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Going into the Unknown: Colonialism, Gender, and the construct of "Wilderness"

Going into the Unknown: Colonialism, Gender, and the construct of "Wilderness"

This is a transcript of a phone conversation between Erin Monahan and Vivian Underhill. Vivian is a climber with climbing in her blood. Her grandmother is Miriam Underhill, a mountaineer who scaled many famous peaks back in the 1920's when women were seen as frail and incapable. The conversation winded through the least expected of directions.

Erin: I am so psyched to talk to you because I stumbled upon your writing after doing a google search on historical women in climbing and I found this quote by Miriam Underhill and was really drawn to it. And it read, “In common with many women I felt that the Dolomites were made to suit me with their small, but excellent toe and finger holds and pitches where a delicate sense of balance was key rather than brute force.” And then she keeps going, “While it helps of course to have tough muscles, the prize fighter would not necessarily make a fine Dolomite climber, but the ballet dancer might.” And I was just so drawn to that quote because it touches on so much of what I have been thinking about in terms of climbing lately - that there are so many nuances in this, in terms of gender and climbing, and different styles, and different kinds of rock, and how that calls for a certain kind of climbing, and it sets a certain tone for how to approach climbing. So, I guess I was just kind of wondering what your thoughts are on that?

Vivian: Yes, that’s one of the things that draws me most to climbing: for me, climbing is so creative - in the ways it brings me to inhabit my own body, to be aware of my precise strengths and ways of being. I love the way that it turns the idea of ‘strength’ on its head: that smallhands, small feet, and flexibility, for instance, can combine to become a stronger tool than just brute force. I try to continually remind myself that I – like many of us – have been trained to think about strength in terms of a certain dominant kind of narrative, like the big muscle, brute strength kind, that we see so much in mainstream media, etc. Being really self-aware about my own process of climbing has led to me to think much more expansively about what strength means, both mentally and physically, and that’s been really liberating and exciting for me as a climber. 

Erin: So, how did you get into climbing?

Vivian: Well, my Dad was a big climber when he was young. He went with Miriam a few times when he was young, but most of his climbing he actually learned later in life. He moved to Colorado, and started doing a lot of his own climbing in the Rocky Mountains. When I was born, I think from age five or six he started taking me into the mountains - in a very small harness. 

Erin: That’s awesome!

Vivian: Yeah, I really learned following him. He taught me how to lead, and he was my primary climbing partner for a long time. When I went to college, I met some climbers that were my age,  started branching out and forming my own network. But he was my original teacher and partner. 

Erin: That's so cool. I read that Miriam started seriously climbing in the Alps in May 1926 after climbing the first ascent on the…

Vivian: Torre Grande.

Erin: Torre Grande, in the Dolomites, yeah. But I was wondering after learning about her and everything, I started wondering what would it have been like to be a woman mountaineer in the 20's. Because obviously we are further along in terms of the feminist movement now. There’s a quote that I found on the internet by this climber that said that now that she and her female partner climbed this route, that it’s no longer a great route just simply because they’re women. Also, I can only imagine the blatant sexism that she faced throughout her life because of that quote. And it just still happens today blatantly like, I was in, I mean I’m sure this happens to a lot of women, I was in Bishop, California bouldering and then one night we went to a bar in town and I walked up to order a drink and a man slaps me on the ass. So, you know there’s like this blatant sexism and there’s this obvious kind that happens, but there’s just so much subtlety in oppression too. And the many instances when people don’t realize they are discriminating due to someone’s gender. I was also, going along that wavelength, I was also just reading, an interview with Rebecca Solnit. I just picked up the Lion’s Roar, it’s a magazine and she’s interviewed in it, and she points out that it’s ridiculous to say feminism failed because we’re undoing five thousand years of patriarchal culture. So, you know, not to be shocked that the didn’t finish the job in fifty years and now we have terms like, marital rape, sexual harassment, date rape, glass ceilings, micro aggressions, and there’s just like a huge amount of language that has been developed to describe the realities of discrimination. In this way, Miriam in my eyes, Miriam was really pushing heavy limits and boundaries in her time, and rejected the tidy, firm gender boundaries that told women they can’t climb mountains. I was just curious if you had any thoughts on this?

Vivian: Yeah, I have a few thoughts on that. My dad has told me that Miriam really enjoyed taking on the role of ‘the first woman to climb x.’ A lot of the writing she did, too, served to support that very public role. I think she was very aware of the role that she had historically and politically at that time, and I think she really enjoyed breaking those boundaries. I’m sure she really enjoyed the publicity, as most people do, but I also think it was a very political decision - to support the movements for women’s rights that were happening at the time. 

