Gwen Moffat:Climber and respected author.Image Gwen Moffat.
I checked the Boardman Tasker winners list recently, just to see how many women had won the prize since the BT’s inception 34 years ago? Five. To be honest, I’m surprised it was that many as I wasn’t sure if a female climbing writer had ever won. The Boardman Tasker has always had a fair representation of women on the judging panel. This year’s judges are Kate Moorehead, Helen Mort and Peter Gillman, but I guess the judges can only work with what they are presented with. It’s impossible to do a scientific study on the gender ratio of mountaineering/ outdoor books but from my experience based on putting out the Footless Crow site for 7 years, doing the occasional book review and just keeping a weather eye open on the outdoor media market, then I imagine that at least 80% of books falling into this category, are written by men. On the subject of articles published in Footless, sadly, only four women writers have featured. Barbara James, Barbara Jones, Jill Sumner and Ruth Janette Ruck. This is not for the want of trying or through any sort of sexist discrimination on my part I can assure you.
It wouldn’t be that hard to look at this in a socio/cultural context. Men do tend to be more narcissistic, ego driven and self publicizing than women. Look at the social media and the comments columns in newspapers like the Guardian. Its mostly men who get involved in heated threads and who promote their latest exploits. Be it a mountain bike ride-’Really buzzing after 30k in a blizzard man!’... Running-’Hey..knocked 3 seconds off my PB’. Climbing- “ Managed an extra circuit of the wall tonight...stoked!!!’ and other such mind numbing rubbish that gets a few sycophantic ‘likes’ and comments..’Awesome Dude’...’Respect’.... Yes even in Europe, Wayne’s World speak has taken root in the vernacular of the Twitter generation.
Getting back to female climbing writers though. There has always been strong figures like Dorothy Pilley, Elizabeth Coxhead, Brede Arkless, Gwen Moffatt, Lyn Hill, Catherine Destivelle and Wanda Rutkiewicz who have written about their achievements and produced articles and books of merit. However, if judged on sales, the achievement of ‘classic within the genre’ status or even reaching out into the heart of the mountain/climbing community and gaining wide respect, these female writers have never been accorded the same respect or achieved the commercial success as a Bonington, Krakuer, Simpson or Macfarlane for example.
Certainly, in 2017, an era when women in the west are perceived to enjoy equal rights with their male counterparts, regardless of the field or career they are engaged in, old habits die hard. The commercial publishers driven by profit, not surprisingly look to sure fire winners who are guaranteed to stimulate sales and interest. In a relatively small commercial market like the climbing media, where book and magazine sales are usually limited to those engaged in the activity-unless you have a rare cross-over smash like ‘Touching the Void’-it is the Kirkpatricks, Bullocks, Fawcetts, Boysens and yes, Bonington, still!, who tick the commercial boxes. Female climbing writers are still plugging away, producing quality material and getting stuff out there in print and online, but without achieving the same iconic status as wordsmiths as male writers.
Of course, this might be to over complicate the issue by lobbing in these socio/cultural theories. There are probably more male to female climbers anyway and hence, many more males writing about it. Authors like Bernadette Macdonald and Audrey Salkeld have achieved both critical acclaim and a measure of commercial success of course, but they remain in the main as exceptions within the field. Lobbing the occasional hand grenade into the complacent, patriarchal outdoor media.