Call it a new wave of feminism, call it a reaction to the current political climate, but there is a concerted push to get women outdoors — women’s-only trips, women’s classes, images and stories of women adventurers. One example: REI’s Force of Nature campaign, launched in April to “level the playing field,” has crossed from marketing to activism by earmarking $1 million for nonprofits that help girls and women get out.
Wait a minute. Haven’t we already done that? Casual observation yields lots of women out hiking, biking, camping and more, especially here in Minnesota, the land of explorer Ann Bancroft, outdoor activist Amy Freeman, record-setting marathoner Janis Klecker, and YMCA Camp Menogyn. Why this focus on women? And why now?
Statistics tell part of it — a 2016 Outdoor Foundation report found that of those who participated in outdoor activity, 46 percent were women, 54 percent men. In aggregated annual studies from 2009 to 2015, the website Statista shows women’s participation growing but still lagging behind men’s.
In talking with local outdoorswomen, the takeaway is it’s a complex issue. More than skills or gear, outdoor activity requires time, money and confidence. Women, in general, make less money than men, have less leisure time, and are less confident. Some women have overcome entry barriers, only to find patriarchal attitudes at higher levels, too.
“For women who are participating in wilderness experiences, relying on their bodies to connect with nature can be a mind-blowing experience. But you have to get there first,” said Dr. Britain Scott, professor of psychology at the University of St. Thomas. “There are still differences in the way we socialize girls and boys. Our culture continues to define femininity in ways that put women at odds with their natural self, so that it’s difficult to adhere to the feminine ideal and use your body effectively in the natural world. Kim Kardashian is no closer to a natural human who could confidently move through the outdoors than June Cleaver.”
Scott’s work shows that the way women are encouraged to look and act “alienates women from their natural bodies and limits women’s nature-embedded experiences.” For example, she asked a roomful of men and women if they owned clothing or shoes that made it impossible to run or climb. All of the women raised their hands. She gave the example of a group of men and women on a monthlong wilderness trip, and asked if they would emerge from the experience looking more feminine or more masculine. Dirtier, less-groomed, hairier, stronger? All masculine traits.
In addition to a beauty ideal that’s incompatible with outdoor activity, women have less leisure time than men. “Constraints on women’s leisure time hasn’t changed since the 1960s,” Scott said. “We’re just doing more. Women are still socialized to be more available for their families than men, both in terms of time and emotional support.”
Alyce Kuenzli, 30, of Minneapolis has paddled the length of the Mississippi River. She and Lisa Pugh paddled the world’s fourth-longest river system. She’s been an Outward Bound guide and established the Source of Confidence adventure programming for women. Kuenzli credits YMCA Camp Menogyn and her mom, also a Menogyn alumnae, with encouraging her to be confident and take positive risks in the outdoors. “Menogyn was an incredibly powerful experience,” Kuenzli said. “Before I went — I was 16 — I’d never met another woman who wasn’t constantly talking negatively about her body.”
Despite strong female role models and a long list of accomplishments, Kuenzli does not believe the outdoors is a level playing field. “With men, there’s an assumption of ability and legitimacy,” she said. “I’ve had to prove my skills and that I know what I’m doing. On our expeditions, men would ask us, ‘Do you know where you are?’ and ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ The assumption was that we did not.”
Kuenzli also felt all-women’s expeditions are taken less seriously than similar adventures undertaken by men. “Male expeditions get more press and more sponsors. When I e-mailed a company, I was coming in with a deficit in the sponsors’ mind.”
Kendra Stritch, 35, of Stillwater is a professional ice climber, having twice won a gold medal in that event. From her perspective, women’s participation in outdoor activities is a matter of degree: She sees plenty of women participating outdoors at a recreational level. “It’s when you get to the competitive level, women in leadership roles, women guiding and setting ropes, and in riskier sports, that the numbers really drop off,” she said.
Stritch credited her parents for encouraging her to take positive risks and be competitive. “We promote competitiveness with boys, but turn around and tell girls it’s about making friends and being part of the team,” she said. “I never lacked for people to look up to. The fact that more role models were men wasn’t a problem for me.”