With her story, though, I also try to keep in mind the layers of privilege that structured her experience and the conditions of possibility in which she lived. Miriam was white, from an upper-class background, and perhaps because of her social position, she was given a lot of latitude – perhaps more than other women of her time were. And I think part of the reason she grew to such fame and skill in the climbing world was because of the social circles she moved in. 

 Which is not to discount the things that she accomplished, because she was able to overcome serious sexism in the climbing world, which itself supported feminist struggles elsewhere– but it is to call attention to the ways in which all the intersectional parts of her identity combined to make those achievements possible. I think this is important because when we create people as heroes for a certain cause, we can overlook the structural conditions that made those things possible for them – and not for others. 

Erin: Yeah. Right, I mean, that’s kind of something that’s happening, that happens a lot. I mean whether it’s in climbing, or any other aspect. Simply being that yes there are challenges to be faced as a woman, but then being a white woman and then coming from a privileged family that is educated and well-off and everything, sure there is definitely a lot of opportunity there and it gives you a sense of trust and confidence. I have experienced that in my life and I think that climbing is a very, and being in the outdoors, you know, if you look at it, a lot of it is just white people. They can access the outdoors, they have the free time to be outside, or they can make the time, or they can buy the gear, they have set themselves up in such a way that, or they are set up in a way that the opportunities that they have been given allow them to buy the gear, or experience these things, and have the time to do it. Yeah, and it’s something that I have struggled with myself and thought about a lot. 

Vivian: Yes, and in fact climbing itself is a very particular way of relating to mountains and the outdoors. Mountain climbing as a popular pursuit rests on foundational logics of colonialism: it’s all wrapped up in ideas of masculine conquest and a kind of idealized, wild and untamed nature. Here, Miriam’s climbing – and that of her female peers – served to complicate that a little bit, and might be why her climbing was so threatening to the status quo. The quote you mentioned – that once the route had been climbed by ladies it was no longer worth climbing – is a good example of this. By asking why the accomplishment of the ‘ladies’ rendered the climb not worth doing, we can get a glimpse of the very gendered and racialized underpinnings of climbing in the first place. 

There’s a whole lineage of anti-colonial thought on the historical process of constructing wilderness as an ideal of original nature. As Donna Haraway, Sylvia Wynter, and numerous others have pointed out, this conception of nature rested on a sense of separation between humans and the lands with which they co-existed, which stems from the Cartesian dualism between mind and body, and the whole host of binaries that it entails: thought/feeling, human/nature, human/animal, man/woman, etc. In the US context, the creation of wilderness spaces in the late 19th century was contemporaneous with a lot of bourgeois anxieties about race, class, and sexuality. Urban centers were widely believed to actually cultivate homosexuality in young men, due to a range of potential causes including inaccurate and racist fears of immigrant populations, pollution, tainted food, or a new distance from honorable contact with the outdoors. 

In this milieu, the popular conception of wilderness arose as a redeeming and wholesome space where young white men could bolster their masculinity through rigorous physical activity. (Which is ironic, in some ways, because homosexual and homosocial societies flourished in the male-dominated logging, mining, and fishing industries in far rural nature.) 

Even now, for many of us in the climbing community, myself included, the mountains remain a kind of ‘pure’ and reinvigorating place away from the complications of urban life where we can test our personal strength and return to something potentially purer or better. I struggle with this a lot, because I love climbing, grew up in that world, and those ways of thinking were central to forming my worldview, and how I understand my relationship to the world, and the outdoors, etc. And yet, I grapple with the violent histories that underpin my way of seeing ‘nature, and how they were, and are, entangled with the maintenance of white heteromasculinity.

Erin: Those are great points, and I mean, I agree, I think it’s all worth thinking about and talking about. The idea that what we have constructed wilderness, just the fact that you are acknowledging that it is a construct, that like we created this idea of wilderness because for so long people were working with the environment, as kind of a part of the environment, not that it was separate from themselves, or that the outdoors were a thing, there was no “outdoors,” it was like, this is just, this is all of it. We are a part of this, and then yeah, with colonialism and the whole idea of conquering things then, it really changed the way humans interacted with this thing we call “wilderness.” Yeah, I have thought about that a lot. Just the fact that it’s a separate thing that we’ve constructed… because when I go to places like Smith Rock, or any climbing area, when I first started climbing I was like, “Wow, this is the wilderness. I’m out here in these places I’ve never seen or explored.”

