Riding Waves, Forging Communities: Surfing, Gender, and Feminism in 20th Century California

frieda surfing

“I like surfing because I feel like the true me. I think that surfing can show off to people that you can actually do something,” Salinas, CA resident and pre-teen surfer, Mari Howarth, told filmmaker Jay Dunn. “If somebody says really mean things like ‘Boys can do this and girls can’t,’ that’s a stereotype. If you really want to do it, just believe in it and you can do it.”

As a participant in the Wahine Project, an organization and movement founded by Salinas native and surfer Dionne Ybarra, Howarth represents the upcoming generation of female surfers, and Ybarra’s program embodies the multiracial, transnational, boundary eschewing nature of the sport. Established in April of 2010, the Wahine Project aims to eliminate barriers to surfing — geographic, economic, and cultural — for children, particularly girls aged 7 to 17. Wahine uses surfing to link young women across state, national, and international borders, while promoting its Global Citizenship curriculum as a means to encourage collective action and awareness. In many ways, the Wahine Project represents the 21st century culmination of over 50 years of perseverance by California women to create a place for themselves on the waves.

Though an active presence for decades, over the past 20-25 years female surfers have proliferated, up from roughly five percent in the 1990s to somewhere around 15 percent in 2002. Popular cultural productions like Blue Crush (2002), the young adult series Luna Bay (began in 2003), and novels like The Tribes of Palos Verdes (1998) have all drawn attention to this growing demographic. From McDonald’s Happy Meals to the travel section of the New York Times, “the clear eyed and superfit female surfer (including toddler) stood as the poster child for all that young women might be in the twenty first century,” reflected scholar Krista Comer in her 2010 book Surfer Girls in the New World Order.

Yet, as Comer also points out, though the sport is often depicted as a bastion of masculinity and whiteness, its roots began among native Hawaiians where “[q]ueens as much as kings were renowned for their surfing prowess – and the subculture thrived on such lore.” The masculinities at the heart of surf films like the legendary The Endless Summer (1966) or 1991’s idiot-savant classic Point Break — Lori Petty’s Tyler excepted — have long obscured women’s role in the sport and the means by which California and female surfers have intertwined to spread surfing not only past national boundaries, but also gender and racial equality.

Though nearly as famous for its wildfires as its surf breaks, mid-century Malibu served as the petri dish from which the popularity of American surfing grew. In the 1950s, the Golden State represented the broad expansive future of the country. “California ranked among the most coveted of national addresses: home land to youth, orange blossoms, postwar opportunity and glamour,” reflects Comer. The state, particularly Southern California, existed through the following decade as “the frontier of leisure”, epitomized by the Beach Boys, rock n’ roll, and surfing. Within this context, Malibu became the center of popular images regarding California and the sport. Terry “Tubesteak” Tracy, Joe Quigg, Micky Dora, Kemp Aabert, Bobby Simmons, and Buzzy Trentsome defined surfing all along the California coast. Yet, as much as their individual feats of athleticism influenced surfing’s development, it took a series of books adapted into a film and a television show to truly spread the gospel of the sport, while also establishing ideas about new kinds of femininity and “alternate masculinities.”

When Frederick Kohner sat down to write a novel based on his own daughter Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, and her experiences surfing the Malibu breaks, he probably could have never foreseen the rippling effects of his work for men and women. In the end, the Gidget legacy included six novels, a 1959 film featuring Sandra Dee, and the famous 1965 television series staring Sally Field. Gidget’s resurgence in the late 20th century relates both to boomer nostalgia and the explosion in female surfing. For example, a 1997 Wahine magazine article declared the novel’s middle age (“Gidget Turns Forty”), and one year later the YA novel The Tribes of Palos Verdes, a book centering on the coming of age experiences of an adolescent female surfer in Southern California, arrived on bookshelves. Gidget served as a call to the past, an update to the present, and a harbinger of the future.

While Gidget’s feminism might seem restrained, even limiting, by modern standards (more on this in a moment), historians have suggested that the young surfer represented “Eisenhower feminism.” She integrated male spaces, loved the ocean and her surfboard more than anything, and focused largely on play in a period in which Cold War rhetoric suggested women need to dedicate their lives and bodies to the imperatives of the state, something along the lines of get hitched, make babies and care for the home. Instead, “she surfs, skis, swims, laughs, kisses, cuddles,” notes Comer. “This is a world driven by tides, swells, healthy air, and, above all, desire.” Jericho Poppler Bartlow, a co-founder of the Women’s International Surfing Association (WISA) and a member of surfing’s Hall of Fame acknowledges the icon’s importance: “A lot of good came from Gidget.”

