He’enalu. Fa’ase’e. Se’egalu. Surfing.
When you think of surf’s history, do you picture girls as part of it?
Surfing has existed for over 1,500 years and has almost always included girls. It has also been a harbinger of change, opening doors to girls and women worldwide as it spread from its ancient Polynesian roots to the competitive sport it is today.
Journey with us through surf culture — from ancient times to today — to discover the story behind the legend. We’ll look at the challenges faced, the gear, the guts, the glory, and how modern surfer girls are changing our world. Girl Museum presents, Surfer Girl.
Hawaii was where the first real surf culture developed. All members of society participated, and Hawaiians had as many names for the types of waves and breakers as Eskimos have for snow. In Hawaii, surfer girls were called “wahine” and were equal to men in the sport.
Anuhea K. Jumawan, a student from Windward Community College in Hawaii, explores the mythology and history of surf culture in her video.
Surfo planing girls, Coolangatta. Queensland State Archives, Digital Image ID 2058.
Agatha Christie surfing. Image credit: SurferToday.com
In 1963, Linda Benson became the first woman to surf Waimea Bay at the age of 15. Four years later, the Western Surfing Association’s new AAAA division included four women: Joyce Hoffman, Joey Hamasaki, Margo Godfrey-Oberg, and Cathy Lienherd.
In 1968, 15-year-old Margo Godfrey-Oberg won the World Title; she would win the title again in 1977, 1980, and 1981 before becoming a surf instructor in Hawaii.
“…I see Australian surfer girls visible in many artefacts from the surfing past. I see them in the iconic 1966 film Endless Summer. There are Australian girls surfing in bikinis and flirting with the boys. I see girls in the extra footage in the documentary about Australian surf history, Bombora, which was released in 2010. I see them in the background of photos of the travelling male surfers of the 1960s and 70s. I read about them as wives and girlfriends in letters the now well-known men shared during that period. I see them in the personal photos that women show me on occasion. I hear about them in the stories that men and women tell me of their youth surfing along the east coast of Australia.”
“Excluding girls from how we remember the surfing past means that girls continue to be left out of the ways we represent and imagine surfing today. From my experiences with surf media, many people just don’t think of including young women in their publications, which has ongoing impacts on whether or how women are able to be included as surfers and in surfing culture. It limits the potential participation of girls, by making it harder for them to imagine doing so.”
Surfer Girls in Art Podcast
Our GirlSpeak podcast for December 2014 features a discussion of how surfer girls have been represented in art from the time of European arrival in the Pacific until the mid-1900s. Click below to listen to, download, and share this podcast.
Surfer girls of today don’t just battle enormous ocean waves, all around the world these girls also have cultural expectations, stereotypes, and pressures from their own environments to grapple with. Every day is a challenge.
Cori Schumacher has been surfing competitively since she was 8 years old. Since then, she has won multiple shortboarding and longboarding titles. Besides her impressive prowess as a surfer, Cori has also gained acclaim for her activism for women in surfing against negative media stereotypes.
While the reigning 2010 Women’s World Longboard Surfing Champion, Cori chose to boycott the 2011 World Tour on moral grounds, because one of the events was held in China, a country that is guilty of human rights violations, particularly against women.
FLUX is a documentary essay that examines sexism in a modern surf culture where “female surfers are portrayed not as athletes, but as objectified, beautiful bodies.” Alongside this, the documentary displays how both girls and women can be affected when they don’t fit into the tall, slim, blonde, heterosexual and beautiful category and highlights how 95% of us do not fit into these categories and the documentary yearns towards a more diverse media representation. The film was made by Chapman University’s Sarah Lee, Chad King and Mia Montanile for Project W.
Surfing gear is more than a simple board. It incorporates technology, sustainability, innovation, and sometimes multiple generations of surfers.
“Surf Betty” is a brand of boards designed by NSP for girls and women to surf. Essentially the main differences between these boards and normal boards are the size, which has been made more ideal for women by generally being short and thinner and have more stereotypical female based patterns.
Whilst they are heavily genderised, the importance of having boards suited for women riders, particularly beginner surfers, is crucial and it helps to invite girls into the water.
