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 has traditionally been allied to feminist thought, and many women turn to leisure in the natural world in response to gendered stressors in their day-to-day lives. Female physiology, 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 male violence, and lack of visibility of female role models. 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 historical and contemporary presence as walkers, runners and climbers in the UK’s hills since 1800. And they 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.