Women on Waves: A Cultural History of Surfing: From Ancient Goddesses and Hawaiian Queens to Malibu Movie Stars and Millenial Champions is the latest book by author Jim Kempton, former editor-in-chief of SURFER magazine and current president of the California Surf Museum. Published in 2021, Women on Waves provides an in-depth history of women in surfing, with a focus on Hawaii, the US, and Australia. Throughout the book, Kempton highlights achievements in surfing by women, using archival records, interviews, first-hand accounts, photographs, and existing research to piece together a story that spans nearly a millennium.
At 456 pages, Women on Waves is a tomb of a book which is an achievement in itself considering the lack of resources available. It is no surprise that there are very few books that focus on women in surfing. Surf literature, with few exceptions, is largely reserved for the history, exploits, adventures, and achievements of men. Right off the bat, Kepmton acknowledges the under-documentation of women in surf history, stating that “much that has been written about women surfers is inaccurate, and most has been written by men — and from a male point of view.” Ironically, the author of this very book is male which, to his credit, he does address. He also acknowledges the work of historian Jane Schmass and museum manager Julie Cox, with whom he collaborated to create an exhibition on women surfing at the California Surf Museum. The research and work put into that exhibition serves as the backbone for this book.
Duke Kahanamoku, Hawaiian swimmer and surfer with Charlotte Boyle and Ethelda Bleibtrey. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Women on Waves covers 1099 to the present day and chronicles a vast number of stories of historical and contemporary figures instrumental in the evolution of surfing. We hear about pioneers, wave riders, innovators, and professionals such as Princess Ka’iulani, Isabel Letham, Annette Kellerman, Mary Ann Hawkins, Linda Benson, Joyce Hoffman, Rell Sunn, Candice Woodward, Margo Oberg, Layne Beachley, Lisa Andersen, Stephanie Gilmore, Carissa Moore, Maya Gabeira, and Keala Kennelly. He not only discusses women in the water, but also off the water; women who own surf shops, shape boards, start businesses, open museums, and become lifeguards, photographers, journalists, and CEOs. The author’s knowledge and lifelong involvement in the surf community serves him well as he does a fine job of including every woman he could find. The Names Index spans six full pages and the names are in the hundreds. There are also some familiar names not normally associated with surfing. I was delighted to read about famed English writer Agatha Christie, who was an enthusiastic and capable surfer, having ridden waves in Cape Town and Hawaii. She had an adventurous spirit and is thought to be one of the first British “stand-up surfers.”
Kathy Kohner at Malibu in the late 1950s. Photo: Pegasus Books)
Women on Waves is about the passion, commitment, grit, athleticism, and desire it takes to be a surfer and have an impact on surfing’s ongoing evolution. I loved reading about Rella Kapolioka’ehukai Sunn, famously known as Rell Sunn, the legendary Hawaiian surfer and Queen of Makaha. An accomplished surfer, martial artist, freediver, author, hula dancer, and Hawaii’s first female lifeguard, Sunn was the unofficial ambassador of Hawaii surfing to the world. Her deep connection to the sport shines through: “Surfing frees everything up, it’s just the best soul fix. Whatever it takes, you’re gonna do it, because nothing else in the world can give you that kind of self-esteem.” I’m waiting for the stand-alone biography of Rell Sunn.
Keala Kennelly on the outer reefs of the North Shore. Photo: Lucas Murnaghan
Lisa Andersen is another woman who’s life could easily be a compelling biography. From a young age, Andersen knew surfing was her dream and goal, running away from home to chase her dreams, impressing the folks at Quiksilver at an amateur competition, turning pro soon after and winning 1988 Rookie of the Year. The first female to be featured on the cover of SURFER magazine and one of Sports Illustrated’s Top Female Athletes of the 20th Century, her story is relatively known but it was great to hear so much of it in her words. Kempton included many of Andersen’s direct quotes, as he has done with the majority of the women featured (when possible) which makes the book that much more engrossing and keeps the focus on the subjects’ lived experience.
Mary Ann Hawkins won the Pacific Coast Women’s Surfboard Championship several times in the 1930s. Photo: Pegasus Books
The stories in Women on Waves are fascinating and sometimes very relatable. The book does not shy away from the issues that have plagued women surfers for decades, such as inequality and sexism. Joyce Hoffman talks about being constantly challenged and harassed, physically and verbally, when trying to surf in the 60s. Hoffman came to the unfortunate realization that she had “to get good enough so that whether you were a woman or not they would respect your abilities and share the water with you.” Another example was the first women’s pro surfing tour in 1976. What should have been a time of celebration was marred by ridiculous setbacks such as the sponsor suggesting to raffle off a date with one of the female competitors to make up for the lack of prize money for the women’s division. While these events are upsetting, their inclusion demonstrates the struggles and how much harder women have to work in order to be taken seriously as surfers.
Kathy Kohner—the inspiration for the fictional character Gidget—surfs at Malibu in the late 1950s. Photo: Pegasus Books
While Women on Waves is a good and necessary book, I can’t mince my words; it is a book on women in surf history written by a white male. Kempton sometimes veers into the very territory he criticizes, describing women’s body types (“hourglass”), resorting to stereotypes (“she went shopping”), using men as the yardstick for good surfing (“Betty could hang with the best of the boys”), and bizarre analogies (“the crowd began to cheer, with the enthusiasm of a drunken bar crowd watching a stripper”). The author, editor, and publisher are at fault for this. But I also want to credit them for bringing this book into existence. While it’s not perfect, it’s the most comprehensive history of women in surfing that is available right now.
Photo: Pegasus Books
All in all, Women on Waves must be looked at as a long-needed celebration and collection of the many achievements of women in surf history, on and off the water. Representation matters. Reading this book, learning about these wave riders and hearing their stories, I just wanted to get out and ride the waves as has been done for centuries by women before me. It inspired me in a way that no other book has. By including an incredible list of women spanning different eras, surf styles, origin stories, and professions within the industry, it gives the sense that when barriers are taken down and everyone is given their due credit and respect, the possibilities to be a woman in the contemporary surf scene are endless.
Here is a list of recommended books about surfing by and about women, crowdsourced from the Lake Surfistas community. Thank you to Adrienne Erion-Lorico, Robin Pacquing, and Vicki Long for their suggestions.
The Girl’s Guide to Surfing — Andrea McCloud
Rockaway: Surfing Headlong into a New Life — Diane Cardwell
Sarah and the Big Wave — Bonnie Tsui and Sophie Diao
She Surf: The Rise of Female Surfing — edited by Lauren L. Hill
Surf like a Girl — Carolina Amell
Surf’s Up: The Girl’s Guide to Surfing — Louise Southerden
Swell — Captain Liz Clark
- Wave Woman: The Life and Struggles of a Surfing Pioneer — Vicky Heldreich Durand
Words by Jordan-na Belle-Isle. Header photograph courtesy of Pegasus Books.
Jordan-na is a Montreal-born, Toronto-based SUP instructor and lake surfer. She has been paddleboarding for over seven years and is certified with the World Paddle Association. Her SUP and surf adventures have taken her to spots in Canada, Hawaii, the continental US, and the Philippines. She has been featured in the Toronto Star and the Welland Tribune, as well as the short documentary film “In Winter.” She is also an organizer for Lake Surfistas, a grassroots group that connects and empowers women who surf the Great Lakes. Find her on Instagram.