It’s kind of the same thing when you go to a national park and you feel like you’re out in nature, but after a while, and a few years of doing this, and exploring these places, I realized that it doesn’t really feel, to be honest it hasn’t, a bit of that wildness feeling has been taken away from me [after] thinking about it as a construct, or this thing we have created. And it’s great because we need to have these places protected, and it’s great to have access and everything, so I really agree on a lot of those things, it’s just been something that I am still trying to come to terms with, or figure out. Or, maybe there’s no figuring out to do, but I’ve just been doing a lot of thinking about how where we are going and exploring is not really…in a way sometimes, it doesn’t feel like… exploring. 

Vivian: [laughing] Yeah, I grapple with that tension a lot. Because within the current political climate of the US, I find myself very much in support of conservationist movements, or whatever that means, especially in the face of other interests like oil and gas and other forms of extractive capital. And yet, at the same time, as you were saying, a lot of that movement rests on these very particular, historically and culturally determined visions of ‘nature.’ Also, the restructuring of land and space involved in creating wildernesses and National Parks is also entangled with whole histories of dispossession and relocation of Indigenous peoples – both in terms of the physical removal of bodies, and the erasure of millennia of cultural, ecological and political practices. This is something that mainstream education rarely teaches, but it seriously disrupts any sense of wilderness being somehow better or purer. 

As a white person, and a settler on these lands, my background has conditioned my experience of these lands and led me to think about land and space in particular ways. This way of seeing them is that which is dominant, so it can often seem like the only way to do so – it is not often questioned. So part of my work, I think, is to go back and dismantle why I think in the ways that I do, and the histories of thought that have made that seem normal. So yes, I feel this real tension between wanting to -  not protect, exactly – but work against certain kinds of land use that I think are deeply destructive and unsustainable, while at the same time being really aware of the fraught histories behind the typical ‘conservation’ or ‘wilderness’ tropes. 

Erin: And going back to… I’m really curious about gender limits in climbing, and again going back to ideas of the feminist movement, I have also studied feminism since I was in college, so it would be interesting to hear…I guess, so this kind of current day revolution I have been seeing in climbing is that more and more women are establishing their place in climbing and this kind of translates to the larger feminist movement in my eyes where people are rejecting the status quo all over the place, so now we have victories like same-sex marriage, and people are creating amazing movements like Black Lives Matter, and there’s a movement called, Idle No More, and the growing movements towards awareness and action towards climate change, and so I’m wondering what does feminism mean to you today? And if you have an thoughts on what is going on in climbing and kind of women’s place, taking up space in the climbing community and things like that?

Vivian: Okay, yeah – it’s a great question, and something I think about a lot. What I envision feminism to be changes on a regular basis. But I’m glad you mentioned movements for racial justice like Black Lives Matter and climate change; one of the most powerful things that feminism has done for me is taught me to think about systems of oppression as interlinked and intersecting: none of them work in a vacuum, but rather in concert with each other, and come into being together, and are not static descriptors. That’s something that gives me a lot of hope, in a strange way: that patriarchy, and the oppressions that come from a binary, static, and unequal view of gender, is completely entangled in white supremacy and, in the context here in the US in which I live, settler colonialism. I don’t know, maybe that’s depressing, too – but I tend to think of it as exciting, because it gives me some sense that work for one cause has the potential to reverberate through others as well.

Also, I think people often tend to assume that feminism only focuses on ‘women’s issues,’ but that’s actually a relatively limited way of thinking about feminism. First off, we might ask, what exactly constitutes a ‘women’s issue?’ How do we draw those lines, and what does that show about how we define ‘women?’ For instance I am interested in using feminist theories to think through climate change. When I tell that to a lot people, they are like, “how do women’s issues really relate to climate issues?” I think it’s useful to take gender as an analytic, rather than an object. That is to say, feminist thought has done a lot of work on the ways that the enforcement of a binary gender system has historically (and currently) functioned in larger systems of oppression. How were two genders, and the specific roles and relations associated with them, normalized so as to seem ‘natural’ and common-sense? How did the spread and enforcement of a binary gender system, as well as the control of sexuality, function in larger imperial and colonial formations? This is what I mean about gender as an analytic: not as a static identity or descriptor, but as a structuring logic. Ideas about gender came into being within very specific power structures, and then those ideas served to reify those same power structures. Thinking about how these very specific things became normalized has taught us a lot about how power works, how it structures not only what we know but what is possible for us to know. Thinking in those ways then helps me to also think very critically about processes of racial formation, and that brings me back to what we were talking about with wilderness: how original conceptions of it emerged from the center of all of this. I think that’s one of most powerful parts of feminism, as a movement and also as an intellectual tradition: this continual attention to not just the thing that you're studying, but the ways in which it was constituted as an object in the first place. 

