What is the Research Network hoping to achieve?
The Women In The Hills (WITH) research network highlights how women constitute a distinct community of land-users, whose experiences and representations of landscape, and whose values and beliefs regarding the natural world, frequently differ from those of men. WITH will focus on the experiences of female walkers, runners, and climbers in upland wildernesses in the United Kingdom, from 1800 to the present day. The network intends to explore the numerous factors that shape, hinder and enhance women’s engagements with landscape and the natural world. Our aim is to bring together academics, creative practitioners and stakeholders across a wide range of disciplines and sectors, to identify and evaluate barriers and catalysts to, and benefits derived from, women’s participation in leisure activities in the hills.
One of the network’s major outputs will be a policy document identifying numerous barriers to women’s participation, and recommending deliverable improvements, which can be drawn upon by a wide range of individuals and organisations invested in enhancing women’s experiences of walking, running and climbing in the UK hills.
The key questions that the network will be discussing are:
- What factors have hindered and marred women’s access to, and experiences of, running, hiking and climbing in the UK’s hills, from c. 1800 to the present day?
- What have been the individual, social, and aesthetic consequences of the historical marginalisation of women’s voices and representations of these activities and landscapes?
- What factors have promoted and improved women’s access to, and experiences of, recreation in UK uplands, from c. 1800 to the present?
- What interventions and improvements might be made – and by whom – to enhance women’s access to, and experiences and representations of, running, walking and climbing in the UK hills?
How will the WITH network achieve its objectives?
Women In The Hills is facilitating a boundary-crossing exploration of challenges to and benefits from women’s participation in upland recreation. Conversations during the network will lead to the emergence of future pathways to improve the quality and quantity of female recreational use of UK uplands. These conversations will also help develop an inter-disciplinary methodology for the study of diversity in land use.
The network’s events will be structured around three key categories that have shaped women’s historical and contemporary experiences of UK uplands, and are relevant across disciplines and industries:
- women’s bodies
- women’s lives and social circumstances
- women as makers and recipients of decisions about land management.
These three categories will structure the network’s events and outputs, and provide a framework for investigating how biological sex and gendered social structures might intersect with social class, ethnicity, dis/ability and impairment, sexuality, gender identity, and religion, to shape women’s experiences and representations of land use.
The network will bring together a diverse range of participants in the following events (among others):
- three intensive one-day workshops, each investigating how the network’s key themes shape women’s recreational upland use.
- a residential field weekend for underprivileged women, to explore barriers and incentives to participation, and encourage women’s representations of their land use.
- a conference in which participants share the workshops’ investigations and contribute further research findings, to generate a holistic exploration of women’s upland recreation.
Who is involved in the Women In The Hills network?
The network is directed by a Leadership Group comprising Rachel Hewitt (Newcastle University; not active in the network since early 2022), Kerri Andrews (Edge Hill University) and Joanna Taylor (University of Manchester). The network’s events and rationale are overseen by an Advisory Group, of which Zakiya Mckenzie, Keri Wallace (Girls on Hills guided trail-running for women), Isobel Filor (John Muir Trust), Emma Brockwell (Pelvic Roar) and Harvey Wilkinson (National Trust) are members. Women In The Hills is very lucky to be working closely with three organisations as project partners: Girls on Hills, John Muir Trust, and Pelvic Roar. You can find out more about these individuals and organisations on the Who We Are page.
As it develops, Women In The Hills will benefit from collaboration with a number of individuals and organisations, across academic disciplines, creative practices, and industry and charity sectors. These include the Outdoor Industries Association, the Kendal Mountain Festival, EVB Sport, the British Mountaineering Council, Women in Adventure, and Fab Little Bag.
Women In The Hills is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), to run from January 2020 to the end of December 2022. The network is part of the Landscape Decisions programme (subtitled ‘Towards a New Framework of Using Land Assets’), which is supported on behalf of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) by the National Environment Research Council (NERC), the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC), the Biotechnology & Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC) and the AHRC. With the assistance of our funders, collaborators, project partners, advisory group, leadership team and all participants, the Women In The Hills network hopes to generate an unprecedentedly holistic, nuanced conversation exploring women’s experiences of participating in, and representing, leisure activities in the UK hills.
