On The Moors and Mountains, Female Climbers Find There’s Room At the Top



There’s a new generation setting records on some of the toughest ascents in the country – and they’re changing the face of a sport that has long been male-dominated

On a cold and blustery day threatened by rain, Katy Whittaker, a young British climber, headed for Curbar Edge, outside Sheffield, to tackle an escarpment named – appropriately – Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.

Ascending a steep slab of rock spotted with lichen, the climb appears hold-less. Progress on the hardest section is made by smearing – a technique in which the climber must rely on friction to keep the feet from sliding off.

Graded E8 on an open-ended scale of the hardest climbs, where the top grade is E11, Whittaker admits that she was apprehensive.

“I thought if I fell off on the last moves, … if the belayer [the person holding the rope at the bottom] sprinted away, that I might be all right. But it is really tenuous climbing. If you get a foothold even slightly wrong, it makes the next move feel even harder.”

It was the second difficult and “bold” ascent – where a dangerous ground fall is possible after a certain point – for Whittaker in as many weeks, doubly impressive given that she has a job and is limited to when she can climb.

The good news for Whittaker, and for the future of British climbing, is that, in a sport traditionally dominated at the top levels by men, she is not alone. In recent weeks a host of other young women have been succeeding on some of the hardest climbs in the country.

In North Wales in September, Emma Twyford climbed an E9 named Rare Lichen. Back in the Peak District, Katy Whittaker’s housemate, Mina Leslie-Wujastyk, aged 26, has also recently climbed E8, again on the gritstone edges that dominate the moors above Sheffield.

The three are part of a wider group, including Hazel Findlay, Shauna Coxsey and Leah Crane, rapidly closing the gap with their male contemporaries, both in terms of climbing ability and ability to manage risk in what some are hailing as a golden age of British women’s rock climbing.

For her part Findlay, a 23-year-old philosophy graduate from the south-west who has also climbed E9, last month free-climbed the 3,000ft granite bastion of California’s El Capitan in the Yosemite valley for a third time – putting her in a tiny elite of British climbers regardless of gender.

Despite their youth, most have been climbing for approaching 20 years. For Whittaker it is a family affair. Both her parents climb, while her brother Pete is one of the world’s top climbers.

While there have been British women climbing since the advent of the sport, going back to Nea Morin in the 1920s, what has distinguished the current period is the prominence of British women climbing well in so many of the sport’s disciplines. That includes indoor competitions and sport climbing (where the climbs are protected by bolts drilled into the rock which the rope is clipped into) and “bouldering'” (very short, ropeless climbs above mats that soften any fall) – but most significantly “traditional” climbing.

In this last style of climbing, the climber is required to carry and place protection, metal wedges on wire or camming devices – put in holes and cracks in the rock where they exist – which are clipped into the rope to protect against a fall.

Where no placements exist, as is common on some of the hardest routes, success requires not only strength and skill but the ability to keep a cool head.

For Leslie-Wujastyk, known until now primarily as an outstanding boulderer, her own recent ascent of an E8 came from trying ever higher bouldering problems.

“That opened a door for me,” she said last week. “I realised I could do hard moves high off the ground and I was comfortable with my head game.”

Like her peers, she puts the emergence of the present generation of British women rock climbers down to the boom in indoor climbing walls which have made the sport more accessible and changed its gender and age profile.

“It is also a really supportive culture. Most of us know each other and, in a country where the weather is not always ideal for climbing, we train together indoors. There’s an increasing normality to it. Girls see other girls climbing hard and training hard, so I think the idea becomes less intimidating.”

Steph Meysner, who organises the Women’s Climbing Symposium, believes climbing culture is changing, something she began noticing five years ago. “It was male dominated for a long time and a bit dysfunctional. Climbing walls and the popularity of bouldering, where you need minimal equipment, have made it more accessible. The change has been organic. We are seeing a wider change in attitudes towards risk-taking. In the past, women have tended to be villainised by the media for taking risks.”

And if there is a difference between the top men and women climbers, Twyford believes, it is that the men still tend be “a bit more gung-ho” with women taking a more “calculating approach”.

Whittaker’s ascent of Gaia – also E8 – last month was a case in point. An attempt had been in her mind for seven years. “I knew where you could fall off and the point beyond which you couldn’t.” Her second E8 of the month, however, was a journey into the unknown, climbing it within two weeks of considering an attempt.

