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In Response To: When Feminism Goes Too Far by Davita Gurian

Among the 294 people certified as rock, alpine, or ski mountaineering guides by the American Mountain Guides Association in 2010, only 26 were women. Betsy Novak, the association’s executive director, says among 60 guides certified in all three areas, just seven are women, which, she explains, is more than in other countries.[1]
Why are women so underrepresented in climbing and mountaineering?
“The reason why there are fewer women is not in the nature of the profession,” explains Novak.
“I think it’s rooted in our own cultural history.”
And that’s the problem I have with Davita Gurian’s article, “When Feminism Goes Too Far: Are female climbers oppressed? Not really.”
Gurian supplies anecdotal evidence that she has not been oppressed as a result of her gender in climbing. In fact, she claims that a woman should “[try] voicing her fears openly to her male climbing partners, instead of harboring an internal resentment toward them.”
As a woman, climber, and feminist, I don’t harbor resentment toward my male counterparts. In fact, many stand alongside me today in combatting our misogynist cultural history, one that still favors a patriarchal society. On the eve of one of the largest demonstrations for women’s rights in U.S. history, faced with real threats to reproductive health rights and gender equality, I think it’s necessary to address the dangerous logic of Gurian’s article.
Language Matters
Let’s start with this story in Gurian’s article. The male boss of a female climber wants to call an all-female climbing night, Beta Babes, a term that the female climber finds “deeply offensive, oppressive, and demeaning.” After all, “Babe” is a diminutive term for “baby” and used either for female romantic partners, the sexualization of women, or, well, a shy Yorkshire piglet.
Gurian writes, “Sure, she’s got a right to that opinion, but please show me the harm in that term.”
Ok. Let’s discuss it.
As it turns out, language matters. Don’t take my word for it, Dr. Lera Boroditsky, associate professor of cognitive science at UC San Diego, dedicates her career to examining how different languages encourage different cognitive abilities.
For example, in a study comparing Mandarin speakers and English speakers, the difference in the vertical versus horizontal shape of the written language changed the way those speakers thought about time. Mandarin speakers were faster to confirm that the month of March comes earlier than the month of April after they had just seen a vertical array of objects, than after they had just seen a horizontal array of objects. The reverse was true for English speakers.
In the same way, there is evidence that gendered language reinforces traditional gender stereotypes.
In a different study, Boroditsky investigated how the gendering of objects in certain languages affects the way speakers describe those objects.[2] For example, Spanish and German speakers were asked to rate similarities between pictures (of both females and males) and pictures of objects (the names of which had opposite genders in Spanish and German). Boroditsky found that both groups rated grammatically feminine objects to be more similar to females, and grammatically masculine objects more similar to males, even though the objects had opposite genders in the two languages. Furthermore, her research found that German speakers were more likely to use stereotypically masculine descriptions such as “hard, heavy, jagged, metal, serrated, and useful,” while Spanish speakers were more likely to use stereotypically feminine descriptions, such as “golden, intricate, little, lovely, shiny, and tiny” for the same objects according to their linguistic gender.
Although certainly more recent, these are not the first studies to argue that gendered language matters. Philosopher Douglas R. Hofstadter wrote a parody in 1986 on sexist language. In his satire, society spoke in generics based on race rather than gender. So, instead of “chairman”, people said, “chairwhite” or even “you whiteys.” After reading his work, it becomes impossible to argue that black men and women who hear “all whites are created equal,” should be expected to feel included. Hofstadter concludes in his paper[3]:
Only by substituting “white” for “man” does it become easy to see the pervasiveness of male-based generics and to recognize that using “man” for all human beings is wrong.
So, when Gurian asked, “please show me the harm in that term,” I didn’t take it as a rhetorical question. Gendered language matters, and I’m happy to explain further how this happens. Female-gendered word “whore” is bad, but “pimp” is good. Think of all the pejorative words you know, most take a feminine gender. Now, try to think of the male ones. Even Gurian’s use of the word“sensitive” is used almost exclusively to degrade women–we are overly “sensitive". It perpetuates this stereotype that women are somehow slaves to their hormones, which was one of the earliest reasons for why it was said that women shouldn’t be allowed to vote.
Logically, it doesn’t follow that because Flash Foxy exists, we should be ok with creating Beta Babes. In fact, one solution might be, let’s rename both groups.
As gender identity is brought to the forefront of ethical and political debate, there is even more reason to be better educated on words—cisgender, transgender—as well as generics—he, she, ze—that do matter. The debate is about education, not politically-correct rhetoric or sensitivity, and by educating ourselves, women can achieve equal positions in both language and society.
Minorities matter
One of the more frightening statements in Gurian’s article is when she states, “I wrote this essay because I don’t believe that we should be making enemies and villains out of men in response to our own fear of discomfort.” Feminism does not make an enemy of men. Fighting for minority rights does not come to the detriment of the majority. It is not one or the other.
Talking about social injustice, marginalized identity, or gender oppression doesn’t make women “overly dramatic.” In climbing, is it a problem that 65 percent of women, as opposed to 29 percent of men, are uncomfortable in the gym? Does your opinion change if we replace “in the gym” with “in the workplace”?
To those women, Gurian says, “[they] might do well to begin by analyzing themselves first before demanding that everyone around them cater to their every sensitivity.” I’m going to give Gurian a pass on this part—I choose to believe she was channeling a bit of the “overly dramatic,” herself. Respondents from the Flash Foxy survey in question made it perfectly clear that while the climbing community can be wonderful and welcoming, there is still room for improvement.
Citing recognition of Lynn Hill, Beth Rodden, or Ashima Shiraishi doesn’t mean women have equal place in the climbing community. If we want to keep talking anecdotes, I have experienced sexism inside and outside the climbing gym. Both men and women have made me feel marginalized for sexist reasons on certain occasions. Sometimes it’s been hurtful, and sometimes I haven’t even noticed until it was brought to my attention. It certainly won’t make me stop climbing. Often I choose not to address it.
I prefer to talk about evidence rather than about anecdotes. Unfortunately, there is not enough empirical support to show that the climbing community is some sort of gender equality oasis. Statistically-speaking, that is unlikely. So, if you believe that sexism exists in society at large, I feel it is only rational to assume it must exist to the same extent in climbing.
It is indisputable that minorities, whether via race, religion, age, disability, or gender, have been persecuted throughout American history. The fact that Gurian is 23 years old and doesn’t see the same plight, well, good for her. It likely means, all that feminist complaining—the political marches and female-focused news—have accomplished their goal of raising awareness about lingering sexism in society and, sometimes, in the sport of climbing.
Tiffany Skogstrom, setter at MetroRock Climbing Centers, said to Crux Crush[4]:
“Up until recently, climbing was considered a male-dominated sport. Thankfully, more women are climbing strong and closing that gap. It would be nice if the route setting demographics matched the climber demographics.”
Sexism in