Erin: That’s great. I love what you said about using feminism as a way to look at climate change, or using a feminist approach towards climate change, and that can sound very confusing to some people, but I see that in terms of how I have come to know feminism - it just means the way that I look at it, it’s an abstract concept or idea, it is a movement, and it’s dynamic, and changing and shifting, and because of that it means openess, and breaking down these constructs that you’re talking about and these binaries. With “binary thinking” it kind of impacts the way we are looking at everything. So, if we have these structures in place that are binary, than we are going to look at things and see black and white, and it’s this or it's that, and that’s very limiting.

I see that the feminist movement all along has been trying to dismantle these stories and these cultural narratives that we’ve set ourselves up to believe. And we have to be constantly questioning them and really working on how do we redefine what’s been going on. I think questioning society will ultimately dismantle the inequality and the discrimination, and I think that I’m inspired by the way that all these things are interconnected. I mean, like what you were saying earlier, that it kind of sounds depressing, but for me there is an initial fear because there is so much work to be done, there's so much change that needs to happen that people, I think, get a little bit frozen with how much work there is or how much there is to still know.

There is just so much uncertainty, and so much that we don’t know about each other, and about there’s so much to uncover and explore and to kind of work through, and I think that can be kind of a really scary challenge for people, but I think that there is this… it’s inspiring to me because with that uncertainty comes openness and an ability to approach things in different ways, new ways, and better ways. I really like that it’s all connected because in general everybody is connected, and we have forgotten that. Or we have been trained to think that we’re not. 

Vivian: Yeah, I like what you’re saying about the power of uncertainty. I think uncertainty, or the unknown, can potentially be a revolutionary idea. Because I think you’re right, I see a lot of people – and sometimes myself included – fall into despair and hopelessness about how much more work there is to do. For me, especially in terms of climate change, there is almost this apocalyptic sense of a future climate crisis that is also already happening. And there, I try to remind myself of exactly what you are saying about uncertainty and all of the potential possibilities that it opens up. This goes back, too, to what we were saying earlier about how the power to frame the problem also frames what potential solutions we see, and I think this has a lot to do with looking at the historical processes by which the problem has come to be constituted. Can we hold space within uncertainty for resisting the assumptions pressed upon us by racism, classism, ableism, sexism, capitalism, etc? Often, for me this means asking the most basic of questions, the ones that so often masquerade as common-sense, because those are the ones that are often the most fraught. What do we mean by ‘humans,’ by ‘nature,’ by ‘natural’? Each of those distinctions is fraught and contentious. Are there other possibilities that we are not even seeing because they have been made invisible by these dominant ways in which the problem is framed? 

Erin: Yeah, definitely. Yeah, I think that it’s good to remind ourselves that there is a lot that we could not be seeing. A few other things that I wrote down that I kind of wanted to talk about, we mentioned connectedness and togetherness, and all that, and a lot of the time when I‘m climbing and I'm interacting with my climbing friends, anytime feminism gets brought up, or a gender issue gets brought up, and this is in daily life too, not just in climbing, there have been some discussions coming up more and more in terms of genre and climbing, with certain articles, like my friend, Georgie Abel, and a lot of other women in climbing have been talking about these things, I wonder if with a lot of my male friends if there could be this sense of guilt that comes with these discussions, maybe they are unsure of how to discuss these things or how to act. I'm just wondering what your thoughts are on how you would respond to a white male who is listening to this, or who is thinking about these things, and what would you say to them?

Vivian:. I think it depends on how they are listening to this. I think there are many white men who genuinely want to rethink the gender binary in the first place, and I think it’s necessary to the movement to create compassionate space for allies. I think the first step is self-education. Patriarchy and heterosexism are societal structures, ones that we are all born into and raised in; to some extent, it becomes part of the air we breathe. Even as we’ve made huge strides in questioning that status quo, still, we live in a white supremacist, heterosexist, patriarchal world, and the privileges that adhere to us in different ways structure our worlds, what we know, what we think. For all of us, I think the first step is a continual commitment to unlearning, questioning, dismantling those assumptions.

