sexual assault of women are lower when recreating in nature (as are crimes on both men and women), it does not prevent women from feeling fear when they encounter an uncomfortable situation with a man. However, this fear and others have not stopped many women from recreating alone. They acknowledge it and move on.
- Avoid blaming the victim for our outdoor choices. All women should have the freedom to have fun outdoors with or without whom they choose. If we get hurt, we accept that responsibility for our conscious choice to participate. We own it.
- A paradigm shift away from the sexualized woman selling a product to the feminine ideal of the real, dirty, smelly woman adventuring in the outdoors.
- Recognize that women come in all shapes, sizes, and skin tones and that this diversity should be represented in the outdoor media and marketing.
- Be the makers of our change by owning more outdoor businesses by and for women. Most businesses in the outdoor industry are owned and managed by men in an industry dominated by male participation. However, women working in the industry have collaborated and created a community to further more women working and participating in the outdoors.
The heart of feminism is that women feel empowered to make choices and create opportunities in their best interests without the constraints of a social construct of how they should think, believe, act or be in the eyes of society. Whether women choose to label themselves as feminists is beside the point. Let’s continue this conversation and include girls in discussions about feminism in the outdoors. Their empowerment builds strong minds and bodies in our young women so they become adventurers and stewards of the great outdoors.
Jennifer Chambers is the author of Best Hikes with Kids: Washington DC, The Beltway & Beyond and Watershed Adventures of a Water Bottle, Founder of Hiking Along, LLC., and middle school Science teacher. She is the board chair for the American Hiking Society and Maryland State Advocate for Leave No Trace.
Offen, Karen. “Feminism: A Comparative Historical Approach”. The University of Chicago Press: Signs, 14:1, (Autumn, 1988).
I really like the sentiments that this article provides about what feminism looks like for women in an outdoor setting.
I do want to point out, though, that there is a strong feminist movement among younger generations and it is not rare to hear women today identify as feminists. Feminism as a term is gaining pop culture popularity with celebrities such as Emma Watson, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, and Ellen Page clearly identifying as feminists. I would argue that this alone is bringing many young people to discover feminism and identify accordingly.
I would also add that feminism in the outdoors also looks like:
1. Working toward identifying the needs of underrepresented groups in wilderness and outdoor areas and how we can further welcome them. This includes women, trans folks, people of color, and people with differing abilities (ie. persons in wheelchairs, persons with anxiety). This could be done by having a queer women of color hike day or making trails less steep.
2.Supporting one another as fellow outdoor enthusiasts regardless of sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, ability or experience. This can be done by being friendly to one another on trails and helping out someone in need.
3. Having discussions about how our connection to nature is a feminist ideology. Nature often viewed as ‘mother nature’ or having a feminine persona while culture is considered male or masculine. The way western society treats nature can be seen as a reflection of how it treats women.
I would love to see this topic expanded and discussed more.
Thanks for your great response! We’ll try to cover this topic more often and more thoroughly.
I’ll admit that the word “feminism” makes me uncomfortable in an outdoor context–because in my mind I sometimes equate it with the notion that I must prove something simply because I am an outdoor woman. I think there’s danger there. However, I think you’re spot in with your definitions about what feminism looks like in the outdoors. Perhaps I need not fear the word “feminism”…thank you for that!
The fight has been fought and won??? Really??? So we have pay equity and equal opportunities abound? The negative label of feminist was ascribed by the dominant narrative and it’s a pity that those with the beliefs so ably described in this story buy into that. I’m willing to not argue about the label but not willing to give up the fight to achieve true equity, politically, economically, or socially. Luckily, strong women such as Sheryl Sandberg, have realized that even old Boomer women like me might have been on to something.
Great article! And I would just like to add that being equally represented in the official park and trail signage would be a great way to show what feminism could look like in the outdoors as well. Because we are “Out There”, with or without the men, and that is a fact that should be recognized in today’s modern society. We hike, bike, paddle, climb, camp, and yep…GIRLS PORTAGE TOO! I truly hope to see this, or something similar along our water trails one day: http://badgergiftshop.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/GirlPortagePoster.jpg
I’m 28 and have proudly called myself a feminist for a long time (so have most of my friends). I’d say it’s growing, not dying. I like your examples and the ones in the comments as well (especially the one about depicting women in signage in an empowering way). One thing I’d add is Girl Scouts needs to get its act together and start taking girls and women out into nature more. How exactly are women supposed to have a love of nature when the venues of accessing it as children are not as available to them as the boys? Let’s change that!