rock climbing

is perpetuated when women get less of a voice about route setting in the gym, when routes are deemed “girly”, when “small fingers” becomes a substitute for the more accurate “strong fingers”, or when any person—male or female—defines physical strength with male-centric words, like “burly” or “butch.”
Yes, more and more, women are gaining ground and recognition in rock climbing. But does that mean we should stop vocalizing our feelings about being marginalized at times? Absolutely not.
I am so happy that Gurian has the strength to speak out against naysayers, to feel unafraid in uncomfortable situations. However, I believe the persistence of voice and action by so-called complaining feminists are the reasons she has that luxury today. Women have dedicated decades, centuries even, to earning that equality and the right to speak out without fear of professional, personal, or physical reprisal.
In my mother’s time, there wasn’t a single woman sports broadcaster on national television. In my time, I watched multiple women boulder V14. And, I hope, in my daughter’s time, she won’t remember sports were once separated in gender binary. But, as always, it’s important to remember how hard women worked to get here and how much farther we must go.
It is impossible for feminism to go too far when it simply refers to equal rights for all.
References & Reading:
[2] Lera Boroditsky, Linguistic Relativity, in 2 Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science 917 (Lynn Nadel ed., 2003); and Janet B. Parks & Mary Ann Roberton, Development and Validation ofan Instrument to Measure Attitudes Toward SexistlNonsexist Language, 42 SEX ROLES 415, 415-16 (2000).
[3] Read the full paper, “A Person Paper on Purity in Language”, here:
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