Silent voices

Posted by Kaydee Summers on 02/05/2004

Should women climb mountains without men? Is it right that women with children climb mountains? Can women both climb intensely and write actively? Are women climbing writers constrained to this day?

These questions have been in existence since Maria Paradis first made it to the summit of Mont Blanc in 1808. Their context may have changed, but the core issues are still the same; climbing and climbing literature remain male dominated. Female mountaineering literature may have a rich history with many remarkable women giving a feminine voice to the genre, but this is a voice scarcely heard.

The pioneering female mountaineers felt that they were rendered invisible by the mental and physical constraints placed upon them, which is evident in the literature they left behind. Mountaineering women from the 1800s and mid 1900s existed in a liminal space where they were neither viewed as properly feminine, nor as proper mountaineers. Each woman chose to cope with that in her own way, but many turned to the secretive freedom of the act of writing. They understood the constraints of the literature and many found ways to circumvent the male editors. Mrs. Henry Freshfield, in 1861, chose to publish Alpine Byways with the author listed simply as “a lady.” The actual woman is invisible in Alpine Byways, only aspects of the climbing are visible allowing the physical woman to remain in the marginal state.

Are present day female mountaineers still struggling to move out of that liminality? In Summit issue 10, Penny Clay brings up the idea of the Invisible Women Syndrome. The Syndrome is explained by the simple equation: 1 woman + 1 woman = 1 man. Clay defined the Syndrome as, “a gender specific phenomenon, which operates within a patriarchal system to deny the existence of women and their achievements.” Climbing in a mixed group, or manless, is an individual choice and one that becomes complicated in light of Clay’s article where she describes the continual question from men and women, “Do you need someone to climb with?” even though she is standing right next to her female climbing partner.

Perhaps, “Do you need someone to climb with?” has replaced the Victorian query, “Should women climb mountains?” Are both questions still asked today? The notion then becomes, how do mountaineering women stop males from assuming that women need men in order to climb? These ideas also prompt the question of whether women should publish their climbing experiences. If the constraint that women can’t climb has been destroyed, have new constraints been created in its place, such as, ‘should mothers climb mountains’?

Members of the 1998 BMC International Women’s Meet were aware of these questions and the existence of the Invisible Woman Syndrome and idealistically declared climbing to be a legitimate activity for women regardless of constraints, such as age, marital status, family or career responsibilities. They called for women to start writing and publishing their climbing experiences hoping that would help dissolve the male dominance. But despite these efforts, the Syndrome has prevailed and the climbing community still struggles with the above questions.

So how can women dispel the Invisible Woman Syndrome? Should they merely climb to disprove the myth? Or is it imperative that they record their experiences with written accounts? In her article Penny Clay states that she climbs with female friends to bring the Syndrome to an end and jokes about the effectiveness of writing, “And a it’s far more enjoyable way of dispelling the Invisible Woman Syndrome than simply writing about it.” If Clay truly believed this statement, then why did she write the article for BMC? The majority of women do choose to climb instead of write. The common comment being, “I would rather put my energy into climbing rather than taking the time to write about it.” The problem is that if no women write about their experiences, men will always dominate the literature and the Syndrome will continue in the written record.

Presently there is only one emergent all female climbing magazine, She Sends, where the target audience is fellow women, although they are aware that their overall audience includes men. Lizzy Scully, She Sends editor, is overwhelmed with submissions for publication. Another alternative for publication are the club journals. Why is the female voice nearly nonexistent in the club journals and magazines? The majority of club members are male so the primary audience for the journals is male. Do women alter their experiences when publishing for male majority magazine readers? If so, does that alteration then reinforce the Invisible Woman Syndrome?

If women are allowed to climb to the best of their ability and are able to accurately publish their experience, are women now visible as women, not just as climbers? Is female mountaineering literature moving in a new direction fueled by the need to dismiss the Invisible Woman Syndrome? Surely women ought to become visible both on the crags and in the literature. Continued exploration of the questions brought up here could bring about the revolution the BMC Women’s Meet so ardently called for in their 1998 summit meeting.

Kaydee Summers is a PhD student in Mountaineering Literature at the University of Leeds.



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