About half way through my hike, on the long slog down to Muir Trail Ranch, I met two older guys. One was from the states, the other from the U.K. and as often happened on the trail, we got talking. After the initial introductory questions, they began to express their surprise at the amount of women they had seen on the trail that year. ‘So many women! Some of them are alone, some of them are in pairs…’
They had been discussing it between them earlier that day, and could not understand why there were so many women out there. What could it be? What was their reason for doing the hike?
I found it quite funny at first, until I realised that they were completely serious. These two men could not come up with one reason between them, as to why a woman, or a number of women, would choose to do exactly the same thing that they were doing, without giving it a second thought.
They then asked me my opinion. What did I think the motivation was of all these women on the trail? And for that matter, why was I there – a woman – on my own? I said, “Our motivations are probably the same as you. Being outdoors, the challenge, the adventure. Or maybe it’s something …”
Looking a tad annoyed, one interrupted me with, “what, have you all been reading Wild or something?”
I began to reply, but realised that… I just didn’t know where to start. Instead, I let my voice drift, picked up the pace, and left them behind.
But I thought about it the rest of the way down. Why did these men think that the women on the trail needed some kind of special homogeneous lady reason to be out there? And why would the reasons of men and women be any different? And more to the point, couldn’t we all have our own individual, potentially complex reasons for being out there, regardless of our gender?
The exchange reminded me of British writer Caitlin Moran’s, rule of thumb for judging ‘whether or not some sexist bullshit is afoot’. Essentially, if the guys aren’t worrying about it, or being asked about it, but it’s expected of women, then it probably is sexist. I imagined the reverse of the scenario, where I, unable to understand why so many men were out in the wilderness (some alone, some in pairs…) had asked the same questions of the two guys. What would their reaction be?
I regret not challenging them on it more. But I did enjoy telling subsequent people that I met, as the story always got a laugh. Although in the case of the women who I told, it was generally received with a little mirth and some recognition. I clearly wasn’t the only one to have had this exchange.
These conversations made me realise quite how much it is taken for granted by some that the outdoors is a male space, and that women (and likely a number of other groups) are still largely viewed as a guest, an exception. It’s frustrating to me that women are expected to provide a reason to be ‘outdoors’, in a way that isn’t asked of men. And that’s before I even consider the other challenges that you can face as a women, such as having to prove your ability outdoors, whilst male capability is largely taken for granted.
I’m not sure what the solution is:
- More support for women in terms of funding and groups?
- Challenging people more face to face (as I could have done)?
- More role models in literature and the media (although I loved Wild; ignore the haters, Cheryl)?
It’s obviously far too complex an issue for me to even begin to cover in this post. And I have a lot to learn about the topic. But the scenario pissed me off enough to write about it, which I’m hoping is a good starting point.
Do you have experience of conversations like this? What issues are at play here? And what do you think the solutions could be?