"My Vagina Got Too Big"
The first time I climbed Godzilla, a classic 5.9 hand-crack at the Lower Index Town Wall, a group had just bailed from a large horn before the crux and asked if we could retrieve the sling and carabiner they had left on route. Godzilla is a notoriously heady and sandbagged climb and by way of explanation he said that his “vagina got too big [sic]” to continue. Now I have seen numerous women climb Godzilla, and their vaginas did not seem to have been an impediment, but never-the-less this anonymous climber excused his failure to commit (and it is a committing move for the grade) by saying, in essence, that he was simply not man enough, or rather, that he was too much of a woman, to boldly step up, trust his gear, and pull through. Obviously, this was an off the cuff comment, a moment of self-depreciating humor intended to make light of his failure, and not a serious comment on the skills of those climbers imbued with vaginas. Yet the comment is indicative of a deep-seated misogyny in the way male climbers formulate their efforts – we climb to make ourselves men, to validate our masculinity, and this includes, and perhaps even necessitates, the deprecation of women.
The evidence is found throughout the literature: we constantly speak of “manning up” or “having the balls” to execute a difficult or sketchy lead. This terminology is, of course, not limited to climbing circles, but we make use of it as actively as any. The careful historian will note that from the earliest days women were involved in mountaineering, but that their prominence declined, especially at the highest levels, between the 1860s and the 1950s, so that for all intents and purposes it has always been the assumption of male climbers that any early women climbers were aberrations and that women are, by nature, weaker, more delicate, and unable to cope with the stresses inherent to climbing. There are various cultural forces at work here and it is not fair to claim that women have been deliberately excluded; rather, our society has constructed womanhood to exclude such activities as climbing. The male climber may suspect his non-climbing male friends of being less masculine, but he never would claim that a women who refuses to put it all on the line and commit to a sketchy lead is unfeminine.
This is, I believe, the underlying reason why there are so many fewer women who climb hard. Women can back off from a difficult lead, yield to their partner, take second place, and, according to our society’s standards, still be confident in their femininity. It is not that women are, by nature, delicate creatures unable to deal with the violence of extreme climbing, one has only to look at Lynn Hill, Wanda Rutkiewicz, Allison Hargreaves, and, more recently, Pamela Pack, Hazel Findlay, and Margo Talbot to see that all that is, in a literal sense, holding women back from extreme climbing is their own lack of interest. The attitudes of male climbers, however, cannot be so easily disregarded. We, especially us alpine, trad, and ice climbers, like to complain about the lack of women in our “sport,” and yet by our very language we insist that what we are doing is inherently masculine; we consider boldness a male virtue and then lament that so few women want to join us in it.
A Brief Interlude on Physiological Reality
It is ironic, and indicative of the gendering of boldness that I have described, that the types of climbing in which women are most numerous and have been most successful are sport climbing and bouldering, precisely those types of climbing that are the most athletic, and therefore most favor the greater physical strength of men. With the possible exception of Lynn Hill, throughout the history of climbing the strongest pure rock climber in the world has always been a man, and this is not likely to change any more so than the records of female Olympian sprinters to suddenly surpass those of males. As with most primates and all great apes, human males are larger and stronger, on average, than females. Of course there are subgenres of climbing in which diminutive size is an advantage - Tommy Caldwell admitted he could probably never send Meltdown, Beth Rodden’s 5.14c route in Yosemite, but finger cracks of this nature are an exception to the general rule: that men will always have, on average, longer reach and greater shear power than women. Yet in most other types of climbing this disparity is irrelevant. In mountaineering smaller size is as much an asset as a detriment – nearly every piece of the 110 ibs women’s gear is smaller and lighter than mine, and she may have less muscle mass to propel her upward, but she also has less body mass that she needs to propel upward.
Hunters and Gatherers
At this point it would be traditional to forward some sort of evolutionary explanation of the gendering of boldness. Something along the lines of men as the hunters being more prone to wild displays of risk-taking than women, the gatherers and child-rearers, and one does not have to spend very long in a climbing gym or at a popular crag to see that there is an element of male courtship instinct at work. The constant attempts to outdo one another, to undertake ever greater feats of strength and daring, can be attributed to an unconscious conviction that women select their mates based on these criteria. Yet this assumption that women take a passive role in mate selection is essentially misogynistic – it is part of a convenient set of beliefs designed to perpetuate women’s second-class status by appealing to a patriarchal mythic primitivism. In actual historical fact, we know little to nothing about the social structures of stone-age cultures and what we do know suggests that many were might have been matriarchal. The evolution that has thus led to a culture in which boldness is a male virtue is anything but inevitable.
We live in a society in which women are expected to sit by and let men take action over and toward them. The feminist movement has certainly made some progress (our ability to understand these dynamics being one example), but by and large to be “feminine” is to be retiring, submissive, and frail. Gender in the world of climbing exists in a curious paradox with regards to the feminist progression. If for no other reason than the vast marketing potential, in the last forty years leading female climbers have begun to receive just as much attention as their male peers. Women in climbing remain outnumbered, but not really overshadowed. Yet male climbers still speak, and therefore think, of climbing in emphatically masculine terms, gendering weakness and failure as feminine. To what extent this problem properly belongs to climbing is questionable: gendering the negative as feminine is a male problem, not a male climber’s problem, and climbing will, in all likelihood, follow the cultural mainstream in this regard. Yet this does not remove our culpability: male climbers have the same moral imperative as all other men, to stop seeing their female peers as objects of desire and start seeing them as what they are: peers.