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Gender equality increasing for surfing in Hawaii, but not like the dominance women had when surfing began, local surfers say

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Sixty-two percent of college-aged students in a recent Instagram survey said they think of surfing as a male sport. Kinsey Hippolite, a resident of Kahuku, said the way to change this perception is for women to talk more about being surfers and support other female surfers. She said as women are proud to be surfers and bring it into the conversation, others will start to do the same, and people will begin to recognize surfing as a sport for both men and women.

In Hawaiian lore, Mamala, a kupua or demigod who is half woman and half shark, was the first female surfer, according to the article “Women Making Waves” on the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center website. The article says she “skillfully danced on the roughest waves.”

The article continues saying the oldest surfboard ever found, dating back to the 1600s, belonged to Princess Kaneamuna, and it was discovered in her burial cave in Ho’okena on the Big Island in 1905. The article says this finding confirms women were prominent and respected surfers since the beginning of the sport.

Missionaries and the decline of women’s surfing

History.com states, “The arrival of American missionaries in the 19th century disrupted the mixed-gender sport as they disapproved of baring skin and gambling during surf contests.” BYU–Hawaii Academic Vice President Isaiah Walker, who is a surfing historian, explained when the Calvinist missionaries arrived in Hawaii, they saw Hawaiian traditions such as hula and surfing as sexual in nature.

The missionaries tried to replace Hawaiian traditions with their own, says History.com. Walker added while the missionaries frowned upon these traditions, “There wasn’t really an official ban on surfing, and a lot of Hawaiians just didn’t listen to them.”

One of these Hawaiians was Princess Ka‘iulani, a prominent female surfer in the late 1800s who brought surfing to England when she surfed the English Channel. History.com says she played a key part in keeping surfing alive for people to enjoy today.

The missionaries’ disapproval of surfing was not the main factor in the decline of Hawaiian surfers, Walker explained, but it did contribute largely to surfing becoming a male-dominated sport. “I think what the missionaries may have had more impact on is the decline of women's surfing,” Walker said.

He added diseases brought over through colonization caused almost 90 percent of the Hawaiian population to perish. This meant there were less Hawaiians to surf, which led to the decline in surfing as a whole.

Gender roles in Hawaii

The results of the Instagram story also showed 78 percent of college-aged students think surfing culture, in regards to gender equality, is more equal today than when it started.

However, when Hawaiian surfing began, men and women were seen as equals on the water, according to an article from the Magicseaweed website. “In pre-contact Hawaii, surfing was for everyone: mothers, grandfathers, warriors, princesses, children. In fact, historians of Ancient Polynesia acknowledge that it was women who seemed to stand in the highest regard for their skill, grace and poise as surfers.”

Although women were seen as equals to men in most regards, in pre-contact Hawaii, Walker said, there were certain traditions that separated women. Women were involved in government positions and athletic activities such as wrestling, boxing, and surfing, which is seen as progressive to western culture. Limited traditions for women included not being allowed to eat certain foods and not eating or sleeping in the same house as a man.

Walker explained Queen Ka'ahumanu, one of the wives of King Kamehameha, viewed these gender rules as very limiting and unfair to women. When King Kamehameha died, Ka'ahumanu became the ruler. To counteract or protest against these restrictions in Hawaiian culture, she adopted western gender rules and Christianity to lift the limitations on women under her rule.

Along with western culture came many new restrictions for women, including the participation of women in athletic activities. Walker said this may be one of the large contributing factors to the decline of women as prominent surfers.

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Surfing culture today

A few early surfers helped break down some of these gender norms in surfing and assisted in making it more acceptable for women to surf alongside men.

Duke Kahanamoku was an Olympic gold medalist swimmer. He was a native Hawaiian, and as he traveled the world, he brought surfing with him. He was the first to introduce surfing in Australia.

Walker said as a crowd was watching Kahanamoku surf, he asked a woman, 15-year-old Isabel Letham, to tandem surf with him, and everyone was amazed. Not only did this event break some of the gender boundaries for surfing, but it began breaking gender norms for women in general.

While there have been strides made within equality between genders, Hippolite said she has noticed small differences between men and women on the water. Hippolite has lived in Hawaii most of her life but was born in Utah and lived in New Zealand for four years before coming to Hawaii. She said she has been surfing since she was 8 years old.

She said in her experience, the surfing culture here in Hawaii is “pretty equal” between men and women. She added as surfing becomes more competitive, men are frequently more recognized over women.

The sport becomes male dominated when it is high performance, Hippolite added. She explained she sees more women longboarding, which focuses more on style such as walking to the nose of the board or doing tricks like headstands while surfing, but she sees more men on shortboards, which are built for high performance and focuses on technique such as "faster turns" or "higher airs."

Still, there are prominent female surfers who have made history. Carissa Moore was born in Hawaii and started surfing at the age of 5, and in 2016, she finished in third place for the world ranking, according to the Surf Canarias website.

Stephanie Gilmore is a professional surfer from Australia, according to Surf Canarias, and was included in the Surfing Hall of Fame at 22 years old. She is currently No. 1 in professional female surfing.

Walker, who grew up in Hilo on the Big Island, said when he was a teenager, the surfing gender dynamic was very different. He said it was very unequal between men and women, but over the years, he has seen more women competing and surfing as a whole.

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Factors other than gender

Although the survey results showed there is a perception that surfing is more equal between genders today than when it started, an article by Isaiah Walker titled “Womentum: Rethinking the Women’s Movement,” which talks of prominent female surfers today, says, “In many ways, this new cohort is drawing us closer to surfing’s roots and identity, one where women surfers were more dominant.”

Hippolite said, in regard to gender, she has never felt discrimination for being a female surfer other than feeling intimidated by other surfers, although she has noticed that men will take priority to catch a wave if it is between him and a woman. However, more than gender, she said she has noticed different treatment towards surfers depending on their race and where they are from. Priority to catch a wave is usually given to locals.

She said it can be frustrating for locals when inexperienced surfers, usually non-locals, do not follow surfing etiquette and try to catch every wave, but even an experienced surfer who is visiting is treated differently, she added.

It is not always about being a local, Hippolite said, rather the color of your skin can play a factor in how one is treated out on the water. “It’s so sad to say, but my sister, she's lighter skinned than me, and she was born here, she has been raised here her whole life, and since she's seen as more fair toned, she's treated different out on the water,” despite having the same skill level as Hippolite.

The difference of treatment is small but noticeable, she said. When Hippolite paddles out to a wave she is cheered on, but when her sister paddles out the other surfers are silent, and will paddle next to her, taking the wave she was going after.

She said she loves how recognized female surfers are becoming but added, “I would love to see a lot more girls competing; a lot more girls just getting out there and not feeling intimidated, reaching their full potential.”

Another change she said she would love to see is “stopping the norm of guys overtaking every wave for the woman. Girls, they've got it. It's theirs too.”

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