Why Women’s Outdoor Trips?
by Mary McClintock | January 12, 2016
I have lost track of the number of times I have been asked, “Why are you going on an all‑women’s trip?” Nor can I remember the wide variety of responses, ranging from flip to serious, that I have given over the years. Sometimes, the question is asked with a genuine interest and support, but often the question is asked in a hostile, offensive manner. Other all women’s groups and organizations regularly face similar questions, especially if their activity or purpose challenges traditional gender roles. After twenty years of experience on all‑women’s outdoor trips, I thought that the question would not be asked anymore. But I continue to hear “why?”
I didn’t think much about the question until I participated in a course in the Hampshire College Outdoors Program titled “Mountains, Back Roads, Rivers and Women” taught by Joy Hardin in 1976. Prior to that course, my women’s trip experience had been with the Outing Club from the women’s college I attended. When out on the trail or the water, responding to questions about why there weren’t any men with us was easy. . . we just said we were from a women’s college.
But Joy’s course made me finally stop and think: Why did I choose all‑women’s trips? I was stunned by what I heard the first day of the course when, after cross‑country skiing all afternoon, we talked about our reasons for taking the course. I was excited at the chance to develop more outdoor skills and go on a number of trips. As we went around the circle, most of the women described reasons that focused on doing outdoor activities with other women. Their reasons fell into themes I’ve heard many times since then:
*the emotional and physical safety of all women’s trips;
*the freedom to step out of gender role stereotypes;
*the opportunity to develop close connections with other women; and
*the comfortable environment for being a beginner and learning new skills and, alternatively, for being highly skilled.
At the time, I was amazed to hear such a range of reasons different from my own and the passion with which these women had sought out an opportunity to be with other women outdoors. I realized I needed to examine my own reasons, beyond outdoor skill development, for choosing a women’s course. After all, if what I wanted was skill development, there were many co‑ed programs available to me. I didn’t really have
words for it at the time, but somehow I knew that I could be comfortable and stretch and grow in a group of women.
That course was almost twenty years ago, and the question, “why a women’s trip?” is still asked today. Any woman who considers an all‑women’s outdoor trip has to first answer the question inside herself. In answering to herself, a woman often has to overcome the social conditioning that has trained her not to choose to meet her own needs, but rather to meet the needs of others. After answering the internal question, she then often has to answer to someone else‑‑her spouse, boyfriend, parent, friends, co‑workers, boss, or children. Even strangers we meet on the trail or on the water question why we choose women’s trips, or as they often see it, why we exclude men.
There seem to be two questions: why are there women‑only trips?; and why would a woman choose a women’s trip? Parallel questions don’t seem to be asked of men. Are men who are going fishing with the guys asked, “Why a MEN’s trip?” I had hoped the growing popularity of women’s trips would point to the obvious answer to the question of why they exist: because women want to be in the outdoors with other women. Many outdoor trip businesses run all‑women’s trips for the simple reason that they sell. Even though the first question can be answered reasonably simply, women continue to be asked why they choose women’s trips. In planning this article, I hoped to offer a definitive answer so I could keep copies in my pack to pass out to each person who asks. I have since realized that while many women have written in the experiential education and recreation literature about this topic, there is no one definitive answer. Every woman, at any given moment, has her own answer.
What I chose to do is record some of the answers women give to this question and to encourage women to continue to do women’s outdoor trips for whatever reason. The following are a collection of answers drawn from many sources: from other women specifically for this article and from myself and other women over the last twenty years. I collected answers from friends while sea kayaking on the coast of Maine, from answers written on large sheets of newsprint I posted on the wall at the Northeast Women Outdoors Gathering, and from women I know who are leaders and participants in women’s outdoor trips.
I invite you to sit back and imagine that you are sitting in circle of women outdoors somewhere on a trip‑‑next to a whitewater river, in the desert, on a mountainside, wherever women travel together. Imagine that one woman has just said, “I know my reason for choosing this women’s trip, but I don’t know everyone else’s reason. I’m curious. . .WHY DID YOU CHOOSE A WOMEN’S OUTDOOR TRIP?”
AND THE WOMEN ANSWERED:
. . .because I like spending time with other women outdoors.
. . .when I was growing up, my father and brother and uncle and boy cousins went on overnight whitewater canoe trips, while my mother and sister and I stayed at the cabin. Now I want to learn how to do all the paddling and camping skills, but feel like such a beginner, I thought I’d be more comfortable with other women who didn’t get to learn this stuff when they were kids.
. . .my husband doesn’t like going on extensive paddling trips, and I do. But I don’t like going with coed groups where everyone is already coupled or there is an underlying assumption that those who aren’t paired up are looking for a “trip fling”.
. . .there is a special support and camaraderie that happens when a group of women spend time with each other outdoors. I really treasure the times I get to spend with women where our complete focus is on each other and the outdoors. It seems like we are all able to relax with each other and ourselves in a way that doesn’t happen when we are in our regular city lives.
. . .for years, I went on co‑ed trips where as a highly skilled outdoorswoman. I found myself caught between connecting with the men around our shared competence and skills or with the women around our identity as women. On these trips I often found the women became resentful of me or were intimidated by my skill level. Now, I prefer to go on trips with women who share my skill level.
. . .I work year‑round in an outdoor program for adolescent boys and need time to be with other women to be reminded that I am not the only woman in the world who likes the outdoors.
. . .because I love women.
. . .in coed settings, I’ve been embarassed to ask questions about things like how to tie a bowline, how to coil a rope and other stuff that you’re already supposed to know somehow. I’m afraid I’ll get kidded for not knowing basic stuff. On women’s trips, I can ask for guidance without being talked down to. I can compete at my own level and achieve what I can, encouraged by others while in the company of and inspired by strong role models.
