Dynamic and powerful, Megan Abubo was one of the first to enjoy the fruits from a growing global interest in women’s surfing. (Joli)

We Celebrate The Heroic Women Of 90’s Pro Surfing

The butch, boardshorts and battlers revamped!

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“Maybe it will inspire women to pick up guitars and start bands. Because it’s the only future in rock ‘n roll. Rock ’n roll has been exhausted. But that was always male rock ’n roll.”
– Kurt Cobain on Nirvana’s album In Utero, 1993

In the eyes of our grunge antihero Kurt Cobain, rock ’n roll was dead by the early 90s and women provided the only fruitful way forward. The surf industry kinda found the same thing.

The industry was experiencing its own slump in the early 90s; the bubbly neon of the 80s wasn’t cutting it for Generation X. Profits were way down for brands like Quiksilver, who’d “lost a third of its volume in the United States in 1992,” according to cultural politics researcher Dr. Krista Comer. Kelly won his first World Title that year, in between Baywatch cameos. Tow-surfing was born. Sir Mix-a-Lot’s Baby Got Back graced the audiosphere. And Quiksilver’s women’s brand, Roxy, was in its infancy. The fable goes that Roxy designers were sitting on a Hawaiian beach when a girl bodyboarder walked by with men’s boardies rolled down around her hips over a bikini. The idea for exploiting the untapped female market for surfwear struck like lightning. By 1993, women’s boardshorts were born and so was a new way to grow and sell surfing. Women’s surfing radically bolstered the struggling surf industry by expanding the market, and in doing so helped pay the bills that kept the companies afloat, and kept male surfers sponsored and earning more at ASP events.

And yet, at the same time, 1993 World Champ Pauline Menczer and others had to sit on a French beach as the hooter sounded to protest the ASP sending them out in virtually unrideable windslop (again) to decide who might break even on their trip to this stop of the tour. Wendy Botha, 1992 World Champion, earned $19,000 in prize money that year, while her male equivalent Damien Hardman won more than $84,000 in the same year. In 1994, after Pauline won her World Title, she headed to a tradeshow in the US to campaign for a sponsor. Not only did the champion of the world not pick one up, but nobody even knew who she was.

Radical Legislation

“If they were being derogatory towards women, it was other women not me. Then it slowly dawned on me [that I was not really part of their world]. It’s like a family you’re not allowed to belong to.” – Pam Burridge, 1990 World Champion

I was in primary school when women’s boardshorts were invented, I hadn’t yet stood on a surfboard. By 1999, the industry was in full swing again, women’s boardshorts were in production by all of the big brands, longboards were back, women’s surf magazines existed, all-girls surf contest circuits ruled, and Hollywood was in the process of making Blue Crush to show the world the struggles and joys of growing up as a girl surfer. In 1999, the year I started surfing, I had the privilege of blossoming in a golden age of women’s surfing. A renaissance. I could rip ten photos of women surfing out of women’s surf magazines and tape them to my wall. It changed the way I saw myself, other women, and what “normal” looked like for a girl.

More significantly than the invention of boardies, the attitudinal climate toward girls and women in sport had shifted radically in the US, which then rippled out globally. Women’s boardshorts were symbolic of a new era of femininity, one that had been brewing for decades thanks to a groundbreaking legislative ruling called Title IX. The ruling, passed in 1972, included a stipulation that any federally funded sports programs for boys had to have an equally funded program for girls. For the first time in US history, girls were given widespread permission and support to pursue sport, and not just as a cute afterthought.

Cher Pendarvis has clocked in around 50 years as a waterwoman. She was one of the first professional female surfers and, in the mid-70s, she became the first woman on staff at Surfing Magazine. She watched as Title IX changed the landscape of surfing for women. “When I was in school in the 50’s and 60’s, we had home economics, we weren’t offered gym as girls. I didn’t have gym until a little bit in high school – it was maybe one or two days a week, as opposed to the guys who had gym like every day. Women feeling comfortable with their bodies in a physical way were more attracted to surfing – maybe they’d wanted to surf, but they didn’t feel like they were strong enough. I really started noticing more women in the line-up in the 80’s. And then when longboarding came back.”

