A Feminist Ethnography of Indoor and Outdoor Sport Climbing and Bouldering

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Wigglesworth, Jennifer
rock climbing , gender , embodiment , feminism , settler colonialism , space , discourse
As a sport and form of consumption, rock climbing is flourishing. Increasing numbers of people are strapping on rubber shoes and heading to indoor or outdoor spaces to climb. The 2019 State of Climbing Report published by the American Alpine Club (AAC) confirms climbing’s popularity: 4.4 percent of all Americans now climb indoors, whereas a decade ago they were not tracking this statistic. More women are taking up the sport; they make up about half of all indoor climbers (AAC, 2019). Women want to go out and feel empowered in their climbing pursuits, yet they must negotiate implicit and explicit forms of discrimination. My project centres on one recreational climbing community in southeastern Ontario. I qualitatively explore women’s climbing. My method is feminist ethnography: I interviewed 34 women, collected participant observations over two years, and augmented these materials with personal stories. I subjected all of the research materials to a discourse analysis. My analyses have focused on how gender discrimination intersects with other power relations, including race, class, sexuality, ability and colonialism. I have explored how these intersections organize the participants’ climbing styles and sense of entitlement to space, and I have examined how women’s outdoor climbing can be a form of colonial practice. I develop the argument that, although climbing is a site for discriminatory slights and ideas that naturalize gender differences, participants also actively resist these slights and interrupt traditional femininities and masculinities. Furthermore, I suggest that the misogyny I found at the cliffs cannot be divorced from the settler state; climbing, and outdoor recreation in general, function within a colonial structure and this colonial structure is expressed in gendered ways. It is my hope that this work contributes to the project of addressing historical and contemporary injustices in order to construct a better future that accommodates all people and attends to complex histories of conflict, displacement, and cultural loss in the outdoors.
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