Whittaker told the British Mountaineering Council’s website: “I personally don’t think first female ascents are a big deal. I don’t want to be noticed for climbing something just because I’m a girl. I compare myself with the guys I climb with, and want to climb just as hard.”

[Source: The Guardian]

Hey Y’all!

Hey Y’all!

First of all, I want to mention something that one of my sociology professors told me and the rest of my Sociology of the Family class a couple years ago, something which I’ve never forgotten and totally stand by: “Y’all” has a stigma. Maybe because it’s a Southern expression, it’s assumed to be something that “less educated” people use in their vocabulary. I’m sure there’s a racial prejudice tied into the stigma as well. The point is that “Y’all” get’s a bad rap, and I call bullshit to that because in my opinion it is the most inclusive way to address a group of people regardless of gender.

Everyone knows Y’all’s widely used alternative = “You guys.” Seriously? That’s the expression we’re sticking with? Not to mention the awkwardness of formulating the plural possessive form: Is it “Your guys’s?” or “You guys’s?” or “Yous guys’?” Someone give me an eloquent answer to that question and I’ll hand over all the money I have in my wallet. Really.

So I’m making a case for Y’all. I have to admit, I’m from the North East and Y’alls are pretty scarce here. It doesn’t come to me naturally but I try to work it into conversation when I can. If anyone ever challenges you for using Y’all by saying it sounds uneducated you go right ahead and ask them why. I’ll bet you they can’t come up with an answer.

Y’all is inclusive. Not just for guys, not even just for guys and girls. Y’all is for All.

(“Folks” is also a good alternative)

All that aside, I am going to try to post more regularly to this blog. I have several other blogs that I manage on top of work and an internship, etc. etc. But gender and sexuality issues and social justice in general is something I cannot go a day without thinking about – it is something that you just can’t turn off, although sometimes I wish I could. I wouldn’t think about these things so much if they weren’t so important to me, and I hope to share my thoughts, as well as articles, pictures, and other media on this blog to anyone who finds it as interesting and important as I do.

I hope y’all enjoy 🙂

Were the First Artists Mostly Women?

Hand stencils surround a mural of spotted horses.

by Virginia Hughes

for National Geographic

Published October 8, 2013

Women made most of the oldest-known cave art paintings, suggests a new analysis of ancient handprints. Most scholars had assumed these ancient artists were predominantly men, so the finding overturns decades of archaeological dogma.


Archaeologist Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University analyzed hand stencils found in eight cave sites in France and Spain. By comparing the relative lengths of certain fingers, Snow determined that three-quarters of the handprints were female.

“There has been a male bias in the literature for a long time,” said Snow, whose research was supported by the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration. “People have made a lot of unwarranted assumptions about who made these things, and why.”


Archaeologists have found hundreds of hand stencils on cave walls across the world. Because many of these early paintings also showcase game animals—bison, reindeer, horses, woolly mammoths—many researchers have proposed that they were made by male hunters, perhaps to chronicle their kills or as some kind of “hunting magic” to improve success of an upcoming hunt. The new study suggests otherwise.

“In most hunter-gatherer societies, it’s men that do the killing. But it’s often the women who haul the meat back to camp, and women are as concerned with the productivity of the hunt as the men are,” Snow said. “It wasn’t just a bunch of guys out there chasing bison around.”


Experts expressed a wide range of opinions about how to interpret Snow’s new data, attesting to the many mysteries still surrounding this early art.


“Hand stencils are a truly ironic category of cave art because they appear to be such a clear and obvious connection between us and the people of the Paleolithic,” said archaeologist Paul Pettitt of Durham University in England. “We think we understand them, yet the more you dig into them you realize how superficial our understanding is.”


Sex Differences


Snow’s study began more than a decade ago when he came across the work of John Manning, a British biologist who had found that men and women differ in the relative lengths of their fingers: Women tend to have ring and index fingers of about the same length, whereas men’s ring fingers tend to be longer than their index fingers.


A comparison of hand stencils

These hand stencils found in the El Castillo cave in Cantabria, Spain, were probably made by a man (left) and a woman (right), respectively.