Girls growing up in the 80s began to get the cultural “okay” to play sport, but the media hadn’t really reflected that sentiment yet. As former World No.2 and female tube riding pioneer Rochelle Ballard recalls, “What I remember in high school, in the 80s, the only thing that was there was magazines. And the majority of it was just men that you were looking at – except every now and then I’d see advertisements of Lightning Bolt or Hang Ten, some old school stuff that was probably more from the late 70s and early 80s of Margo Oberg and Lynn Boyer, Frieda Zamba or Kim Mearig, and with Channel Islands. And that was really the only thing that I remember of any women’s imagery.”

As the 90s began, a generation had been primed on the expanded rules of what it meant to be a girl – which finally included equal opportunities on the soccer field, on the track, in the pool, and, maybe, as they’d test, in the surf.

A storm was brewing to float women’s surfing back to the mainstream. Women’s self-perceptions were changing; what the industry needed were faces to sell women’s surfing authentically. According to Huck Magazine, “In the US, sales for women’s athletic shoes topped men’s for the first time in 1994 and by 1995, women were spending $6 billion compared to men’s $5.6 billion.”

Marketers nailed it by drawing on the playfulness of a blossoming global girl culture. If you were around in the 90s, you might recall The Spice Girls’ “girl power” attitude, the Powerpuff Girls, or the growth of powerful fictional female characters like Xena, Mulan, and Buffy. Individually, they seem trivial. But as a collective, girls were receiving new messaging about what was both possible and expected of them as women. Never before had girls seen so many depictions which told them that girls can be smart, powerful, pretty, and agents for justice, all at once.

Ambassadors were employed to bring the surf marketing campaigns to life, touching on the themes of play, adventure, natural beauty, and empowerment. Lisa Andersen joined the Roxy team in 1992, the year she won her first World Title. Billabong brought on Layne Beachley. Rusty snagged Serena Brooke.

O’Neill Women’s took stock in petite powerhouse Rochelle Ballard, who recalls, “In thinking about the 90s, the biggest part of it for us was pioneering a new frontier in the surf industry and women’s apparel. And actually having the opportunity to have an image. The original line that Billabong came up with – Only a surfer knows the feeling – In women’s surfing we changed it during the 90s. In men’s surfing it was, ‘Only a surfer knows the feeling,’ and in women’s surfing it was, ‘We can share this feeling with you, and you can have this lifestyle, experience, and feeling, too.’ And it grew in a huge way outside of core surfing because people found an identity and fell in love with a lifestyle, which they couldn’t relate to in men’s surfing”

While women and girls accounted for about five-to-eight percent of surfers in the early 90s, a decade later they made up as much as 20 per cent of the global market (according to LA Times bestseller, The World in the Curl). The influx may have been quick, but deeply embedded attitudes toward women were not swift to change.

Layne Beachley won seven World Titles from the tail end of the 90s through to the mid-2000s and never once scored the cover of a national Aussie surf mag. Shame. (Servais)

Challenging Central Bodies

“I think that the industry was very supportive. The challenge with our generation was that our sport – the association (ASP) – wasn’t supportive or organised enough to showcase women’s surfing,” Rochelle recalls. “I think the industry was like, ‘Hey, let’s do this,’ and they were there supporting us. They were our biggest fans. And then the media was kind of confused. They did their best to support us with very little information and little content to work with. So, that was our biggest challenge: overcoming and having to go through the hurdles and obstacles to find the free and clear path.”

Rochelle stepped up in the later 90s as a tour veteran and the sole female representation on the ASP board. After years of subpar conditions and blatant disrespect for their tour, women started speaking up and demanding better for their sport. Despite advancing the level of high performance women’s surfing, reinforcing the industry, and dishing out the same amount of cash to travel the world for the tour, they still faced resistance from the ASP in getting fair compensation or quality conditions to perform in. How can women’s sport be expected to progress parallel to men’s when they aren’t given equal opportunity or support?