So yes, masculinity – white masculinity in particular - carries a huge amounts of privilege in the world, and many men, cis men in particular, have grown up with that being unquestioned – but that doesn’t necessarily have to mean anything about the work they do, how they live in the world. I think we all have continual opportunities to work against and use our privilege in ways that question our position in the first place, but it requires a continual commitment to questioning the messages we’ve internalized, which is a lifelong process, but often the only way to be a genuine ally and accomplice. 

Erin: Yeah, totally the way that I respond to my male friends, yeah, I had this genuine conversation with my white male friends, and we were talking about Solnit's “Men Explain Things to Me,” and wanting to know how to approach these kinds of things, having this kind of guilt, not sure what to do or how... I just had the thought while you were talking, you’re right, the fact that we have established these gender roles from birth doesn’t mean that we inherently have to perform in the way of that gender, or that we are defined by that. And I think that feminism is fighting to kind of lift us all from those expectations, and those set of norms that we have been conditioned to think of ourselves in that way, so there is a lot of freedom that comes when we start realizing that we can….well, first we need to accept that those things exist, and after that there is a lot of freedom in knowing that there is a lot of work that we can do to deconstruct those things and that even white men can be a part of that. They are not separate from it. They are apart of it and it’s a really awesome thing. I would stress that it’s not something to be seen as negative because we definitely need white men to help us with this because we are all apart of it, and we are all affected by it. In the same way that racism can’t be fought without white people. 

Vivian: Right – not only can white men be a part of it, but they must be an essential part of it. You also alluded to this, but I also often emphasize that binary gender norms are hurtful to men as well as women, though unequally and differently so, and structured by race, class and other categories. The expectations of masculinity that are put on young boys and men are toxic, hurtful, and unfulfillable as well. 

Erin: Yeah, recognizing all of those limitations and trying to free everyone of those limitations… So, during Miriam’s lifetime the idea of women in the mountains made people scoff as if it was some kind of a joke so dismantling this inequality is still work that must be done to this day, and I just want to tell you a story about my friend, Lindsey, she’s a badass alpine climber and she’s a crack climbing connoisseur and once she told me that she was out at Indian Creek about to lead this climb called, “Sinestra,” I don’t know if you’ve been out there, but it’s this insane, really hard crack climb, and this guy comes over to her and says, “Hey what are you guys up to? My friend is about to put up this climb and then I’m going to top-rope it like a girl.” And so, she responds by saying, “I’m about to lead it like a girl.” So, this kind of language of discrimination might seem subtle, and some might say it’s just a sentence, or word, or a phrase, but to me, language is powerful. And it’s how we communicate, and it’s how we relate to each other, translate our experience, and understand the world, and I have really always thought that language shapes the way that we see, feel, hear and experience everything, so I’ve always been an advocate for intentional speech. And in his phrase, “top-rope like a girl,” this guy was kind of saying that women don’t lead climb, that there wasn’t space in his head that this was a first and foremost possibility. And that the first and foremost possibility was that a man leads climbs. And so, thinking about that it just kind of made me think that only in this way does a man hold that space, and I just wanted to ask you what you think about this and what do you think about language and women taking up space in the climbing community. 

Vivian: Yes, I have definitely had my fair share of those kinds of comments. They seem to just pop out of people’s mouths so easily, and they always give me pause.

I agree that language is incredibly powerful. Words are never just words, but rather, they accrue their meaning by drawing on whole lifetimes of associations with those words. One of the reasons that I am rarely able to respond in the moment like that is because it takes me a long time to just sift through all of the internalized sexism that also comes up for me in response to those comments, that gives those words their power over me. I think that speaks to how deeply patriarchal norms remain entrenched in the world we live in: that your friend Lindsey, you, or I, who think about feminism a lot, who are badass women climbers in our own ways, are still knocked off-kilter by those kinds of comments. From my experience, both of my parents were feminists, and they consciously, overtly stressed to me that my gender didn’t preclude me from doing anything I wanted to do. I had a lot of privilege in that way, and yet, the society that we live in still conditions us to be more susceptible to these patriarchal ways of thinking. His off-hand comment, no matter how innocuously he meant it, still draw upon centuries of assumptions of women’s inferiority – assumptions that are very much alive and well today. Also, that brings me to the “oh, it’s just a joke” response I often get when I do call out comments like that. Even if it was a joke – or especially if it was a joke – we need to do some thinking about what constitutes ‘funny.’ Why was it funny? I think the power of personal interventions, in the moment or after the fact, even if they make people uncomfortable (or especially if they do!) cannot be understated. 

