|Ascending Out of Oppression: Women Rock Climbers on the Edge of Parity
by Katie Snyder, Michigan Technological University
Simone de Beauvoir (1952) argued that physiological differences between men and women, differences in physical strength for example, matter only to the extent that we need or value physical strength. Sex-based oppression has been bound up with historical notions of women as the “weaker” sex. Feminist movement has sought to overturn these worldviews with significant success, including securing women athletes’ right to practice and play sports in academic, amateur, and professional venues. Still, sex-based differences in athletic ability remain apparent in the world of sport, where men and women typically compete in separate divisions and women athletes rarely surpass men in tests of power and speed. “Sport” remains largely the domain of men, at least in popular thought. Certainly we acknowledge and embrace women athletes, but often only to the extent that these athletes are young and “hot.”
The history of the burgeoning sport of rock climbing has been similar in this respect, its story largely the tale of male adventurers. Women rock climbers began to emerge with some frequency, however, in the 1970s, following on the second wave of feminist movements. With U.S. climber Lynn Hill’s phenomenal ascents in the 1980s and 90s, the achievement gap between male and female climbers began to close. Recent ascents by French climber Josune Bereziartu indicate that women’s climbing ability may be comparable to men’s on climbs where balance and flexibility are as important as muscular strength.
While male and female climbers continue to compete in sex-segregated divisions, I argue that some women’s near parity with men in rock climbing ascents represents significant and important advance in women’s struggle against sex-based oppression. In this paper I analyze women’s struggle and advance in this sport, this in the context of women’s ongoing struggle against sex-based oppression.