Pauline Menzcer was part of the resistance: “I remember lots of times just boycotting, so many times I’d go to Serena (Brooke), ‘Right, just don’t go out.’ The men’s had been cancelled for the day because the conditions were that shit, and that’s when they’d run our heats. But you’d have one girl who’d be gutless and shit themselves that they were going to start the heat. One surfer in particular, she loved waves that didn’t exist ’cause she was scared, so quite a few times she ruined it for us and we had to go out. We were trying to make a stand. In general the girls were pretty good at sticking together, and we started to realise how much power we had when we did it.”

Derek Hynd, industry consultant and former pro surfer, affirmed, “In many ways the women back then pushed themselves more than the men. They wanted, needed cash – a little like Robbie Page had to get it together in the water to survive because he had no sponsors for a long time. Did they cop a hard time though? Yes, but from the system as a whole and not the bulk of guys… Just a minor Neanderthal element.”

Rochelle agrees: “I think surfing all the way up to the early 2000s was still pretty hardcore; there was a lot of partying going on, there was plenty of competitiveness going on. The Aussies were especially hardcore. Our generation watched the 80s crew on their last leg, so when I went on tour I remember seeing some crazy stuff with Occy and Pottz, Matt Hoy and all those guys. I heard stories of the cruel things some of the guys did to each other to win, like put soap on each others’ boards and cut other guys’ leashes and bury guys’ boards in the sand before a heat. Just crazy stuff. And that was kind of my entry into the sport. It was very unprofessional.”

“It was an old boys’ club, but really just an old mentality. Some of those same people are still there and are supporting our sport in such a beautiful way now – they’re doing such a great job for the most part. I think it was just learned habit. We had plenty of support from fans, huge fan support. The association just wasn’t allowing us to be our best.”

In 1999, Rochelle, Kate Skarratt, Layne Beachley, Megan Abubo, and Prue Jefferies – all WCT surfers – founded the IWS  (International Women Surfing) to help independently promote women’s surfing. The Women’s Sports Foundation in the US (who spearheaded campaigns for equality in tennis and soccer), encouraged them to split from the ASP and start their own association. Female surfers had gone down that path before with WISA (Women’s International Surfing Association) in 1975 and were successful in drumming up more support for women’s surfing and running independent events. In 1976, WISA president Mary Setterholm was sexually assaulted by other surfers at a party and separated herself from the industry at large, to later pursue a degree at Harvard. WISA persisted until 1991 when it folded with the industry’s recession. The newly formed IWS agreed to keep competitive surfing united via the ASP.

“We saw how much money and opportunity there was in the surf industry, it was us saying, ‘This is going to keep growing, let’s grow with it as a sport, or it’s just going to be models at the end of the day.’ We couldn’t really go in the direction that other women’s sports went in because we realised what a whole body we are in surfing, men and women. As much as you want to call surfing a sport, it’s really culture.”

With the IWS came countless meetings to convince the all male-decision makers at the brands, media, and the ASP that women’s surfing was a valuable asset to growing not only the industry, but also the sport. Rochelle struggled to resist internalising the lack of support. “I was so stressed out. I wear my heart on my sleeve and I looked stressed out. I ended up becoming the pain body of women’s surfing. I went from this joyous place of just wanting to embody the spirit of aloha, to really taking it all personally and feeling the pain of it all. There was a lot of ugliness that happened. A lot of it was women taking on the stress of not being supported emotionally by men. There’s no need to talk about the bad eggs in the bunch. It’s not worth talking about. Because I happened to be the one who headed that stand, it really pulled me away from my peak years of competition, having fun and enjoying the fruits of my labour. It was a huge sacrifice. My joy was really stifled for awhile there; every part of my life suffered because of it, my personal life included.” Though the IWS’ efforts succeeded in raising the minimum women’s prize purse from $30,000 per event to $60,000 in the early 2000’s, the ASP also chose to drop the number of women’s events from 14 in 1999, down to nine in 2000, while the men’s tour carried on with 13 events that year. Not quite the equal representation they had been striving for.