Erin: Yeah, you know, it’s funny, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about climbing and myself, and how climbing has just completely changed the way I view myself, and how I view the world. When you mentioned strength earlier I definitely have redefined what strong means to me because when I started climbing I physically felt stronger. It was blowing my mind that I could do what I was doing. I started being able to accomplish these things that I never thought I would be able to do, and broke barriers and limits that I had, that I thought certain things were impossible, but then they became possible, and then they became easy, and then I was like, “Oh, what other limitations can I break? What other things in my life, in general, am I holding myself back from?” Or, have I been held back from so that I can also break through. And how Miriam she kind of took it on, and she was doing this to make a point, that women can do this. So, it was extremely a political act.

And it’s funny when I started climbing, and then when I started to learn how to lead climb, I got into it from an ex-boyfriend and it was amazing, and it was great, and I’m so thankful to him for introducing me to the sport, and then after we broke up that’s when I started leading because it was no longer his thing. It was my thing. I wanted to make sure I could still do it. I just couldn’t rely on him anymore just for the basic fact that we weren’t together anymore, and because I had just thought of it as his thing and then after we broke up I was like, “You know, I still want to climb and I still want to get to the top of towers. So, I’m going to learn how to lead.” And then I just got really eager about it. And with leading I kind of always made it a point to lead things. And I have always continued to make it a point with whoever I’m climbing with, I mean, not only because I really enjoy it, and I love it, but I realized that there is this underlying thing that there is this feeling that I have to prove myself. And I don’t know if that’s a good thing, but sometimes I feel like…I mean, it’s kind of fallen away, this feeling of proving myself…I think what it is, now I’m starting to feel more secure with myself in general in my life as a person in the world, but at the beginning… It was a couple of years ago, I was in my earlier twenties and now I’m 26, so I’m kind of maybe more coming into my own now, and I’m kind of feeling more comfortable with myself and my identity in this world, so I don’t really have to feel like I’m proving myself anymore. But a lot of what was charging me, and a lot of what was charging my eagerness to lead and to get the experience, was that I want to prove I can do it. And I am also a woman and I wanted to show that I could do it. And it internally became this political act. 

Vivian: Yeah, I mean, as second wave feminism told us, “The personal is always political.” 

Erin: Yeah, I love that. 

Vivian: Yeah, I agree. I still struggle, to some extent, with a sense of having to prove myself – but it’s just to myself, not to anyone else. For years I think I forced myself to do things that I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with – climbing harder routes, etc – just to prove that I could. But proving myself to others, or to myself, didn’t always give me the satisfaction I thought it would. I still use my fear often as a way to point myself toward what is beyond my comfort zone, because I do think there’s value in that, but I’m trying to be more conscious of what things I actually want to do, and which come from a need to prove myself – both in climbing, and in the other facets of my life. I’m not sure that way of thinking is always great for my climbing – it means I don’t always take on the kinds of challenges I used to – but at least I enjoy it more. Which I’m sure is a benefit long-term. 

Erin: Yeah. I think it’s funny because a lot of my…this trajectory of my climbing has only been in the last like three or four years, so and a lot of these past three or four years I have done a lot of growing after college. Thinking about all these feminist concepts and thinking about myself as a person in the world, it’s kind of followed along my climbing journey, it’s kind of been parallel. So, now that I’m feeling a bit more comfortable with my understanding of myself, I mean of course, we’re always changing, but I am kind of coming into a place where like, I’m more accepting. And it’s kind of reflecting in my climbing.

I’m kind of approaching climbing in that way these days where it’s like, I’ll do something and I’ll really check in with myself. I’ll be like, okay, why am I climbing this? And why am I projecting this? Or, why do I want to go and do that? And is it because of the purest reasons of just making myself happy, or am I doing it for myself because in the past it might not have always been for myself. And I think that’s kind of our ego. It’s also the ego getting in the way too. So, it’s got to be a balance. I’ve had to struggle and find the balance between, “Is this my ego that wants to do this? Is it a good work? Is it a political act or something? Or is it genuinely for myself?" And yeah, just constantly checking in. 

Vivian: I think it’s a lifelong process – and perhaps there are never any pure reasons, per se, but just reasons that feel better or less good to us. 

Erin: So, I guess we talked about manless climbing. I wanted to ask what your thoughts are on this in terms of today because a lot of women I talk to, and a lot of men I talk to, think of it as thing that…I posted this quote on Facebook and I asked people, I was like, I really want to talk in person about this with people, let me know what you think. So, I’ll just read the quote, and then we can talk about it: 

"I saw no reason why women, ipso factoshould be incapable of leading a good climb,” she wrote in her 1956 memoir Give Me The Hills. “Henry de Segogne [a fellow climber] went to some pains to explain to me why a woman could never lead a climb… I didn’t find [his] argument too convincing, but I did realize that if women were really to lead, that is, to take the entire responsibility for the climb, there couldn’t be any man at all in the party.”  

