Women Make Waves: Surfer Girls: The Pioneers

One of the first American female pioneers was Mary Ann Hawkins. During the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s she participated in surf competitions and later became a Hollywood movie stunt double. The first Australian to try surfing was Isobel Letham. Hawaiian Olympic gold medallist Duke Kahanamoku introduced her to the sport in 1915, when they surfed in tandem as part of a surfing demonstration. Letham went on to be inducted into the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame.

In the late ‘50s and ‘60s, the sport of surfing attracted women due to the influence of the popular Gidget phenomenon. Based on the true life escapades of teenage surfer Kathy “Gidget” Kohner, her screenwriter father wrote the book in 1957 that led to three Gidget feature films and inspired dozens of beach party movies throughout the 1960s.

Californian Marge Calhoun’s expertise in water sports led her to work as a stuntwoman in movies and as a synchronized swimmer in live shows at the Marineland aquarium in the ‘40s. She discovered surfing as an adult and in 1958 she won the women’s division of the Makaha International contest. Her daughters Candy and Robin shared her love of the sport, and all three competed in the Makaha contest in 1963.

In 1959, Linda Benson won both the U.S. Championships in Huntington Beach, California and the Makaha contest. At age 15, she was the youngest surfer ever to win at Makaha. She was also the first woman to surf Waimea Bay on the North Shore, famous for its massive winter swells. During the 10 years following her win at Makaha, Benson won five U.S. championships. She also worked as a stunt double in several surf movies, including Gidget Goes Hawaiian.

Other influential surfing pioneers of the 1950s and ‘60s include Ethel Kukea, Joyce Hoffman (who won Makaha in 1964 and five world titles between 1966 and 1971), Linda Merrill, Bernie Ross (the only female surfer featured in 1964’s Endless Summer), Shelley Merrick, Phyllis O’Donnell, Mimi Munro and Margo (Godfrey) Oberg, who was ranked fourth in the world among women surfers at age 13 in 1966. Her professional career went on to span more than 30 years, the longest professional women’s surfing career to date. The ‘60s also introduced Hawaiian amateur champion to Rell Sunn the professional surf world internationally.

Although the first women surfers proved their talent through hard work and occasional competition, from the 1950s through the early 1970s only a handful of invitationals provided places for women to compete, none of which offered women big prize money or a professional career. But thanks to the organizing efforts of surfing women in the past three decades, professional surfers are finally getting their due in the surf world, with a pro tour, financial sponsors and better prize money. Today’s surfer girls continue to carry on the legacy of the fearless females who came before them.

Isobel Letham
Isobel Letham

The book that launched the "Gidget" craze, based on real-life escapades of teenager Kathy Kohner

Magazine cover reads: “Lisa Anderson surfs better than you”, Courtesy Surfer magazine, 1995

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