Sustainability and Surfing
In the Spanish region of Murcia, the brother and sister team of Angel and Gloria Rodriguez Arnal formed richpeoplethings, a company that makes surfboards from recycled wine corks. Their mission “is to create value-added products from raw material that would otherwise be value-less waste. Connecting the corks is our current project and goal; we want to collaborate with social organizations that use surf as a tool with kids, as a therapy, or to help people who just need to smile.”
In 2oo8, they created the first 100% natural cork surfboard of the world.
Team: The Grover Family
Gear doesn’t include just the material parts of surfing. It’s also important for surfer girls to have a supportive team, and most often that comes from their families and fellow surfers.
1964, Linda Baron (Grover) was first introduced to surfing when her Dad, Gean, took her to The Daytona Beach Surf Shop to buy her first board. Linda went on to be a successful competitive surfer for the Daytona Surf Shop. Linda’s experience with surf gear included working with Disney to test a wave machine that was designed to go in front of their Polynesian Hotel in Orlando, FL.
Linda and her husband Dave, now in their 60s, continue to be active surfers. A phone call from Linda to their daughter April, a professional surfer, led to April appearing in the MTV series Surfer Girls.
There are many risks associated with an extreme sport like surfing and with the ocean. From fear of sharks, to injury, to chilly waters, to cultural aversion to the ocean and swimming, brave surfer girls overcome so much to promote the sport they love to others, and doing it safely.
Surf Instructor Michelle Sommers did not begin surfing until her late 20s. After many of her female friends had approached her for surf lessons, Somers saw the need for a female instructor to work with other women one-on-one to overcome their surfing fears. Michelle has been honored as a Featured Athlete for Athleta in January 2011 and serves as the Executive Director for the Eastern Surfing Association. In the toggles below, she answers common questions about surfing.
I understand the intimidation that most women have when it comes to learning to surf. Learning the basics about safety, etiquette and how to surf builds confidence, which then allows the person to enjoy the learning process instead of becoming frustrated. I hear many excuses from people about their hesitation to learn to surf, most are based on fear. Use the arrow to the right to explore eight of the common ones.
1. “What about the sharks?”
2. “I’m too old, too overweight or too out-of-shape.”
3. “Surfing is too dangerous.”
4. “Falling is going to hurt!”
5. “Surfing is too difficult to learn.”
6. “I’m going to look silly.”
7. “I can’t see the bottom to know what’s in the water.”
8. “I’m afraid of the waves.”
Images courtesy De Vita Photography by Sarah Schwind
Challenging Cultural Fear: Ishita
Ishita Malaviya is India’s first professional female surfer. According to Malaviya, with the exception of a few coastal cities like Goa and Kerala, most people in India do not swim and generally there is a culture of fear around the ocean. There is a particular fear of getting too dark in the sun in a culture that values fair skin.
Braving Icy Waters: Blanket
Mary Horrell: Against All Odds
This is a tale of how a 19 year old girl finds herself surfing in Wales in the snow.
I was born and bred in a thoroughly landlocked location in England, and at 18 moved to a university which was somehow even more landlocked. However, before I put pen to paper and officially signed up to University, I had actually signed my heart and soul away to a sports club, unknowing of the change it would make to my life: the surf club.
The idea that I might enjoy surfing had begun many years ago on my sunny (sometimes) summer holidays to Cornwall, where I would spend near endless days body boarding with my dad and sisters. It was something I always loved doing: the power of the ocean, the salty hair, the way that as soon as I got out of the water I wanted to get straight back in. So when a cool looking girl with a surf board asked me if I’d like to join the club and finally learn to surf, I of course said yes, picturing myself bleached blonde, tanned and hanging ten in now time.
Fast forward a month, and I found myself on a surf trip actually attempting to surf and finding the power of the ocean just a little too strong. The salty hair in my face was very annoying and instead I yearned to go back in, lying straight on the beach shattered after, nose dripping with snot. It was safe to say my first attempt at surfing was a disaster.