Some of the heroes of the 90’s surfing: Rochelle Ballard, Keala Kennelly, Kate Skarratt, Sofia Mulanovich, Jodie Cooper, Megan Abubo, Pauline Menczer, Trudy Todd, Serena Brooke. (Joli/Servais)

Filmmaker Bill Ballard, then husband of Rochelle Ballard, saw opportunity in the lack of representation of women’s surfing. “When it was time to edit my first film, I put Rochelle and Keala Kennelly in it and people really dug it. This is right before Roxy launched, so there weren’t any women’s surf companies yet, and the only exposure for them at the time would be the odd photo in the surf mags. There weren’t many platforms for women to showcase their surfing other than pro surf events.”

By 1996, Bill was committed to a stand-alone women’s surf film, focused on modern high performance surfing. An equivalent to Taylor Steele’s films. The impact of the original Blue Crush (Hollywood later bought the Blue Crush title from Bill, and hired him as a cameraman) set the fun-loving, light hearted, un-self-conscious tone for what it meant to be a female surfer.

“The response to the film was overwhelmingly positive. We premiered it at the first Roxy Luau outside at V-Land to hundreds of people. Everyone was freaking out, the reviews around the globe and in the mags were great, and we got a lot of feedback from female surfers all over the world about how much they enjoyed it.”

Media makers drew on the concept of Blue Crush, the “separate, but equal” philosophy, and began to experiment with female specific mini-magazines buried within the men’s issues. Stand-alone magazines, like Wahine, Shred Betty, SurferGirl, Surf Life for Women, and Surfing Girl soon hit the stands. Instead of logically increasing their own readership, the men’s mags cleaved off women’s readership (and the possibility of integration) with separate magazines. Some were legitimate, others were semi-surfing focussed, filled with ads for waterproof mascara and “surf hair” styling gel. More viable media outlets meant increased incentive for the women on tour to pursue trips and projects outside of competition, where Rochelle feels her generation excelled and where some found considerable financial support.

Women were often included in the staple men’s magazines in the 90s, but rarely surfing; mostly still relegated to being pretty accessories, different from representations in the 50s and 60s only by their increasing raunchiness. Actual women’s surfing was occasionally covered in the men’s mags, most notably Lisa Andersen’s 1995 Surfer cover, which felt like an absolute coup for women at the time, to finally be included as athletes. If only once in a decade.

Several dark characters emerged to assert masculine dominance in surf media. Most notably, a former Tracks writer and official media liaison officer for the ASP, who wrote articles like Women in Surfing: Do they Belong in the Bedroom or the Barrel? (his conclusion, the former). He was long celebrated by the surfing establishment, until being banned for multiple accounts of sexual assault. Not prosecuted, banned.

Serena recalls, “It was guys like that who had influence in the media and were totally against women that were always the biggest problem, not the guys on tour themselves. It was always disrespectful; that we were kooks, useless, only good for a lunch break, and should not be out there, etc. I had a run in with him at Rock Food in Hossegor, he was drunk and tried to pull my top down and poured beer on me. I pushed him back and had words with him. I was on tour from 1995 to 2009. There was a general feeling of mutual respect from the guys on tour, we travelled the world together surfing the same spots and had the same passion for it. So, in my opinion it was easy to relate and get along.”

Pauline Menczer recalls a different experience: “The guys still kind of looked down at us. Some of them were awesome and some of them – there were a few of them in particular that wouldn’t even give you eye contact. They’d pretend like you didn’t exist. I found that quite strange. Others were absolutely lovely. A few of both.”

Rochelle speaks fondly of the considerable support she received from her male peers. “It wasn’t until the early 2000s when I finally felt that kind of support, instead of just being expected to prove ourselves – Ross Williams and Kalani (Robb) and even Kelly and Andy and Shane Dorian – those guys were so technically supportive and helpful. They really grew my surfing. During the OP Pro Boat Challenge, we were surfing Nokanduis and it’s just the fastest most ridiculous wave. We were getting axed, the most brutal beating, and Andy was like, ‘You need to take your rail and lift and pull. Then you’re going to stand up and pump in the barrel, then you’re going to go back down and lift and pull.’ So I did it and got the sickest barrel. All those little things make such a difference. All that is support. It’s just supporting and saying, ‘You know, I want to help you. Let me give you some advice, because I care for you.’ Andy wrote to me once saying how much he loved and appreciated me. It makes a world of a difference to have that support from men, as women. It’s balance.”

