A Brief History of Female Surfers

Two female surfers walking to sea with surfboards

Female surfers have owned the surf scene since its origins in Polynesian culture. Discover the journey of surfing and the history of female surfers over the last 500 years!

Women and Surfing

Researching the general history of surfing has its difficulties, let alone uncovering a version from the female perspective.

As a male-dominated sport, women’s involvement in surfing can be overshadowed by a male version of history.

However, there are a few reliable sources available on women’s events in surfing, especially regarding the last century.

With women athletes advancing in the sport over the past 500 years throughout the world, covering every female influence of the sport may not be possible. However, we hope to provide an overall summary of key figures and events in the history of female surfing.

Coast in Hawaii

Surfing Origins

Knowing exactly when and how surfing began remains a slight mystery!

It is thought to have dated back between the 16th and 17th century, although it could have materialised before these dates.

One almost certain thing, though, is that surfing is believed to originate from Polynesian culture. In Hawaii, it was referred to as ‘heʻe ʻana’ (surfing), or ‘he’e nalu’ which translates to ‘wave sliding’.

During the end of the 1770s, knowledge of the sport was spread across the globe after two famous British naval officers, Lieutenant James King and Captain James Cook, spotted surfers off the coast of Hawaii and Tahiti.

A Mixed Gendered Sport

Enjoyed by all, surfing was open for everyone to do in Polynesian culture regardless of social status and gender, and the activity was a central aspect of the Polynesian lifestyle.

Mythical Princess Kelea

A mythical figure of the Hawaiian kingdom, Princess Kelea was rumoured to be the most talented surfer on the islands.

A half-shark and half-woman wave rider, the demi-god is depicted in Hawaiian culture as the ultimate ocean lover who preferred her surfboard over the idea of marriage! We love her free spirit and forward-thinking!

Two female surfers sat in sea

Surfing was Almost Lost

By 1866, a combination of unfortunate factors meant that surfing was an almost lost activity.

European diseases wiped out Polynesian communities, while some communities became disconnected from the ocean and worked on sugar plantations. Not to mention, the condemning of the sport by American missionaries who disagreed with the mixed-gender approach to the activity.

The combination of bare skin and the presence of gambling during surf contests lead to this quote by one missionary, Hiram Bingham. He expressed “Some of our numbers, with gushing tears, turned away from the spectacle.” What would he think today, we wonder!

Princess Ka’iulani

However, the sport didn’t disappear completely despite the obstacles, and grew in popularity in the late 1800s.

According to the Museum of British Surfing, members of Hawaiian royalty are considered to be among the first to showcase the sport in UK waters.

Two Hawaiian princes and their English guardian reportedly surfed off the coast in East Yorkshire in 1890. We wonder how anyone surfing in the cold Northern Sea coped without any men’s or women’s winter wetsuits!

In terms of female surfers, it is not certain if the famous Hawaiian expert surfer, Princess Ka’iulani was the first female surfer in Britain. However, letter evidence suggests she could have had some input to the introduction of surfing here.

Half-Hawaiian and half-Scottish, the princess was educated in Brighton in 1892. She wrote in a letter that she enjoyed “being on the water again”. She was known to enjoy both swimming and surfing so whether or not that meant she participated in these sports or generally relished residing by the sea is unknown!

Isabel Letham

In the early 1900s, Duke Kahanamoku, AKA ‘the Father of Modern Surfing’, was witnessed catching waves in Waikiki.

He is responsible for introducing the sport to Australia and taught people to surf, including one young 15-year-old girl called Isabel Letham.

Letham pursued the sport and became a famous surfer. After moving to California, she attempted to introduce Australian-taught surf lifesaving skills which were exercised at her home club, the Manly Life Saving Club. Manly Life Saving Club rebuked her membership on the grounds she was a woman who couldn’t "handle the conditions in rough seas."

Group of surfboards lined on fence

Margo Oberg

The 1950s saw the sport become increasingly popular with the middle-class Californian youth and the 1970s saw surfing hit new heights with the creation of the shortboard.

Surfing had developed into a professional sport. This pioneering period of surf history saw the surfacing of female surfers, including Margo Oberg.

In 1975, Oberg was the first female pro surfer in the sport’s first contests.

She was unrivalled for two more years and became the Women’s World Champion in 1977.

Rell Sunn

Named "Queen of Makaha", Rell Sunn was another female pioneer during the 1970s.

Born in Makaha, Hawaii, she had been surfing since the age of four, and accompanied Duke on a trip to California in 1966. From there, she went on to tour to the world as a professional surfer. She competed in the men’s contests, as there were no events for female competitors.

Along with her other female surfers, she went on to co-found the Women’s International Surfing Association and Women’s Pro Surfing.

To add to her accomplishments, Sunn was also Hawaii’s first-ever female lifeguard!

Unfortunately, in 1983 she was diagnosed with cancer and had a 14 year battle until her death aged only 47. She continued to surf throughout her life.

Layne Beachley

Australian-born, Layne Beachley is one of the most accomplished and famous surfers in the history of surfing over the last century. Beachley dominated the professional surf scene in 1998 with the first of her seven World Championship Tour wins.

She went on to win the Women’s ASP World Championship (now the WSL) in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2006. She is the only surfer in the world, regardless of gender, to win six consecutive world titles. She is sure to have inspired many female surfers throughout her 20-year surfing career!

Lisa Anderson

Starting her surf career in Florida, Lisa Anderson has turned the perception of female surfers on its head. Steering away from the typical, ‘surfer bunny’ image, Anderson transformed the perception of female surfing to recognise the talent and skill of surfers instead of looks.

She entered the professional world as the ASP Women’s Rookie of the Year in 1987, at the young age of 18, after running away from home to pursue her dream career as a surfer.

Anderson went on to conquer the professional surf world in the early 90s, winning four consecutive world titles between 1994 and 1997. Loved by many due to her punchy and fierce sportsmanship, she was ranked 76th in the Sports Illustrated for Women’s ‘Greatest Sportswomen of the Century’ and has many other achievements and awards.

Where Are We Now?

Women’s surfing is becoming more acknowledged for the talent, dedication and skill of competitors.

The last few years have seen the phenomenal talent taking centre stage by world record athletes including Stephanie Gilmore (the only other woman apart from Layne Beachly to achieve seven world titles), Carissa Moore and Caroline Marks.

And, not forgetting the incredible achievements of big wave surfers, Keala Kennelly and Maya Gabeira. Take a look at our blog below to get the low-down on the World Surf League’s top five ranked female surfers in the WSL Championship Tour.

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We have only covered a handful of female surfers across the history of the sport! Which female surfers have influenced you? We would love to hear your thoughts on our social media channels!