The friendships I made on that very first trip, however, were not and this was what in turn persuaded me to go on the next surf trip, in November. It was here where I had my first bit of success. I had managed to time the wave with my paddling and wobbling whilst getting to my knees and then to my surprise my legs. Woosh. The rush of air against my face as I moved with the wave. The feel of… oh no I’d already fallen off, but that first feeling of the wave catching my board and pulling me towards the shore, that was enough to keep me surfing through thick and thin.
Through the times when every wave is breaking on you no matter where you position yourself, and through nose dives, the sand in all kinds of places it shouldn’t be, I have been convinced (by my equally mad friends) that surfing in January, where there is snow forecast, is a great idea and always will be. I feel it will always be, as long as I have a good wetsuit, a board, my friends, and a little bit of surf.
There are a wide variety of competitions for a surfer girl to participate in, both on the national level in many countries as well as internationally. Some have well-known corporate sponsors, such as Billabong, O’Neill, and Roxy Quicksilver, others are held by surfing organizations. Competitions can take a surfer girl around the world, and lead to acclaim, prize money, and valuable sponsorships.
For example, the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) is the governing body for professional surfers and is dedicated to showcasing the world’s best talent in a variety of progressive formats.
Every year, the ASP hosts the Ford Supergirl Pro, the largest female surfing competition in the world and the only ASP 6-Star Prime Women’s contest in North America. Below are the highlights from the 2013 Ford Supergirl Pro.
Making an Impact
Today, surfer girls are incredible inspirations whose passion for this centuries-old sport shines in all they do. The surfer girls in this section represent some of the diversity of surfer girls all over the world. They surf for fun and empowerment. They are professionals and ambassadors for their beliefs and non-profit organizations that aim to make the world a better place through surfing. They are also explorers and teachers, whose passions are an inspiration to all whom they meet.
Surfer girls demonstrate that surfing is more than hobby or sport. Surfing is a gateway to empowerment and actions that will help create a better world for everyone.
Mercedes is a Motivational Speaker, Business and Abundance Life Coach and Patagonia Surf Ambassador. She is a three-time consecutive finalist at the XXL Billabong Big Wave Awards, nominated as one of the top three female big wave surfers in the world (2009/2010/2011).
Through her work as a coach, Mercedes guides women to go for their dreams and take action steps to live life to their highest potential. Mercedes is based in Hawaii, and travels the world surfing while inspiring others to follow their dreams through her motivational talks and writing. She is currently working on her first book, a guide to manifest our dream life.
In this talk from 2012, Mercedes talks about how she manifested her dream of getting sponsored by Patagonia to travel the world surfing and her current work as a motivational coach:
Bethany is a professional surfer, a motivational speaker and an author who turned what could of been the end of her dreams into a positive movement. Many thought her dreams of being a professional surfer would never come to fruition after she was attacked by a tiger shark at the age of 13, leaving her without her left arm. But just one month later she was back in the water and has since won several surf competitions.
She has her own charity, “Friends of Bethany”, which helps young people who are missing a limb feel positive and able again. She wrote her autobiography Soul Surfer, which after much acclaim was turned into a movie in 2011. Bethany continues to inspire many people with her words as well as her surfing skills.
In the video above, Bethany joins fellow amputee Alyssa Cleland to share some surfing inspiration. Video courtesy of the Surf Channel Television Network.
Mira Manickam is a self-described “surf ninja hip hop adventurer.” She is an athlete, rock climber, artist, and environmental educator. In 2012 and 2013, Mira travelled up the coast of Brazil on a solo girl surf safari, documenting her journey through her blog, surfergrrrls.com, and original hip hop videos celebrating the music and surf culture of Brazil.
In the tabs below, Mira shares with us the story of how she became a surfer girl.
Some people say that Rodeo Beach, or “Cronkite” as the surfers call it, is not a good place to learn due to the steep quick nature of the waves. But Cronkite was my home break, and convenience dictated that if I learned anywhere, I would have to learn here. So my third week in California I bought a good wetsuit and a used surfboard for 40 bucks. At first, I just paddled out every day after work to get my butt kicked in waves I didn’t understand. But every time I got out in the ocean, I would understand it a little better, and every now and then I would manage to stand up and catch something. About four months into it, I rode my first perfect left all the way down the line. I’ve been hooked ever since. I’ve broken boards, ripped wetsuits, gotten stitches, charged a lot of waves, got beaten up pretty badly by the ocean, and also hit some amazing moments speeding down stretches of unbroken green water on perfect shoulders. I’m proud for getting out there and learning mostly on my own, and earning my stripes in a male-dominated sport at a male-dominated break.
