“What about you, Georgie? Are you a feminist?”
I was sitting around a campfire with a group of friends. I had climbed outside maybe twice before.
“No,” I replied, scratching at the label on my beer bottle. “Because I don’t think women should have to be doctors and engineers in order to be considered a strong woman.”
by Georgie Abel
This was what I said for years when posed with the f-word question. However, I didn’t realize that I was pretty much describing exactly what modern day feminism is, and that my answer as to why I wasn’t a feminist was, ironically, feminist as fuck.
Rock climbing taught me this.
I learned how to be a climber mostly by an ex-boyfriend with an ex-dirtbag for a Dad. They took me out on the granite slabs of North Carolina when we were in college. The two of us traveled around the country together in the summertimes, trying to live the dirtbag life that his Dad had lived, but we had no idea what we were doing. We didn’t even really know anything about climbing. One summer we drove right through Ten Sleep canyon without even realizing that it was a climbing destination. Eventually we made it out to California, where we chuffed our way up 5.8 in Tahoe and Yosemite.
At this point, I wasn’t fully aware that there was a climbing industry or climbing media. I didn’t even know that professional climbers existed.
I was still oblivious to these things when I made the decision to be a dirtbag and abandon a life of normality. I was 22 years old. After a dark time in my life and a few half-assed attempts at being a normal person, I packed up my van and headed, ironically, to where I currently am right now—Durango, Colorado. I made this decision not based on things I had read or seen in the climbing industry, but on the personal stories of women and men that had not been told by the mainstream media.
I felt like a climber. I felt like a real climber, even though I was spending most of my days following my boyfriend up 5.9 in the Valley. The climbing life gave me a new and wild sense of freedom–I could live out of my van, drive across the country alone, eat beans for dinner every night, say whatever I wanted as long as I wasn’t hurting anyone, feel angry, have wild opinions, change my mind, cry, flirt, wear a backwards hat, wear sundresses, not talk to anyone for three days, be loud, sleep wherever and with whoever I wanted, climb 5.6 and feel like a badass, and it was all good.
It was all so good.
Without knowing it at the time, this freedom came largely in part because I had almost entirely escaped the systems and modalities that wanted to control me–namely, mainstream patriarchal society. The work place, which can be a very oppressive place for women, was included in the list of things that I was avoiding. Climbing doesn’t require much money, so I barely had to work. Of course, I still had to deal with misogynistic douche lords at the crag, but I had largely escaped the system.
Here’s a sentence I bet you’ve never read before: rock climbing prevented me from experiencing systemic sexism.
But then, I decided to speak. I decided to write. I decided to get involved with the industry because I wanted to share my love for rock climbing with as many people as possible. That’s when I realized that the wild freedom that the climbing life offers a person is not supported or represented by the majority of the climbing industry. Not if that person only climbs 5.10, writes about something other than conquering a mountain, climbs in booty shorts, wears a helmet while sport climbing, has prickly opinions, posts selfies, speaks out about their experience with oppression, isn’t white, isn’t straight, isn’t compliant.
This was around the time that the word feminism came into my life as something that made perfect sense. Not only did I start to identify heavily with the label, but I also saw the term as something that this world desperately needs.
In my mind, the word quickly grew from being about women to being about everyone. The feminism that I began to identify with and still claim today is just as much about issues like immigration, gay rights, and anti-racism as it is about women. It’s about fighting against the laws, stereotypes, and social constructs that prevent anyone, including men, from being who they truly are. It understands that living a life that has been shaped by shame and oppression is the most painful way to exist in this world.
This kind of feminism encourages people to do whatever it is that they find empowering. They do not make choices according to what society or the media deems “empowering” or “good”. Instead, they make decisions about how to live their life based on a value system that they have created for themselves. With this attitude, a woman can be a sex worker if that is what she finds empowering. A man can wear eyeliner without implying anything about his sexual orientation or gender identity. Anyone can do whatever it is that they want to do without being told that it’s “bad”. It is a way of living that allows people to be who they truly are. The ultimate goal of this kind of feminism is freedom, in the most radical sense of the word.
