There are many women who stand out as individuals who are constantly pushing the progression of surfing forward. Among these, ten figures emerge in my mind as strong individuals who have contributed a significant change, ushering women from bikini-clad beach bunnies to formidable forces to be reckoned with in the water, and showing the rest of us that, yes, women can be great surfers.
1. Rell Sunn
You don’t get a nickname like “Queen of Makaha” for nothing. A true waterwoman, Rell Sunn brought grace and power to surfing, rendering it an art as much as a sport. Gliding along the surface of the water, she embodied the essence of what it means to be deeply in touch with the wave and the ocean. She was Hawaii’s first female lifeguard, a trailblazer of women’s professional surfing, a consummate diver, and a veteran of the Molokai channel.
2. Lisa Andersen
Perhaps no one has shown the world that women can really rip like Lisa Andersen. Often competing against men (and beating them), Andersen pushed the sport to an entirely new level. I will never forget the day I went out to the mail box to go get my Surfer magazine and there was Lisa Andersen on the cover with the headline “Lisa Andersen Surfs Better than You.” Before Andersen was on the scene, there were no girl’s board shorts or rash guards, barely any wetsuits for women, and there was no Roxy. Four time world champion, Andersen is largely responsible for creating a market for women’s surf gear.
3. Princess Kaiulani
Without this defiant Hawaiian princess, there might not even be surfing at all. Talk about owing a debt of gratitude for this woman’s bravery! After the Missionaries came to Hawaii, oppressed the people and outlawed surfing, it was Princess Kaiulani who went against decrees, paddled out, and lead her people back to their roots in the ocean and surfing.
4. Margo Oberg
Considered to be the first professional female surfer, Margo Oberg came up through the ranks of men during the shortboard revolution. With her lithe build and long flowing lines, Oberg pushed the boundaries of surfing just as the industry was sporting more challenging, shorter, and maneuverable boards. In 1975 professional contests started and she was the first female competitor.
Wait a second. Gidget is a fictional character. She’s not real. Frederick Kohner’s book “Gidget”, is based on a real person. That real person is Kohner’s daughter, Kathy and the fictional world she was living in was the real Malibu beach crowd of the 1950s. Gidget/Kathy/Kohner exposed surfing to the mainstream and created an enduring and indelible pop culture that is still felt today. From book to film to TV series, Gidget ignited a string of Hollywood beach movies, fashions, and language that lead to the way we think about surfing today.
6. Keala Kennelly
Quite possibly one of the fiercest and most outspoken (thank goodness) competitors in professional surfing, Keala Kennelly makes Teahupo’o look like a walk in the park. A truly gifted athlete who has (without standing on a soapbox) spoken up about the inequalities between male and female professional surfing, Kennelly is courageous, viable, and also a pioneer.
7. Sarah Gerhardt
Sarah Gerhardt was the first woman to surf Mavericks in 1999. Since then, many women have followed in her footsteps, showing the world that women can also be big wave surfers, charge hard, and take on nature’s strongest forces.
8. Marge Calhoun
Marge Calhoun is considered the first female surfing champion. After taking the Makaha International surf contest, she continued to pioneer female surfing in Hawaii. Marge was inducted into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame, in 2003.
9. Isabel Letham
Taught to surf by the Big Kahuna himself, Duke Kahanamoku, Isabel Letham took her first wave in 1915 at Sydney’s Freshwater Beach. Already a consummate swimming, life saver, and swim instructor, Letham helped to introduce surfing to Australia by being “the first Australian to ride a surfboard”. Regardless of some disputing this claim, Letham undeniably left her mark on the world of surfing.
10. Layne Beachley
Last but certainly not least, seven time world champion (and the only surfer, male or female to do it six consecutive times) Layne Beachley rose through the ranks and showed the world time and time again what a “sick cutback” looks like. Not only can she shred, she is also amongst the first of women’s big wave surfing.
Where would the entire surfing world be without these women and many more like them? I know that when I open a surf magazine or click on websites, still see no pictures of women surfers except posing provocatively in a thong, I think of these women and what they’ve done for this thing I love so much—surfing. I think of these women and I am grateful.
Obviously, there are some exceptionally influential women who are not included in this list, so please share your thoughts and celebrate them below!