I didn’t have to surf long to notice that the mainstream surf media – the big surf magazines and the big surf company ads on tv and the internet — portrayed female surfers in a very different way than how I viewed myself. Women surfers were portrayed as sex objects rather than athletes. Butt shots of skinny blonde girls in bikini’s outnumbered photos of women ripping waves and looking strong. I also noticed that there were NO images anywhere of brown girls like me. I know there are brown girls who surf – in fact, the world’s very first female surfers were brown women from Polynesia – but you would never know it from the surf media. All in all, mainstream surf media left me feeling alienated and unwelcome.
So in the summer of 2012, I embarked on a surf journey of my own design. For years, I’ve wanted to go to Brazil, a country with a beautiful language, some of our earth’s most precious natural resources, and a musical tradition that had long inspired me. Brazil also has a huge surf culture, many high quality surf breaks, and is home to some of the best female surfers in the world. It was my time to dream big, and with the help of a generous award in honor of the late Yosemite adventurer Matt Baxter, and many crowd-funding supporters who believed in my vision, I embarked on a solo girl surf safari up the coast of Brazil. I am a rapper, writer, and musician, and I planned to document my journey through a blog and original hip hop videos, that I would make in collaboration with local musicians I met along the way. My goals, in addition to surfing my heart out and learning to samba dance, were to create new media that would celebrate the strength and diversity of women and girl surfers. I named my project Surfer Grrrls Brazil.
My first gift from the universe came three days before I left on my journey. I still had no idea where I was going to stay when I arrived in Florianopolis (or Floripa) as the locals called it. But as I was packing, a chance encounter with an old friend put me in touch with a professor of feminist literature at the University in Floripa. A few emails were exchanged and in 24 hours, without knowing a thing about me, she offered to house me for as long as I wanted! This generosity was just a precursor to what I would experience when I landed in Brazil.
I stayed based in Floripa for a couple months. My friend Miho was supposed to join me on this leg of my journey, but a shoulder injury and a sickness in her family prevented her from coming, so I was on my own.
I spent my days exploring the beautiful island, bumbling around on the tectonically slow local bus system, crashing through jungle paths, biking up and down hills, all with my surfboard in tow, looking for surf breaks. In Floripa, I was still learning many things: how to speak Portuguese, how to play Brazilian music, how to make beats on my computer. I was still even learning how to surf on a shortboard! Luckily I made lots of grrrl surfer and musician friends and who helped me out. With my new surfer grrrl friends Aloha and Marina, I went to the first ever all girls surf contest in Brazil and met female surfers from around the country.
I was so inspired that I decided to join forces with my new skater friend Dani, to write a English-Portuguese rap celebrating fierce surfer and skater grrrls, which we recorded with a group of local musicians and poets.
One transformative project is the Rocinha Surfe Escola – A surf school where local kids come for free lessons, and where they can fix up old boards and then keep them. I spent most of my time in Rio hanging out with the tight knit community of kids at this surf school, helping them with their English, making music with them in the evening, and acting as an informal “surf supervisor.” Only a few brave girls surfed in Rocinha, where social barriers against girls surfing seemed a bit stronger than in Floripa. I felt extra inspired to go out every day there, so I could be a role model.
When I rounded the corner, I found to my surprise, that this super-rhythmic make-you-start-dancing-whether-you-like-it-or-not beat was being produced by a drum orchestra of young girls! And they were rocking it!! Everyone in the street was dancing as the girls smiled and swayed back and forth to the rhythm. I knew then and there that I had to sample their beat for my next surf rap. At the same time, I was living in a very musical neighborhood, where every day a little girl would sit on the porch and practice playing and singing different rhythms while beating on a Tupperware lid. I admired her dedication, and it reminded me of the way I went out every day to surf, on big days, small days, sometimes successfully and sometimes unsuccessfully. I wrote this song inspired by the surfer and drummer girls of Bahia!
