Surfeminism Takes Center Stage at San Diego State University Surf Studies Conference

Not your average surfing event, Impact Zones and Liminal Spaces: The Culture + History of Surfing was a three-day conference held April 26-28, 2019 at the sunny campus of San Diego State University. Dozens of surfers, surf scholars and surfer-activists from near and far gathered to connect, listen and share in the packed program of speakers, films, presentations, Q&A sessions, morning surf and evening entertainment. In a space where you might expect critical and surfeminist perspectives to take a back seat to the ‘legends’ of white male-dominated surfing culture, the reality was actually quite refreshing. And after witnessing a weekend of diverse panel presentations featuring prominent surfeminist voices, and keynote speeches by the Institute for Women Surfers (IWS) co-founders Cori Schumacher, three-time world longboard champion turned Carlsbad City Council Member, and Krista Comer, author of Surfer Girls in the New World Order, there is no doubt that surfing women, and critically engaged surfers everywhere, are changing the tide on surfing culture – both in and out of the water.

From native Hawai’ian surfboard shaper Tom Pohaku Stone’s opening reminder on Friday that surfing in Hawai’i was historically an art performed predominantly by women, to Rhonda Harper’s Saturday presentation on Black Girls Surf and the Sunday panel “Killing your white male buzz” centering surfing women of color working toward decoloniality, diversity and inclusion in surfing spaces, the weekend was spiced with surfeminist fodder from start to finish. While the tension in the air was palpable in the intellectual distance that still exists between these critical scholar-activist perspectives and the older echelon of big-name characters in surfing’s white-washed and culturally appropriated modern history, one would be remiss to have walked away from the weekend’s experience without acknowledging an undeniable sea change in surfing’s cultural fabric.

Institute for Women Surfers Oceania 2019 from Institute for Women Surfers on Vimeo.

As the fantasy-laden constructed narrative informing modern surfing’s misogynistic, racist, and violent Endless(ly colonizing) Summer dream unraveled with each surfeminist intervention, conversations moved fruitfully toward recognizing indigenous surfing histories, honoring empowered girl localisms and celebrating the success of inspiring organizations owned, managed and supported by women surfers around the world. Of particular highlight, we heard from and about projects like Surf Girls Jamaica, LatinX Surf Club, City Surf Project, Africa Surf International, El Porto Shark, Black Girls Surf, Brown Girls Surf, Gnar Gnar Honeys, Native Like Water, and Tarantula Surf, most of which are run by active members of the Institute for Women Surfers, now spanning coastlines and growing in membership from Oceania to West Africa.     

Among discussions of race, class, indigeneity, localism, environmentalism, conservation, sharks, sexuality and gender dynamics in surfing, Impact Zones and Liminal Spaces provided an unexpected platform for surfeminist voices to resound, reverberate and ripple across a changing ocean tide, with new connections forged among surfing women from across the globe, and many male allies eager to step up in support of women in surfing culture. Congratulations to members of the Institute for Women Surfers for insightful presentations and participation throughout the weekend. And kudos to the SDSU-based conference organizers for creating a program to center the perspectives of surfeminist women working hard to bring about greater inclusion, diversity, equity and decoloniality in mainstream surfing culture.

Tara Ruttenberg
Tara Ruttenberg

Tara Ruttenberg

Tara Ruttenberg is a writer and PhD Candidate specializing in decolonizing sustainable surf tourism. Read more of Tara’s work at and connect with her on Instagram and Facebook via @tarantulasurf.