Empowering women in the outdoors: Why the white-hot interest?

Call it a new wave of feminism, call it a reaction to the current political climate, but there is a concerted push to get women outdoors — women’s-only trips, women’s classes, images and stories of women adventurers. One example: REI’s Force of Nature campaign, launched in April 2017 to “level the playing field,” has crossed from marketing to activism by earmarking $1 million for nonprofits that help girls and women get out.

Wait a minute. Haven’t we already done that? Casual observation yields lots of women out hiking, biking, camping and more. Why this focus on women? And why now? Statistics tell part of it — a 2016 Outdoor Foundation report found that of those who participated in outdoor activity, 46 percent were women, 54 percent men. In aggregated annual studies from 2009 to 2015, the website Statista shows women’s participation growing. In talking with local outdoorswomen, the takeaway is it’s a complex issue. More than skills or gear, outdoor activity requires time, money and confidence.

“For women who are participating in wilderness experiences, relying on their bodies to connect with nature can be a mind-blowing experience. But you have to get there first,” said Dr. Britain Scott, professor of psychology at the University of St. Thomas. “There are still differences in the way we socialize girls and boys. Our culture continues to define femininity in ways that put women at odds with their natural self, so that it’s difficult to adhere to the feminine ideal and use your body effectively in the natural world. Kim Kardashian is no closer to a natural human who could confidently move through the outdoors than June Cleaver.”

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