So, I’m really curious about this because for her time, this was extremely important, I mean I think it’s really important today too, but this whole idea is really complicated because okay, a lot of people will respond with, “Well, this is reverse discrimination,” whatever that means. People will say these things to me when I’m talking about this and then this can translate to other situations not just with climbing, but I’m curious to hear what your thoughts are when people respond in such a way that’s like… making jokes and making light of these situations like, “I don’t want to dwell on that. Don’t dwell on discrimination in climbing. I don’t surround myself by those people.” So, it’s kind of like, “I don’t see that in my reality, so it’s not my reality.” I’m kind of going into other topics that’s off of this quote. My one friend, when I talked to her about manless climbing she responded with, “well, I love climbing with men and women and I think that that’s sexist too, to do something that’s inherently without men.”

And it also reminds me of this night, I work at a climbing gym part-time, and we had this night where we hosted an all women climbing, kind of like a club, in the bouldering area because the bouldering area is a bit more intimidating for women, and for women who are just getting into climbing, you know, maybe it’s a bit more of an intimidating place. So, we had this night where we would host just a women climb night and men and women could be around and it was just a really casual thing and it would be just solely for getting together and climbing together and just being encouraging and having fun. The thing is that it was called, “Beta Babes,” and that’s a whole other discussion. I didn’t really like the name, “Beta Babes.” But yeah, so with this whole thing about manless climbing it’s like obviously today we still need this because we have this club, and we have women-specific things. You know, we have women specific self-defense classes, or women-specific surfing classes, or women-specific anything. So, where do you think Miriam was coming from in that, and also what do you think is happening today?

Vivian: You’re right that’s a really complicated and fraught and loaded topic. My understanding of feminism is, at a basic level, never a way of telling individual people what to do, but rather to support whatever choices they make about their lives. I know women who do prefer to climb with mostly women because they find that really minimizes the amount of sexism they experience on a daily basis. And I totally respect that decision: especially given the histories of trauma that trail such a large fraction of women. I also respect women who don’t make that distinction, and that’s also valuable. 

 I will also say that the ability to not dwell on discrimination, like you said, or to not have that in your reality, stems from a place of privilege. Have you read Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack?” She makes the point, as so many have before her, that being able to remain ignorant of race or racism, is itself one of the most fundamental parts of white privilege. There’s a really dangerous way in which the privileges that stem from white skin can create a world in which white women, often, don’t have to look at gendered discrimination in the face. But that doesn’t change the fact that it remains prevalent in the world.

At the same time, I think that blanket statements about men are, first, often incorrect; second, foreclose the possibility of having wonderful male allies; and third, dangerous in that they erase trans and non-binary masculinities and reinforce the gender binary. That’s why I find it more helpful to think about structural oppression, because it shows the contours of how we are all conscripted into the system to play different roles: to think about patriarchy and heteronormative masculinity, rather than individual men or women – or even the categories of men and women, because those categories themselves have been structured and deserve questioning. 

As for the quote specifically, I think it’s important to remember that Miriam lived in a time when women climbing on their own was unthinkable. As a matter of fact, she did climb with many male partners, but manless climbing served a specific political purpose: her own climbing would be written off unless she overtly made that distinction. And the fact that we’re even having this discussion shows how much progress the feminist movement has already made: that women-only climbing spaces are even possible. 

From my own perspective, having experienced plenty of micro-agressions in the climbing world as an openly queer woman, I work hard to minimize the amount of discrimination that happens in my own climbing social circle. That means that the people I climb with are generally feminist-oriented, even if they don’t say it explicitly, given the range of histories of that term. 

Erin: Yeah, it’s interesting. Because I know that today it’s so different for each experience, for each person. And it just varies so much. Some women really benefit from having these all women-specific classes or things, and I think it might mean that, I mean it’s obvious that we’re still, everyone’s still working through their own experiences with oppression and sexism.

Vivian: I think that having specific individual classes for women climbers is a benefit because – let’s face it, regardless of the actions of individual men, there is often a sense of intense machismo in climbing spaces. I have encountered sexist behavior in the climbing world that simply would not fly in the outside world. That can compound the understandable fears of inferiority that new climbers feel, along gendered lines.