This is exactly how the early days of my climbing career felt. I was experiencing what a world on feminism would look like. So when I showed up to the climbing industry, because the climbing life had given me so much freedom and empowerment, I did not like what I saw and I wasn’t afraid to say so.
Some people supported me, and some people were really uncomfortable with this. Whenever I wrote or spoke about oppression in the climbing industry, either through stories of my own or by sharing the experiences of others, I was told that I was delusional, immature, a liar, whining, a man-hater, and worse.
While my idea of feminism is inclusive of all people, it does’t deny the fact that certain groups experience oppression to a higher degree and in different ways. All women, but women of color even more so, are fighting two battles. The first is for issues like equal pay, equal representation, rape culture, the right to her body, sexual harassment in the workplace–you know, fundamental human rights. The other battle is that of simply being able to speak. And, when and if she is brave enough to speak, that her story is heard and treated as valid. Women are constantly told that they are not trustworthy observers of their own lives, unless their experience with having a vagina has been overwhelmingly positive.
This is exactly what happened to me when I wrote about oppression.
Another example of this occurred last summer when I ran up Mt. Whitney. I stood on the summit at about 9am, accompanied by a group of men. We started chatting, and they asked me which camp I had stayed in the night before. I told them that I had slept at the Whitney Portal, which is several miles further from the summit than any of the base camps. They looked around at each other, smiling, and one of them asked the question again: where did I camp last night? I gave them the same answer. “No, what camp, along the trail, did you sleep at? The Whitney Portal is over 11 miles from here,” one of the men explained to me. I told him that I was aware of that, and that I had in fact slept at the Whitney Portal. At this point most of the men looked off in the distance and turned away from me. They could not believe that I was able to cover the distance from the portal to the summit so quickly. Despite the truth of my story, they were prevented from believing in an event that had just occurred simply because they weren’t able to fathom my experience.
I could make assumptions about why they doubted my abilities, but that’s another story.
While this may just seem like a relatively harmless situation for me and a somewhat embarrassing moment for the dudes, it is important that we talk about these issues because of how damaging it can be when applied to different situations, like when a woman is raped. And at a systemic level, this is a mindset that is responsible society’s most horrifying problems.
The reason why I am speaking and will continue to speak about the issues is because I want everyone to experience what climbing gave to me. This lifestyle and sport has empowered me more than anything else in my life. Living the climbing life gave me a taste of freedom from the rules and the bravery to speak loudly, but more than anything it has instilled within me the trust and knowing that my experiences are valid.
I have seen from a young age how a woman who “knows”—a woman who trusts her own story and isn’t afraid to tell it—is treated as a threat to society. And while all of the shame and control is wrong, they’ve got one thing right—she is in fact a threat, and a powerful one. A woman who knows is very dangerous. She threatens the way in which society operates. But she also does something even more damaging, even more powerful—she threatens the structures of our own minds, the place where all of this begins and ends.
I haven’t gone about everything perfectly. But I believe in climbing too much to be quiet. Climbing as a lifestyle has taught me how to believe in my story even when it’s questioned and harassed. It has given me the freedom to live in a way that empowers me. It has done this by teaching me how to trust myself in a very relentless way. I want everyone to experience this.
The medicine that rock climbing provides is for all of us, and its name is feminism.
Georgie Abel is a climber, writer, and yoga teacher from the San Francisco Bay area. She loves slabs, coffee, power spots, highballs, gin and tonics, poetry, running in the mountains, and not training. She writes about her adventures at www.georgieabel.wordpress.com.
About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle.
We have also published two books: The Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed, both written by publisher, Luke Mehall. The third book, American Climber, is set for an April 11th, release. You can pre-order the book here, or get it on Kindle now.