To read the lyrics or download any of these songs or videos, visit
my Bandcamp site.
Learn more about my adventure at www.surfergrrrls.com
The Freedom to be Me
“Surfer girls to me, are naturally beautiful, daring and confident individuals, who make great role models!”
— Ishita Malaviya
Surfing means something different to each individual surfer girl. For those highlighted here, and many others around the world and throughout the history of the sport, surfing has been a gateway to adventure, fame, a community, financial independence, activism, respect, and greater self-acceptance.
It has given these girls and women a connection to the ocean and nature. More importantly, it has made them part of a global sisterhood of female surfers.
Download a free copy to share and engage students with Surfer Girl via the link below:
The Representation Project’s #notbuyingit app, the first app built to challenge sexism in the media.
Dr. Rebecca Olive’s blog, Making Friends with the Neighbours, tackles gender issues in surfing.
Cooler Magazine provides thoughtful articles and perspectives on the state of women’s extreme sports, including surfing.
Michelle Shearer’s project, Women Who Run With The Tides, seeks to broaden the image of women’s surfing.
Surfer Girls in the New World Order by Krista Comer, Professor of Literature and Women’s Studies at Rice University.
Girl in the Curl: A Century of Women in Surfing (Adventura Books) by Andrea Gabbard
Surfing: Women of the Waves by Linda Chase
The Tribes of Palos Verdes: A Novel by Joy Nicholson
Surf Diva: A Girl’s Guide to Getting Good Waves by Isabelle “Izzy” Tihanyi and Caroline “Coco” Tihanyi
The Girl Museum team for this show was Tiffany Rhoades, Emily Holm, and Hannah Hill.
Our banner and button image for Surfer Girl is a photo entitled “Surfer Girl” by Tom Tolkin, modified for our use under Creative Commons licensing.
We do not assert any ownership of any of the images in the exhibition, they were either granted usage rights by our contributors or are Fair Use for Educational purposes. If you have a question or issue with the use of any of these image on this site, please let us know.
Our contributors for Surfer Girl are featured below in alphabetical order:
ASA Entertainment is a producer of action sports events, television shows and content. The company’s events and content feature skateboarding, BMX, freestyle motocross, snowboarding, freeskiing, surfing and music and range in scale from grassroots to global. They are broadcast domestically on 8 networks and distributed to more than 700 million HH globally via 26 international broadcast partners.
Brown Girl Surf is dedicated to fostering a diverse, alternative women’s surf community in the San Francisco Bay Area and around the world. They provide surf lessons, an online community, and create media that celebrate female surf culture and highlight the achievements and challenges of female surfers.
Anuhea K. Jumawan was a student of Dr. Ian Masterson at Windward Community College. She produced her video, seen in our History section, as the final project for her Polynesian Surf Culture class.
Chad King, Sarah Lee, and Mia Montanile of Chapman University. They created FLUX, an essay documentary that reveals sexism in the surfing industry, under the supervision of Professor Sally Rubin.
Chad King is from Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He is studying Directing at Chapman University. His interest in documentary filmmaking stems from his passion for social justice. Chad’s dream job would be to direct films that feature strong, diverse characters and connect audiences through genuine emotion.
Sarah Lee is from Kona, on the Big Island of Hawai’i. For the past few years, she has been undertaking various water-related photo and film assignments around Hawai’i, Fiji, Australia, and New Zealand. She recently graduated from Chapman University with a B.F.A. in Film Production and an emphasis in documentary.
Mia Montanile is a senior at Chapman, studying Environmental Science and Policy with an emphasis in Ecoloy and a minor in Sociology. Her initial interest in creating documentary films arose after a screening of “The Island President” and was solidified after Professor Sally Rubin shared her documentary “Deep Down” during an environmental science seminar class. Mia hopes to eventually make her own environmental documentary.