Then again, in the 1940s and 1950s, female surfers before Gidget, like Mary Ann (Hawkins) Morrissey, had begun the process of integrating surfing’s vistas. Other women like Vicki Flaxman, Claire Cassidy, Darilyn Zinc, and Marge Gleason soon followed. These women and others formed the Hele Nalu (Going Surfing) club that laid the seeds for a future institutional framework, from which female surfers would flourish in the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries. While the mere action of wading out into Malibu’s breaks represented a challenge to broader cultural norms, the technology employed by these women also greatly influenced surfing. Riding lighter balsa boards, designed by the famed Joe Quigg, female surfers demonstrated for their male counterparts the superiority of lighter surfboards that afforded athletes greater mobility and control. “[The men] were jealous … A lot of people don’t want to admit that, but a lot of the big name Malibu guys … did not like women out there looking that good,” Quigg reminisced years later. Of course, every male surfer wanted one of these boards, even if for their “girlfriend.”

Real life ‘Gidget’ Kathy Kohner Zuckerman on the cover of the novel

Gidget Masculinities

Sure, Gidget undoubtedly inspired girls and women in countless ways — a teary eyed UCSD undergrad once told Kohner Zuckerman “you are my hero,” following one of her talks on surfing history, and the 1982 women’s surf champion Debbie Beacham has told interviewers that she learned the sport by watching Sally Fields ride waves on television. However, it also encouraged men to pursue the sport. Black Surfing Association founder Tony Corley credits the Malibu teen with contributing to his own participation, particularly on his very first outing. “My parents took me and a pal to the beach and we rented surfboards at Cayucos pier … I drank a lot of saltwater that day and got hit in the head a few times by the board,” Corley reflected. “But having watched Gidget I knew sort of what to do and pearled under the water and caught my first wave. Afterward I lay exhausted on the sand, looking up at the sky, with my hand touching the board … I knew. I knew this day would change my life forever.” Institutions like Surfer magazine acknowledged Gidget’s imposing cultural shadow as well, ranking her seventh in a 1997 tally of the most influential surfers of all time.

By pushing gender boundaries, Gidget created space for conceptualizing new forms of masculinity and femininity. After all, the Kahoona, the embodiment of Gidget’s alternative masculinity, rejects materialism for life in a grass hut and reads masterworks by Doestevsky, Conrad, Plato, and Wolfe. The last thing he wants is a Mad Men-styled day job wearing “a grey flannel suit.” In one novel, Cher Papa, he tells Gidget’s father, “It’s not why a man lives that makes a difference … it’s how he lives.” While Gidget might be mired in heteronormativity, at least it articulated different masculinities and in this way enabled women to pursue their own paths. “The kind of woman wishing to be around rebel men was herself taking risks, pushing the gendered boundaries,” points out Comer.

Gidget the television series arrived just as California emerged from a massive flux of in-migration. From 1945 to 1965, Los Angeles’ population growth surpassed that of all other cities in the nation, and roughly 80 percent of these new arrivals came as part of young families, the WWII generation and their boomer children. While California of the 1940s claimed the oldest median age of all states nationally, 1960s Southern California represented an ascendant nation flush with disposable income and bursting at the seams with youthfulness. “By the early 1960s, Southern California was the place to be young; the region had become the nation’s preferred family but also teenage cultural landscape,” Comer asserts. “Surf culture, both the actual subcultural presence of surfers on local beaches and the popularization of surfing in pop culture, became an important part of promoting the new postwar paradise.” “Beach Blanket” films crowded the market and new surfers fought for a shot at a finite number of waves. The combination of new populations and cultural popularity led to a crowded Malibu, such that by 1966 Bruce Brown and two surfers, Mike Hynson and Robert August, set off in search of new international surf spots in their quest for The Endless Summer.