Photographs by Roberto Ontanon Peredo, courtesy Dean Snow

One day after reading about Manning’s studies, Snow pulled a 40-year-old book about cave paintings off his bookshelf. The inside front cover of the book showed a colorful hand stencil from the famous Pech Merle cave in southern France. “I looked at that thing and I thought, man, if Manning knows what he’s talking about, then this is almost certainly a female hand,” Snow recalled.


Hand stencils and handprints have been found in caves in Argentina, Africa, Borneo, and Australia. But the most famous examples are from the 12,000- to 40,000-year-old cave paintings in southern France and northern Spain. (See “Pictures: Hand Stencils Through Time.”)


For the new study, out this week in the journal American Antiquity, Snow examined hundreds of stencils in European caves, but most were too faint or smudged to use in the analysis. The study includes measurements from 32 stencils, including 16 from the cave of El Castillo in Spain, 6 from the caves of Gargas in France, and 5 from Pech Merle.

Snow ran the numbers through an algorithm that he had created based on a reference set of hands from people of European descent who lived near his university. Using several measurements—such as the length of the fingers, the length of the hand, the ratio of ring to index finger, and the ratio of index finger to little finger—the algorithm could predict whether a given handprint was male or female. Because there is a lot of overlap between men and women, however, the algorithm wasn’t especially precise: It predicted the sex of Snow’s modern sample with about 60 percent accuracy.


Luckily for Snow, that wasn’t a problem for the analysis of the prehistoric handprints. As it turned out—much to his surprise—the hands in the caves were much more sexually dimorphic than modern hands, meaning that there was little overlap in the various hand measurements.


“They fall at the extreme ends, and even beyond the extreme ends,” Snow said. “Twenty thousand years ago, men were men and women were women.”


Woman, Boy, Shaman?

Snow’s analysis determined that 24 of the 32 hands—75 percent—were female. (See “Pictures: Prehistoric European Cave Artists Were Female.”)


Some experts are skeptical. Several years ago, evolutionary biologist R. Dale Guthrie performed a similar analysis of Paleolithic handprints. His work—based mostly on differences in the width of the palm and the thumb—found that the vast majority of handprints came from adolescent boys.


For adults, caves would have been dangerous and uninteresting, but young boys would have explored them for adventure, said Guthrie, an emeritus professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “They drew what was on their mind, which is mainly two things: naked women and large, frightening mammals.”


Other researchers are more convinced by the new data.

“I think the article is a landmark contribution,” said archaeologist Dave Whitley of ASM Affiliates, an archaeological consulting firm in Tehachapi, California. Despite these handprints being discussed for half a decade, “this is the first time anyone’s synthesized a good body of evidence.”


Whitley rejects Guthrie’s idea that this art was made for purely practical reasons related to hunting. His view is that most of the art was made by shamans who went into trances to try to connect with the spirit world. “If you go into one of these caves alone, you start to suffer from sensory deprivation very, very quickly, in 5 to 10 minutes,” Whitley said. “It can spin you into an altered state of consciousness.”

The new study doesn’t discount the shaman theory, Whitley added, because in some hunter-gatherer societies shamans are female or even transgendered.


The new work raises many more questions than it answers. Why would women be the primary artists? Were they creating only the handprints, or the rest of the art as well? Would the hand analysis hold up if the artists weren’t human, but Neanderthal?


The question Snow gets most often, though, is why these ancient artists, whoever they were, left handprints at all.


“I have no idea, but a pretty good hypothesis is that this is somebody saying, ‘This is mine, I did this,'” he said.

Follow Virginia Hughes on Twitter.

[Source: National Geographic]

Dove: Pioneer or Panderer?


dove_wideweb__430x327I must admit, the first seven times someone emailed Dove’s ubiquitous new ad campaign, I got a little weepy and emotional. It hit all the right cords, all the soft, vulnerable spots that most women (and many men!) hold deep about their appearance. My nose is too big. My eyes are too far apart. My chin is too pointy. My forehead is too high. My X is too Y.  It takes all those “toos” and flips them, revealing with a clever gimmick how much we underestimate our own beauty. Here, just watch, it’s easier than explaining it:

It’s good advertising. It’s memorable, it’s shareable, it makes you feel warm and fuzzy. I literally feel prettier simply by watching it. Maybe I should go buy some Dove products….

Hold up.

It’s a testament to how compelling this video is that I didn’t bother to put on my critical hat and…

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