Chad, Sarah, and Mia were advised by Professor Sally Rubin, a documentary filmmaker and editor. She recently completed Deep Down, an ITVS-funded feature-length documentary about two friends in eastern Kentucky who find themselves divided over mountaintop removal coal mining near their homes. The film is part of the 2010-2011 Independent Lens national broadcast PBS series.
Will Lucas is the filmmaker behind Surf 64 Productions. He preserves early surfing film and photos and produces documentaries and interviews on surfing history. He focuses primarily on East Coast U.S. surfing and digitally converting old home movies.
Mercedes Maidana is a Motivational Speaker, Business and Abundance Life Coach and Patagonia Surf Ambassador. She is a three-time consecutive finalist at the XXL Billabong Big Wave Awards, nominated as one of the top three female big wave surfers in the world (2009/2010/2011).
Mira Manickam likes to think of herself as a surf ninja hip hop adventurer. She channels her passions for art, teaching, and sport to work towards a better world.. As an athlete, she can normally be found in the ice cold waters of Northern California, charging waves at her favorite break, Ocean Beach. When not surfing, she enjoys rock climbing and training for the American Ninja Warrior circuit. As an artist, she has produced several short documentaries, written a book, produced several music videos, and composes and performs original raps as M.C. Mira Manic in the Bay Area. Her documentaries include “Recruitment Day,”about life in a Southern Thai fishing village, which was broadcast internationally on Al Jazeera- English’s Witness program. Her book, Just Enough, a journey into Thailand’s troubled south was published last year by Silkworm books. As an environmental educator, she has run several programs for youth, including the TEEM program at NatureBridge, and founded the Trees 4 Life urban forestry internship and the Green Guard youth environmental hip hop collective in Oakland.
Dr. Ian Akahi Masterson is an educator, an ocean recreation specialist, and a passionate Hawaiian cultural practitioner. Hailing from Ko‘olaupoko, this O‘ahu surfer has developed college courses in Surf Science, Culture, and Technology at the University of Hawaii’s Windward Community College and at Hawaii Pacific University, where he specializes in place-based, culturally oriented curriculum. Currently he is a Workforce Development Coordinator at Windward Community College, where he is launching a new educational pathway in Ocean Safety Education, Lifeguard and PWC operator training, as well as Ocean Recreation Instructor Training called The Hawaii Ocean Education Academy.
Rebecca Olive is a cultural researcher based in New Zealand. In 2013, she finished her PhD about women’s surfing in her hometown of Byron Bay, Australia, which explored what it’s like for everyday (not professional) women surfers to go surfing in a lineup. Her current work continues to explore how women experience and contribute to surfing culture today, as well as where they fit into surfing history. This includes in online media, such as websites, blogs, and social media. In addition to her research she writes a blog, Making Friends with the Neighbours, as well as for surf magazines including Great Ocean Quarterlyand White Horses. She recently moved to Raglan, New Zealand, where she still tries to surf as often as possible.
Sarah Schwind of De Vita Photography for use of images.
Michelle Sommers: “I always loved the ocean but did not begin surfing until I was in my late-20s. I had many fears of learning this sport at that stage of my life. Once I overcame them, I quickly developed a passion for surfing that changed my entire life. I realized that many women of all ages have these same fears so I began offering surf lessons and camps specifically for women. Now I teach hundreds of women and young girls how to overcome their fears and enjoy riding waves!
With a husband and two boys who also surf, surfing is something for our family to always do together. We surf year-round along the Maryland area beaches but also enjoy traveling in the winters to warmer water. I am the executive director for the Eastern Surfing Association (ESA) which is the largest amateur competitive surfing organization in the United States. The ESA is where surfers begin the competitive side of the sport.
Through teaching surfing, and the ESA, I have developed great friendships with people who enjoy surfing as much as I do. I have been blessed being able to share my passion of surfing with others. I’ve seen it increase self-esteem and confidence in young girls, and change people’s lives in such a positive way.”
Dionne Ybarra of The Wahine Project. The Wahine Project is a nonprofit organization dedicated to reaching young girls who would otherwise not have access to resources that enable them to surf. They seek to break down barriers that prevent the participation of young girls in the sport and provide them the opportunity to become proficient surfers and global citizens.