The Untold Stories of Surfing’s Trailblazing Women

The documentary ‘Girls Can’t Surf’ examines the sexism women surfers faced in the 1980s and ‘90s

Pauline Menczer
Pauline Menczer Courtesy of Madman Entertainment

In June 2018, a photo of two junior surfers at a competition in South Africa went viral. In the photo, the boys’ division winner holds up a giant check for 8,000 rand (around $470 today). Standing next to him, the winner of the girls’ division holds a check for 4,000 rand ($235)—half as much.

The photo sparked so much outrage that the World Surf League later announced that it would award prize money equally to male and female competitors.

But gender inequality in surfing is nothing new. Since the earliest days of women’s professional surfing in the 1980s and ’90s, competition organizers have been treating women differently. Male surfers, too, are to blame for creating a culture of misogyny in the sport, in which bikini contests were often held during official pro surfing competitions. Damien Hardman, a former surfing world champion, once told an interviewer: “I think they just need to look like women. Look feminine, attractive and dress well.”

Now, the documentary Girls Can’t Surf is finally sharing the stories of the pioneering women who battled discrimination, homophobia and even abuse to keep competing in the sport they loved.

Christopher Nelius, the film’s director and a surfer himself, had already made films about surfing when he began researching women competing in the ’80s and ’90s—but he found next to nothing. When he began calling around to trailblazing women surfers, they were flabbergasted that someone wanted to make a film about them.

“Male surfing is so written about, so mythologized,” Nelius tells the Guardian’s Cath Clarke. “Surfing mythologizes its athletes in a way that no other sport does, but [these athletes have] been male 99 percent of the time.” 

Using fresh interviews and archival footage, Girls Can’t Surf paints a harrowing picture of what life was like for the few women professional surfers who braved an overwhelmingly male-dominated environment to pursue their dreams.

Jodie Cooper
Jodie Cooper Courtesy of Madman Entertainment

Take Pauline Menczer: When she won the world championships in 1993, she received no prize money; the organizers also gave her a damaged trophy, per the Guardian. Growing up poor in Australia, Menczer taught herself to surf on a broken board and was often mistreated by fellow male surfers at Bondi Beach. Some pushed her off her board, while others pulled her leg rope so she couldn’t catch waves.

Many other women surfers also faced discrimination. Jodie Cooper was one of the sport’s first openly gay top athletes; her sponsor dropped her after she came out. Pam Burridge developed an eating disorder after being told, time and again, that she should lose weight.

“It was hectically hard and the culture was terrible,” Burridge told the Sydney Morning Herald’s Garry Maddox last year. “But it was of its time and it needed changing … [L]ooking back at some of the stuff, oh my God, it was really bad.”

Pam Burridge
Pam Burridge Courtesy of Madman Entertainment

Competition organizers often sent women out in bad or nonexistent waves, while reserving the very best water for the men. Women’s pro surfers were so broke—and their accommodations at competitions were often so bad—that they slept in their surfboard bags or crashed with friends. As Leslie Felperin writes for the Financial Times, touring for women was “a kind of semi-sponsored homeless lifestyle, eked out in the backs of broken-down estate cars and vans.”

The sexism came to a head in 1999, when organizers at an event in South Africa wanted the female competitors to surf on flat waters. Women sat down on the beach in protest, though even after that pivotal moment, the sport was still very slow to change.

Wendy Botha
Wendy Botha Courtesy of Peter Joli / Madman Entertainment

Decades later, Girls Can’t Surf is now helping some of the sport’s groundbreaking women get the recognition they deserve. Supporters are hoping to place a statue of Menczer at Bondi Beach, where an artist has already painted a huge mural on the boardwalk. A crowdfunding campaign to give Menczer the prize money she should have won in 1993—about $25,000—far surpassed its goal, raising a total of $60,000. (Menczer donated the excess to charity.) She also designed her own surfboard, aptly named the Equalizer.

These developments have been “life-changing,” Menczer tells the Guardian. She adds, “I feel like I’ve won the world title again.”