How do I get involved in the network?
The Women In The Hills network welcomes expressions of interest from a wide range of participants: academic scholars, industry specialists, campaigners and activists, conservation charities, and so on. If you have a professional interest in women’s participation in running, hiking and climbing activities, and in women’s approach to land management, please do email us.
You can access details of our forthcoming events on the Network Events page on this website. The WITH network’s events will bring together individuals and organisations who possess shared interests and often very different expertises and backgrounds, in order to generate innovative conversations and pathways to improving women’s experiences of outdoor leisure. If you would like to actively participate (ie. as a speaker or panellist) – or recommend someone for active participation – in these workshops, please do get in touch.
We also welcome interest from individuals who are interested in attending our events. Booking details are on the Network Events page. If you are a woman in the hills – or a woman who would like to be in the hills – and you are interested in organisations who seek to enhance your experience, please visit the Get Outdoors page.
Why is the Women In The Hills network necessary?
In 1871, hymn-writer Frances Havergal wrote about a recent excursion, that she ‘did not know till the summer before last what a combination of keen enjoyment and benefit to health…was to be found in a pedestrians [sic] tour by unprotected females.’ Over 100 years later, clinical psychologist Irene G. Powch suggested that ‘countless women are probably denied the healing benefits of wilderness because of the fear of rape behind every bush.’
Together, these statements hint at numerous themes that frequently characterise women’s experiences of walking, running and hiking in the hills: the multiple and fraught meanings of solitude and fear; the presence and anticipation of male violence; philosophical and psychological traditions that align femaleness with ‘nature’, and suggest that the natural world might be a site for recuperation and healing.
There are many more such themes that shape women’s participation in leisure in the hills. Historically, female mountaineers have contended with restrictive clothing and equipment designed for male bodies. Women are more likely to have to fit outdoor excursions around caring responsibilities. Female runners report lower levels of confidence, about fitness levels, ability, or navigation skills. Women were excluded from membership of societies such as the Royal Geographical Society for all of the nineteenth century; and some outdoor leisure and sporting organisations still today enforce different rules according to sex. Women report feeling deterred from some outdoor activities by lack of public toilets. But access to natural landscapes can offer specific benefits to women too: wilderness therapy often has feminist philosophical foundations, and many women turn to leisure in the natural world in response to gendered stressors (including male violence, and post-natal depression) in their day-to-day lives. Physiology and its treatment, and the social realities of many women’s lives, mean that women often have different requirements, expectations, benefits and hindrances, in their experiences of the hills.
But women’s experiences of wilderness and nature are relatively rarely highlighted. Representations of landscape are frequently dominated by male writers and artists. The Norton Book of Nature-Writing (1990) anthologised 47 pre-twentieth-century male writers to 7 women. Granta’s 2008 New Nature Writing issue included 17 men to 2 women. All 8 of the key featured works on the Tate’s 2004 Art of the Garden exhibition website were by men. And often such works betray the assumption that men’s experiences of natural landscapes are universal.
The relative lack of visible female role-models, in combination with the many factors that hinder women’s access, arguably have an effect on the quantity and quality of female participation in outdoor leisure. Surveys in the last decade have shown that women are deterred from upland recreation, and/or that their experiences are marred, by factors including: lack of confidence, less leisure time than men, relatively poor availability of female-specific kit, fear of street harassment and intimidation, and the financial cost of participation. Such obstacles correlate to lower female participation: 35% of participants in general outdoor activities and 20% in mountain sports are female.
Nevertheless, women have had a significant and numerous historical and contemporary presence as walkers, runners and climbers in the UK’s hills since 1800. And – despite their lack of representation in anthologies – women have written, spoken and responded creatively about their experiences, to a prolific degree. The Women In The Hills network will shine a light on such rich testimonies and creative responses, and provide opportunities for conversations and the sharing of expertise from a wide range of participants, in order to generate an unprecedentedly holistic, nuanced exploration of factors that define, hinder and promote women’s engagements with the UK’s hills.