. . .I’m trying to understand what it means to be a woman and not be defined by men. In mixed groups I feel like I am either going along with men’s image of who I should be or rebelling against that image. With other women I think I can sort out a definition of myself as a woman that comes from inside of me and other women.
. . .as a lesbian who works in a setting hostile to lesbians, trips with women are a chance for me to relax into all of who I am, rather than be compartmentalized like I have to be at work.
. . .I’m widowed and want to go hiking in another country, but don’t feel comfortable traveling as a woman alone. When I used to do trips with my husband, I felt safe. I don’t need a man to protect me. A group of women traveling together can take care of each other.
. . .with women I can relax and not feel judged as to how I fit or don’t fit the way women are “supposed to be”.
. . .the outdoor activities‑‑skiing, winter camping, biking, and canoeing‑‑on the course sound like great fun and I qualify because it’s a women’s course and I’m a woman.
. . .I think women come into their own in women‑only events. Men are empowered and privileged in our culture, and women are often intimidated and self‑conscious when men are around. The power dynamics are unequal. Women tend to be more confident in women‑only events.
. . .I don’t have to watch (as much) where I pee. I can be more open about my body and not feel like the men are checking me out as a potential sexual partner.
. . .It’s really not so much what anyone else does or doesn’t do that impacts my experience, but more the degree to which I let my inhibitions go. The inhibitions that limit me are emotional, so the more interdependent the companions, the more I feel at ease. Life experience has given me many more self‑regulating habits when men are involved. I can meet my goals successfully and with more satisfaction when I’m free of that baggage.
. . .because I like women and can enjoy outdoor activities without all the male superiority bullshit our society throws at us.
. . .because I feel less self‑conscious and more self‑confident in women‑only groups. I feel proud to be a woman. I go home feeling renewed.
. . .There’s a different competition level when men are involved. Being stronger they will always throw farther, hit harder, run faster, spike the ball harder, etc. When involved with women, a woman who can run faster, hit harder, etc. is someone I can admire. She provides a model and a resource for information on how I can better myself.
. . .It’s the women in my world who nurture me. Spending time together outdoors is a chance to be surrounded by that nurturance.
. . .I enjoy experiencing outdoor activities free from the male ego and men’s tendency to make decisions/take charge and women’s/our tendency to allow or even encourage men to do so. The adventure experience is much more equal with women‑only groups.
. . .I used to just do outdoor trips with my boyfriend and other male/female couples. I realized after many canoe trips, that I didn’t know how to paddle in the stern or how to clean the campstove, or how to set up the tent by myself. When I mentioned this to others in the group, they said it was easier for everyone to do what they know how to do best and that it takes too much time and effort for everyone to learn new things. Well, I want to learn new things. Maybe I’ll like stern paddling better.
. . .as a woman leader on coed trips, I’ve often been challenged by male participants who push me to prove my competence and ability to be a leader. Often this happens with men who are at a beginner skill level in an activity that I am at an expert skill level. It feels as if they challenge me because they can’t believe a woman could really be an expert in an outdoor activity. I have never experienced this kind of “testing” on women’s trips I’ve led.
. . .as a rape survivor, I don’t feel emotionally and physically safe living so closely with men I don’t know. I feel more comfortable and able to relax in my body with a group of women.
. . .when I was a kid, I used to resent being forced to do things in groups of girls. Boys and girls weren’t allowed in the same groups and teams. I always thought that I was missing out on the adventures the boys were having. Now, I CHOOSE to be with groups of women because with women I feel free to challenge the rules about how women are supposed to behave.
. . .the key thing is for women to be able to choose to be in coed or in women’s groups. People keep telling me that we should all be together now, because segregation is bad and exclusive. But the world isn’t equal yet. Discrimination and prejudice happen everyday to me and other women. To have men, for whatever reason, even in the interest of equality, make the choice for me about what kind of group I can be in or not, continues the power imbalance of the genders. I and other women need to have choices, to be able to choose a place to be all of who we are without being prejudged or discriminated against.
. . .just because we’re out in the woods doesn’t mean we all left our socialization behind.Men’s socialization to take control and my own socialization to be passive mean that on mixed gender trips I end up stepping back and deferring to the men on the trip. On women’s trips there is a chance to stretch past my socialization.
. . .outdoor trips with women are a great way to meet other lesbians as friends, lovers, traveling companions.
. . .when I spend time with women in the outdoors, I feel a deep, healing connection with the earth. I need that connection to help me through the times I am back living in the human‑manufactured world.
. . .it is tremendously exciting and rewarding to lead a group of women who begin a trip with little confidence in their abilities and very few technical skills and to watch them gain skills and a sense that they are capable and competent. On trips like that, I feel like I have made a small step towards combatting the disabling forces that work on women everyday‑‑the forces, internal and external, that say to a woman, “you’re not as good as, not as capable as, not okay. . .”
These are some of the many reasons why women choose to go on all‑women’s trips. Many of the reasons relate to women’s desire to escape the bounds and limits that sexism and gender roles have placed on women. So, if sexism disappeared tomorrow, would women still want to do outdoor trips with other women? My answer is an absolute YES! I would still want to do trips with other women because I love being in the company of strong, competent, fun women outdoors. Would any other woman still want to go outdoors in the company of women? I don’t know. You’ll have to ask her!!
Copyright © 1995, Mary McClintock
published in Women’s Voices in Experiential Education,
ed. by Karen Warren, 1996, Kendall-Hunt