And while cultural balance was starting to come into focus, ideal equipment was still a ways off. The gangly boards of the 90s didn’t best serve women’s bodies or our surfing. “I think our biggest challenge, just like in the early 90s when boardshorts and the first women’s clothing came out of the industry – everything was not quite the right fit. It was the same with surfboards,” Rochelle remembers. “We were all on boards that were way too big for us, they were too skinny and narrow. They were actually hard to surf. Women’s surfing comes from the hips, we don’t come as much from the ankles and legs and the feet like men do. So as surfboard design started to shorten and widen, it started to become a lot more dynamic for women.”

Pauline Menzcer’s courageous 1993 World Title victory is one of the all-time great Australian sporting stories and one that should be celebrated often so that new generations can continue to be inspired. (Joli)

Babe Factor vs. Butch Vibes: performing heterosexy

“Despite the gains made by successful female athletes in this era, women were forced into two categories: hot or not, no matter their talents,” according to Roslyn Franklin, PhD and lecturer, Southern Cross University.

While some of the top women were earning well and getting industry support, most were left to fend for themselves. Pauline Menczer, 1993 World Champion, was the unluckiest of the lucky.

She battled crippling arthritis while simultaneously vying for World Titles for almost 20 years, winning 20 WCT events along the way. At times, she could barely walk to the water’s edge, but found strength to overcome the pain while in the water. “As soon as the hooter would go, I surfed like nothing was wrong with me. The adrenaline was amazing.” She battled with humour and tenacity, and with only occasional support from the surf industry. A win for a women’s contest in the early 90’s was $5,000. To pay for travel around the world each year, Pauline used to buy thousands of trinkets, Levi’s, bikes, anything from America, and flip them in Europe to turn a profit. The way she remembers it, she was sponsored by the friends who bought or helped her sell the wares. “My mum always taught me that there’s a positive in every negative, so it taught me to survive and enjoy what I had. Surviving became not only the winning challenge, but the survival challenge. So I liked it. I’d be like, ‘Man, I’ve got $100 bucks, let’s see if I can make it to the next event.’ So I’d turn around and win the event, or find something really cool to sell. I just winged it like that.”

Had she been on the Men’s WCT, we’d all know her as a surfing hero. Her story, and its near erasure from cultural memory, is a testament to the attitudes that suppress characters that don’t hit the marketers mark of ideal femininity. We’re all guilty of reinforcing those stereotypes. Men have them too, they just revolve around strength and audacity instead of sexiness and passivity. Hell, women enforce limiting ideas of womanhood as expertly as anybody else. That’s where we are today, the logical point down the timeline from where someone like Pauline, who didn’t have “the look” couldn’t get a sponsor, despite having “the skill”. Somehow, she never let it get to her. “I felt like more of a rebel because I had such a different look. So I played jokes on the media. They said they were looking for blonde hair, so I dyed my hair blonde. We fought really hard to try to not sell sex. A lot of us did, we wanted it to be about surfing.”

In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Layne Beachley admits, “‘Sponsorship was a massive problem for me, it was a real big challenge, because I’ve been referred to as a loose cannon,’ she says, bursting out laughing. ‘I don’t toe a line unless I see a benefit in it.’ In 1995, as world number two, she worked 60 hours a week in four jobs, while her sponsor at the time, Quiksilver, paid her $8,000 a year.” Two years before winning her first World Title, she opted for liposuction in response to the image pressure she felt from sponsors. “‘If you don’t fit that image then you’re not worthy of support,’ Beachley noted. ‘It’s a really unreasonable ethic to have… It’s a really unsustainable time in terms of image and aesthetics as opposed to what lies beneath that.’”

Sexualisation is incentivised by sponsors now more than ever; the formula for more media and followers is simple (even if those followers have zero interest in the sport of surfing). When only pretty girls – those who fit whatever stereotype of beauty that’s in fashion – get sponsorship, we make it clear to all girls and boys that it doesn’t matter how skillful girls are, looks matter more.

