‘What does it mean to be a woman outside?’

To begin the Women In The Hills blog, the network’s three directors – Rachel Hewitt, Kerri Andrews, and Jo Taylor – all consider the question of what does it mean to be a woman outside.

Kerri Andrews: “What does it mean to be a woman in the outdoors? Historically, as it would now, it depends on the woman. If you’d asked Elizabeth Carter, one of the eighteenth century’s greatest linguists, she’d have told you, as she did her friend Catherine Talbot, that being outdoors meant giving licence to her ‘rambling genius’. Carter loved to get up early to roam the countryside near her home in Deal in Kent, and set up an elaborate alarm bell, operated by the local sexton as he passed on his way to work, to ensure she would wake. Her letters describe her desire to be outside so long, and to look so wild, that she would be mistaken for a ‘vagrant’ by the local magistrate. 

Anaïs Nin

For Anaïs Nin in the twentieth century, being outdoors meant the opportunity to explore her sexuality. Her diaries speak of the creative energy she derived from the glances and stares of the men she passed, and she thrills at her own sexual power. Nin conducted many of her numerous affairs on the streets of the cities she lived in, walking between her lovers’ homes late at night, and deciding whether she wished to pursue more ‘banal adventures’ with the strangers she passed. The outdoors for Nin was full of sexual and creative possibilities, and she felt totally at home there.”

Rachel Hewitt: “I’m currently writing a book – In Her Nature (part biography; part memoir) – about women’s experiences of running, hiking and climbing in wild environments, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. When I set out to explore this subject, I imagined that I’d spend a lot of time thinking about solitude, and what it means for women during their mountaineering excursions. Isolation and seclusion are such dominant themes in nature-writing, after all. The Romantic poets often thought about the natural world as conducive to retreat – retreat from political and personal disappointments, from urban and industrial corruption – and to profound introspection. Desolate wilderness was frequently depicted as the ideal background for solitary voyages into the imagination. Wordsworth wrote of the ‘hermit,/ Deep in the bosom of the wildnerness,’ and he envied encounters that he imagined were granted to such hermits, or lonely lighthouse-keepers, with ‘the soul of that great Power’: God. 

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Elizabeth Le Blond

So I expected that solitude would be a similar preoccupation too for women who wrote about their experiences of wandering up and down and around Britain’s hills. And to a degree, solitude is indeed a matter of interest. Women runners and hikers who spend the majority of their days caring for other people – children; elderly relatives; spouses; continually monitoring endless ‘to do’ lists of doctors’ appointments, packed lunches, after-school classes, school bake sales, bills, benefits, and so on and so on – have written and spoken about the joy and relief of attaining the single-minded focus required by days out in the hills; of being able to leave the house without being weighed down by clothes and snacks and nappies; of being able to concentrate on the self, alone; of attending only to one’s own body’s needs.   

But what I’ve been really struck by, is how the question of what it means to be a woman outside is not always so different to the question of what it means to be a woman inside. By that, I mean that the Romantic (and romanticised) image of the natural world as predominantly a space for solitude, a space of exemption and retreat from many of the social dynamics that characterise more populous spaces, is far from true. 

Walking, running and climbing are often social activities. Applicants (all male, admittedly) to Alpine Club membership in the nineteenth century frequently stated that their principal motivation to climb, was ‘to meet people’. The Victorian mountaineer Lizzie Le Blond took thousands of photographs of the Upper Engadine, in the Swiss Alps, in the 1880s and 1890s, and what strikes the viewer, is how densely packed with people (men and women) these scenes are. The mountains are often a space for socialising, as well as solitude. 

Jo Taylor: I think I will always remember reading Kathleen Jamie’s critique of noughties nature writing, ‘A Lone Enraptured Male’, because it articulated so brilliantly something that I’d felt for a while: that the ‘nature’ described by writers from William Wordsworth to J.A. Baker to Robert Macfarlane wasn’t really mine. Their descriptions of intense and lonely engagements with some kind of wilderness – whether that’s the wide open fields of the south of England, the hills of its north, or the world’s underlands and old ways – didn’t tally with how I engaged with the outside. Their accounts made me feel that my walking and wandering around known locations, fears of going to lonely places alone, and worries about exploring after dark meant that I wasn’t someone who was ‘properly’ into nature. I like places best that I’ve been to again and again – where I know the changes of the seasons, where the paths break, and which birds, plants and animals I can expect at different times of day. New places are exciting, of course – but there’s no place quite like home.

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Rachel Carson

Dorothy Wordsworth knew that. Prevented from wandering freely until she was in her mid-twenties, Wordsworth knew the attunement a person could get from walking and re-walking the same well-loved paths. Even when she could go largely where she liked, this habit of returning to walk the same routes was one she maintained throughout her life. She came to deeply know the details of the local fauna and flora, down to the tendrils of the mosses and lichens that clung to the Lake District’s rocks.

It’s this way of being outside that I think we need to rediscover. Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking study Silent Spring indicated the troubling – even dangerous – consequences of individualistic attitudes to the world in which we all live. Carson thinks that this Romantic/lone male approach risks a profoundly ‘arrogant’ assumption that man can, or should, ‘control’ nature. In fact, ‘Mother Earth’ – to borrow a popular phrase that hints towards the gendered implications of this form of control – exists for herself, alone. But ‘She’ is not lonely. In fact, the natural world’s ecosystems depend on community; as Carson argues, human communities should see their responsibility as being to foster and safeguard natural ones that incorporate diverse species of plants, insects, animals and birds. To get there, we need to listen to alternative narratives about ‘nature’ and humanity’s relationships with the natural.