While the documentary traffics disappointingly in Orientalist colonial racial attitudes — the film describes Ghanaian villages as “primitive” and its narrator worries that surfing might violate some local “religious taboo” — it also established a transnational network of surf breaks that encouraged surfers to eschew traditional nation state boundaries. The masculinities undergirding surfing rejected the corporate, Cold War conformity of the period, thereby creating a new means of expressing and identifying as a man. Gidget’s popularity undoubtedly helped to craft this new transnational surfing soul, as more and more surfers read about or watched her exploits in film and on television.

Sally Field as Gidget in the TV series
Sally Field as Gidget in the TV series

More than Gidget

Then again, other Southern California women from less famous parts of the region dove into various surf breaks along the coast with or without Gidget’s inspiration. Moonlight Beach, Capistrano Beach, Hermosa Beach, and other lesser known spots enabled athletes like Rosemary Reimers-Rice, Jericho Poppler (previously referred to as Jericho Poppler Bartlow), Alice Petersen, Liz Irwin, Joyce Hoffman, and Linda Benson to hone their craft.

Five time U.S. champion and one time International Champion (1959), Benson would be the only female surfer featured in the initial issue of Surfer magazine and also served as the surfing double for Annette Funicello and Deborah Walley in the Beach Party and Gidget films from the period. “Being in the water, riding the wave, doing what you could with the wave,” Benson related to Comer. “It was an artistic expression.”

The efforts of female surfers represent a form of feminism frequently ignored by historians, argues Comer. Male and female surfers alike distrusted traditional politics, which seemed bound to history and tradition, rather than dedicated to the openness of possibility and the future. “The power of History appeared on the side of coercion and control and surfing happily seemed to be on some opposite side of that equation,” reflects Comer. If female surfers appeared withdrawn from the political battles of the period, their own physical activity registered as a form of dissent. “Surfer girls were about ocean going physical power and the serious mental game it took to sustain that. They trained not at the university, in leftist organizations, or at public demonstrations, but rather in the coastal outdoors, the set of related local surf spots the subculture traveled between with its different breaks and challenges and other local people from who to learn.”

Though collaborative male-female surfing occurred in the 1950s, by the 1960s and 1970s, feminism and broader cultural change, encapsulated by the Black Power, Chicano, and anti-war movements, led to a sort of territorial retrenchment by the predominantly white male surfers acting as gatekeepers to SoCal surf breaks. Female surfers refused to either play the “bikini” — an overtly sexualized image of women surfers that persists today — or admit to subpar athleticism. The outspokenness of SoCal surfers like Mary Setterholm, Jericho Poppler, and Mary Lou Drummy, among others, might have chaffed male counterparts, but it also led to the creation of the Women’s International Surfing Association (WISA) in 1975, which held its first event and contest in Malibu.

Unsurprisingly, as evidenced above, the 1970s and 80s marked a period in surfing that Poppler considers the “Dark Ages,” as sexism ran rampant. “Why is surfing considered a man’s sport, and why are women the minority in surfing,” asked Setterholm in a 1974 Surfer magazine article. “Surfing which started out to be a cultural gathering of artists, have evolved into a state which reflects the paranoia, the prejudices and the hostilities of society as a whole.” Male hostility or indifference toward female surfers mirrored larger societal push back against the demands of feminists and minorities.

Economic marginalization persisted as well. Purse winnings for female competitions were a fraction of those won by their male peers, while bikini contests drew more attention than women’s surf battles. As result, in the late 1970s, Poppler, Benson, Rell Sunn, Beacham, and others established the Women Professional Surfing Association (WPS) as a bulwark against hostility toward female surfers.

Debbie Beacham | Surfing Walk of Fame
Debbie Beacham | Surfing Walk of Fame

Though the 1980s might have represented the nadir of beach gender relations, it also happened to be the same decade that female surfers staked their claim to international prominence. A seventeen year old Lisa Andersen turned pro in 1987, the first step in her dominance of the sport; between 1994 and her first retirement in 1998, Andersen won four consecutive world championships on her way to becoming a dominant icon in the scene. In 1996, she graced the cover of Surfer magazine with the caption, “Lisa Andersen Surfs Better than You.” Writer and surfer Cori Schumacher credits Anderson with popularizing the “board short,” which boosted the industry and led to more attention for female surfers and athletes. “This shift ignited a wildfire of all-girl surf schools, girl surf movies, and female surf lifestyle clothing lines across surf brands,” noted Schumacher in a widely shared 2013 article. Corporate America recognized a market when it saw one; women’s soccer, basketball, softball, you name it, were all sleeping economic giants. “All of a sudden it was perfectly acceptable to be a female athlete,” a bemused Schumacher wrote.