Now, I would also want to complicate the idea of a women-only space – not on the basis of ‘reverse sexism,’ or anything like that, but instead because gender is not a binary thing to begin with, and whenever we designate spaces according to gender we erase the lives of trans and genderqueer climbers. For instance, my partner identifies as transmasculine and non-binary, and when they were just learning to climb, while they would have benefited from a welcoming and somewhat insulated beginner’s space, they would not have felt welcomed within a space designated ‘women-only.’ But overall, there is absolutely a need to create more feminist, less macho spaces in climbing.  

Erin: Absolutely. I just started learning about ecofeminism and I’m really interested in it. I just haven’t had a lot of time to do a lot of reading on it or looking into it, but I’m just surprised that this is the first time that I stumbled upon this concept. 

Vivian: Yeah, so ecofeminism is a field that I’m really interested in because I hope to go that direction. Thinking about how can we address climate change from a feminist perspective, so I think there’s a lot of potential there. I will say that in the past, some ecofeminist writing has tended to get on slightly risky gender essentialist terrain – something that can happen if you use gendered categories without a simultaneous attention to deconstructing their formation. At the same time, in the way I try to frame it, regardless of what we think “women” are, or if that’s even the category we want to think with, European modernity, beginning from the start of colonialism until the present, has been the structuring force for both the gender binary as well as “nature.” And the violences enacted upon the lands with which we leave and upon “women” and others who fall outside the narrow niche of white heteromasculinity, stem from similar ways of seeing the world: the rise of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy.

The other thing I would tell you is that some ecofeminist thinking has a tendency to rely on histories of Indigenous and Indigenous feminist thought, without always citing their work properly, which in turn replicates colonial logics of theft and erasure. 

Erin: And the reason why is because I’m drawn to the unknown, and Rebecca Solnit talks a lot about that, and she talks about in her essay, "Men Explain Things to Me," Jon Keats’ quote about Negative Capability, which is the idea that you can be in the unknown and uncertainty, and it’s kind of in that negative space that you’re able to find comfort in the unknown. That’s actually a really positive thing. So that’s kind of what unknown land means, and all that stuff applies to feminism, and that’s my abstract way of understanding feminism. What does the unknown mean to you?

Vivian: For me the unknown is exciting because it holds so many possibilities – ones we haven’t even thought yet, ones we haven’t even considered. I do think that over the course of my life, I’ve been drawn what scares me, because if it’s something that scares me than it’s clearly not something that I haven’t figured out yet, or something that I might really benefit from doing some more work on. That feeling of fear signals to me that there is a whole realm of the unknown still to explore. Even though I hate the feeling while I’m taking that step, still, most of the best things in my life come from just stepping into the unknown.  

Erin: That’s a perfect response. That’s great. As you were talking I was being reminded that there’s only benefit that can come from going into the unknown, and I think that yeah, it comes with this huge amount of fear, and it’s also taking risks and experiencing a change because going into the unknown, what are we fearing? That something could change? That something is different? We don’t know the outcome, and then what if the outcome changes us in some way? So, what will that change look like? And not only does that remind me of our own choices in life like when we make a change with our work, or with our relationships, or there are so many unknowns that happen to us throughout our lives. But then also in reference to what we have been talking about, all the unknowns that exist in terms of gender, and in terms of the feminist movement, and that can be really scary for people, and these questions about gender especially can be really scary because it makes people question themselves. And it makes them question all the things that they were raised to believe. And that they have held these beliefs so dearly all their lives that it makes them who they are, and it’s how they function, it’s how they view the world, and when you start picking those things a part then people start getting really scared and it’s like well, what ground do I have to stand on? What is truth? What can we hold on to? 

Vivian: Yeah, I think gender particularly has been such a foundational, structuring logic for so long that when we start to dismantle those assumptions, it creates a ripple effect across many other ways that society structures itself. You also remind me of an anthropologist whose work I really like, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, and he’s written about “taking things seriously:” essentially, he says that at our best, when we truly take something seriously - whether it’s a different discipline within academia or a different culture’s epistemology – we remain open to having our own worldviews challenged or shifted by those differences. That’s an idea that I really love, and I think the same possibilities are in the unknown. That to really go into it requires openness to deep changes or shifts in yourself. It’s one of the most wonderful things about what we don’t know – and why it feels so terrifying. 

 Vivian is a Bay-Area based freelance writer who focuses on environmental and queer issues. 

You can check out Vivian's essay on Miriam published by Bitch Media here

You can follow Vivian on her blog here

The Future is Uncertain, but There is Hope: An Interview With Jolie Varela

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