The 90s brought more women to sports, which had traditionally been a masculine domain. As women integrated, many were (and still are) questioned about their femininity. And in a subculture where femininity is defined in male terms, sex with men, or that implication, is the ultimate confirmation of female “normality”. That is, you can surf like men, but you better prove you aren’t one by parading your body in a sexualized way. For many, Lisa Andersen was the first shard of proof that the high-performance, heterosexy ideal was possible, and so it was expected universally. Not that it was Lisa’s fault – she faced challenges in securing sponsorship in the early 90s too, before Roxy needed an icon.

Cori Schumacher, who battled on the WQS through the 90s and went on to win three World Longboard Titles, has written extensively about the power of lesbian-baiting, or “calling a woman a lesbian, regardless of her true sexual orientation”, and how “being considered a lesbian makes many homophobic and/or heterosexist women conform … and revert to a more ‘feminine’ role”.

Female athletes have long battled with the dyke stereotype; it persists across almost all women’s sports. In the 90s, the accepted “surfer girl” ideal had shifted to a more athletic frame, but “too athletic” was assumed to be a sign of sexual deviation. Not playing by the rules of admission.

Wendy Botha in her prime, competing at the OP Pro Huntington Beach in the early 90s. (Divine)

“I had done everything that I could to avoid this type of stereotyping. I kept my hair waist length, exercised every day, restricted my diet to water and fruit when I was told that I was filling out too much. I dressed ‘girly’, flirted with guys, I mean, even the media had recognised my hard work. Surfer Magazine, in the late 1990s, described me as ‘the quintessential California surfer girl’. But it simply wasn’t enough! Everyone knew that to be questioned as a lesbian, even by association, meant no sponsors. No sponsors meant no exposure, no media, and no ASP World Tour,” Cori recalls.

Rochelle says, “Honestly though, there were probably more gay men on tour than there were gay women. And that’s probably underlying the biggest resistance that we had. I only like to speak about the guys who were really supportive of me – mostly the Hawaiian guys – but the Australian guys were pricks. They were horrible to women. And mainly horrible to Australian women. Some of those guys were gay themselves, or bi. They were the ones who were having adversity inside. They couldn’t come out, so they were taking it out on the women. Because they didn’t think some of these women were very pretty, and they were brutalised for it.”

As Cori sees it, the takeaway is that “femininity is not judged by its actions; it is judged by its presentation”. She’s concerned about the impact this continued focus on appearance has in cleaving one generation of female surfers from the next. “The key method being used to distance the generations of pro female surfers is the supposed increase in the femininity of this new generation of women on tour from the last. It is done largely through lesbian-baiting. While men celebrate their heroes, past female surfers are vilified for not being feminine enough.” That is, when each successive generation is broken off from the previous one, we lose our sense of solidarity or community, not to mention our sense of historical context about why our culture is the way it is.

Rochelle boils it down to support: “I think it’s an important observation for the media and people who speak of women’s surfing to stop making these negative comparisons of how the girls today are sooo much better and they’re light years away and they’re so much prettier and so much more presentable. Well, they have the support. And, yes, they are gorgeous and, yes, they surf absolutely amazing – but that’s like taking credibility away from Kelly now that John John won the Title. You can’t just disregard that immediate past because the future is so bright.”

Some of the heroes of the 90’s surfing: Lisa Andersen, Lynette Mackenzie, Neridah Falconer, Pam Burridge, Wendy Botha, Layne Beachley (Joli/Servais)

A History Honoured, a Future Unrepeated

Why does the history of women’s surfing matter today? If we don’t know where we’ve been, we can’t know how best to move our culture forward. When we lose pieces of our history, especially those that trace the non-dominant narrative, we end up making the same stupid mistakes over and over again, like using sex to sell women’s surfing.

The legacy of the champion women surfers of the 90s is worth remembering and teaching to our young ones. By expanding our ideas of what it meant to be a woman, their generation helped to shake up what was possible for girls – and boys – going forward.    

We can do their legacy justice by making an effort to unwind the biases that keep our culture from valuing diversity, in and out of the water. As they showed us, a little support goes a long way.

Lauren Hill