Ironically, the competitiveness, strength and leadership that helped her be successful outdoors had alienated her from other women. “I’ve taught a women’s [climbing] clinic for six years now, but I was hesitant at first; I didn’t want to teach it,” Stritch said. “I’m comfortable being the only woman in a group of male climbers, but I never hang out with 12 women. I’ve never had that many female friends. Women are my competition. I changed my mind after teaching the women’s-only clinic. Men will talk over women — they’ll ‘spew beta’ — in a mixed-gender class. I’ve seen lots of women thrive in an all-female environment. That said, I think women’s-only is useful for introducing skills, but I don’t think it’s beneficial at a high level. Once you’ve got the basic skills, having men in the group is beneficial — they tend to push everyone to a more advanced level.”
Continued Stritch: “The climbing community likes to think they’re enlightened and beyond gender and race issues — that’s not true. There’s an assumption that women’s objectives are easier or done in a lesser way. For example, when I say I’m going to Denali, people will ask or assume I’m being guided. I’m not. I’ve witnessed sexual harassment. I have two gold medals in ice climbing but am not sponsored. That may be because I live in the Midwest, but there are some pretty blondes whose climbing résumés are not all that, and they’re sponsored. Which is fine if companies were honest about just wanting a pretty face, but they profess to supporting top climbers, and they’re not. Women have more time constraints; they’re expected to do child care on top of having careers, while it’s a common attitude that guys need time to do their thing. These are the same inequities our larger society deals with.”
While Stritch admits some of the media attention on women in the outdoors may be a marketing ploy, she thinks it has resulted in better fitting, more functional gear for women. “Would it [women’s gear] make or break my decision to do an outdoor sport? No, but it sure has added comfort.”
Needed: leadership roles
Marketing ploy or not, Stritch thinks media attention keeps the gender equity conversation going. A valuable thing in her mind. “I feel like we’ve been talking about gender forever, and we’re nowhere near ‘fixing it.’ It’s really complex — hundreds of years in which men have been socialized to go out and hunt, and women are socialized to stay home. But it’s also economic. If you’re working two jobs, you don’t have time to take your kids to the park, much less on a two-week camping trip.”
Twin Cities-based adventure filmmaker Brenda Piekarski, 39, of Minneapolis is a little concerned that media attention on women specifically will be seen as negative, implying that women’s accomplishments can’t compete with men’s. Pretty good, for a woman.
Conversely, she said she thought women-centric stories might be beneficial if they inspired women to not only get outdoors but to push their limits. “There are a lot of women out there, participating, but I think they need to be encouraged to push a little harder to get to the top levels, so women are setting the top ropes, teaching people, guiding, competing. Those positions are still mostly men. And because there are far fewer women at the top levels, particularly in riskier adventure sports, the prize structure and pay for elite female athletes is less. That’s where gender becomes an issue. Maybe the conversation needs to be not just on women in the outdoors but women in leadership roles.”
While she has not faced gender discrimination behind the camera, being a woman was a disadvantage in pitching projects to potential sponsors. “Once, I was going to present some things and it was suggested I get someone else to do that because ‘I was not the face of adventure.’ They thought a man was a better fit for the brand,” Piekarski said.
Hunting and fishing are arguably among the most heavily male-dominated of all outdoor activities. Gender barriers are there and, yet, interestingly, this is an area where woman-centric programming has been most effective. The Becoming an Outdoors Woman (BOW) program, through the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), started in 1994 with two workshops per year attended by about 160 women, and now has two large introductory workshops and 69 small group classes for specific skills. The program serves upward of 1,100 women per year.
“There are a number of reasons it’s grown,” said coordinator Linda Bylander, 58. “One is that it’s run by the DNR — we’re not trying to sell anything, we have credibility and, because the classes are taught by volunteers, it doesn’t cost a lot of money. Another is the design of the workshops — they’re one-third hunting, one-third fishing and one-third other outdoor skills. A woman might come because she’s interested in geocaching, not guns, but she’ll be introduced to hunting too. It’s not an intimidating entry point, it’s a supportive environment, and she’s meeting women with similar interests.”
Having someone to hunt and fish with is vital. “The social connection is important for everyone, but men often have hunting buddies,” Bylander said. “Women may not have friends in their immediate circle who want to go bowhunting.”
Since 2000, the biggest growth in hunting and fishing has come from women. The number of men in Minnesota with a hunting license has gone down slightly since 2000. The number of women with a hunting license? It’s risen 17 percent in that time period.
Sarah Barker is a freelance writer from St. Paul.
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