In addition to the exploits of athletes like Andersen, or the legendary Frieda Zamba, who from 1982 to 1992 dominated surfing, institutional and organizational structures took shape. The first all women’s surf shop Water Girl opened in Encinitas, CA, and Wahine, the first all women’s surf magazine, began publication in 1995. One year later, Isabelle “Izzy” Tihani and her sister Coco opened the influential Surf Diva shop in La Jolla, CA, at once symbolizing the sport’s growth among women and a new sense of feminism. “We grew up with punk, not boomers burning bras,” noted Isabelle Izzy Tahini in 2008. “With Madonna, the Queen of Capitalism, our idol … Or Latifah and other rappers, and Gwen [Stefani] — all of them preaching empowerment, and all of them with their own lines of shoes, clothing and bags.” Benefiting from institutional changes like Title IX, both sisters competed on UCSD’s women’s surfing team, and less aversion to capitalism, the Tahini sisters and their business represented an updated version of earlier waves of feminism. Surf Diva provides surf lessons, gear, and even a foundational text for 21st century female surfers. Employing a how-to narrative in the vein of authors like Generation X’s Douglass Copeland and with graphic novel stylings, “Surf Diva: A Girl’s Guide to Getting Good Waves” (2005) might be the closest thing to a “feminist manifesto” that a trade press book might offer, argues Comer.

Two years later, Sally Smith opened Santa Cruz’s Paradise Surf Shop, and though Smith related to earlier form of feminism that aligned with counterculture boomers more than the Tahani’s pro-capitalist Generation X, together the two businesses helped to create what Comer describes as “new politicized constituencies of both girls and midlife women surfers” linked locally, regionally, and globally through their respective outreach programs, particularly those dedicated to coastal stewardship, environmentalism, anti-racism, and women’s rights.

Frieda Zamba | Photo: Simone Reddingius/Encyclopedia of Surfing

While Paradise Surf Shop and Surf Diva inspire, they also struggle in an industry that continues to promote sexualized images of female surfers, ignores prominent professionals who don’t fit a prescribed “look,” and seeks to crush or co-opt smaller movements. In 2010, Paradise Surf Shop permanently closed its bricks and mortar location, unable to financially compete with an industry that refused to cooperate.

For all the progress of the past two decades, Cori Schumacher has argued, women’s surfing remains locked into a Gidget ideal that limits far more than it liberates. “Women’s surfing was progressing, but the image of the prototypical female surfer remained nearly identical to that of the 1950s,” asserted Schumacher. “One of the major distinguishing features of this new generation of female surfers is how ‘sexy’ and ‘bang-able’ they are. The California image of the surfer girl remains the dominant image, yet is now being celebrated for showing skin in ever more suggestive poses.”

Lest one think all is lost, it is not. Over the past two decades women’s surf schools have popped up across the world and the ethos of the sport today among women, remains open to class, racial, and sexual difference. More and more women are surfing and communities are growing through initiatives like the Wahine Project and Comer’s own efforts with the Inspire Initiative, such as this July’s Summer Institute for Women Surfers, the online release of the short film Flux: Redefining Women’s Surfing in late June, and the tentatively scheduled November 2014 launch of the History of Women’s surfing website. In the recent documentary White Wash, numerous black female surfers expressed no sense of reservation about pursuing the sport. “I can do whatever I want. What do I want to do?” Andrea Kabwasa asks of herself rhetorically. “I want to surf … When you’re in the water and in sync with nature there is no race.”

Two generations of feminists helped to build the sport, and now a more racially diverse, third generation looks to expand the women’s surfing community to numbers never before seen and with a pro-environment socially conscious transnational awareness. From Gidget to Linda Benson to Lisa Andersen to Andrea Kabwasa to Dionne Ybarra, California provided the surf breaks and the women did the rest.


Krista Comer, Surfer Girls in the New World Order (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010)
Lawrence Culver, The Frontier of Leisure: Southern California and the Shaping of Modern America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)

This article originally appeared in the Intersections column at KCET Departures.