The untold story of the pioneers of women’s professional surfing
Over the past forty years, the landscape of women’s surfing has been turned on its head.
In the 1980s, women were not welcome in surfing culture, and the few women who tried faced endless ridicule and discrimination.
So, when professional surfer Caroline Marks held up her cheque for winning the first competition of the 2019 WSL’s Championship Tour, and it displayed the same amount as on the cheque in the men’s competition, it was a watershed moment.
For many of the women who had pioneered women’s rights in the sport in years past, it marked an incredibly special moment in history.
Jolene and Jorja Smith, Jodie Cooper, Pam Burridge, Frieda Zamba, Pauline Menczer, Wendy Botha, Alisa Schwarzstein, Rochelle Ballard, Layne Beachley and Lisa Anderson are some of the pioneers of women’s surfing who preserved for years on end without equality in the sport.
They also feature in the soon the be released feature documentary, Girls Can’t Surf, the untold story of the pioneers who fought for decades for recognition, respect and gender equality in surfing.
In their years in surfing, these women often earned a tenth of the prize money that men did, and their competitions were often sidelined to lunch breaks and to when the wind came on-shore and the bikini competitions started.
“They would yell out ‘what are you doing out here? Girls should be on the beach. Get out!’” recalls Australian Pauline Menczer, the 1993 world champion. “There were no women that surfed.”
These surfers took on the male-dominated world of professional surfing, and effectively changed it forever – to the point where young girls can now paddle out into a line up and not even think about whether they belong there.
Michaela Perske, the producer of Girls Can’t Surf, said the documentary lets these women, who haven’t received much recognition in the past, tell their stories for the first time.
“What also excited me about the film was the opportunity to let the women tell their stories and educate a generation about the women who paved the way for professional surfing and, ultimately, equal pay,” Perske said.
“I am always drawn to films that reveal a chapter of history or individuals who quietly lead the way for change.
“It’s an empowering and uplifting film that speaks to social issues today – equality, equal pay and the representation of women. It was also an incredible opportunity to share this untold story with the world.”
In 1989, organisers of the one of the world’s biggest surfing events, the Huntington Beach OP Pro, dropped the women’s competition altogether in order to allocate more prize money to the top 30 male surfers.
A revolt led largely by Jolene and Jorja Smith, forced the organisers to backflip on their decision and reinstate the women’s event.
“At that point we were just really angry,” said Jolene Smith.
“We’d put up with a lot of stuff but when OP decided to cancel our division, that’s when we had to take a stand,” said Jorja Smith.
“It felt so great that we stood up for ourselves. Not just for us, but any other surfer that came along after us,” says Jolene.
Surfing is now one of the most gender equal professional sports in the world, having achieved equal prize money for women in 2019. At the end of 2020, Australian Tyler Wright became the first woman to win a WSL event held at the iconic Pipeline break, which until then, had been reserved for men.
“I paddle out in this event to honour those that have come before and put in the time because I have not (at pipe), and to the next generation of young self empowered women who go next,” Wright wrote at the time.
As producer Michaela Perske says, the documentary is dedicated to the trailblazers, and a testament that to reality that change, although slow, is possible.
“The generation who never question their right to be in the surf need to know the pioneers who made this possible,” she said.