Flip the Script on Female Empowerment in the Outdoor Industry

I can’t tell you how many times men have stopped me on the trail and said, “Good for you!” or “Wow, I’m impressed.” Even if they thought they were paying me a compliment, I felt almost embarrassed and most definitely powerless. I’m not alone in this feeling. We’ve seen an insurgence of women-focused communities, events, and organizations; power in numbers, right? From the Women’s March to our 116th Congress being the most diverse in its history with women holding 127 seats, our nation is getting better and more women are in powerful positions. The outdoor community has proved no different.

The Issue With Female Empowerment

As a long-time member of many female-focused and mama-centric outdoor organizations,  I’ve seen the message of these communities change from “getting women together outdoors” to “empowering women through the outdoors.” They are now focused on providing the right tools for women to get outside and to have more confidence . The goal: to enable us to contribute to a better society have nothing against what they are trying to accomplish; truly, I don’t. Honestly, it’s a noble endeavor and one that I think we need in this world. My real issue is with the word empower that I see way too often. I dislike how it can limit our ability to see the real power that already resides in outdoor women. Most of us may not be ultrarunners or have climbed Mount Everest, but we have serious strengths and those need to be recognized.

So hear me out.

Of course I want to see women empowered. “To empower” means to make someone stronger and more confident, especially in controlling her life and claiming her rights (believe me, I looked up the definition!) But even as I read the definition back to myself, I view the intention of the word as targeting someone other than myself.  I’m reminded of a quote from Mary Oliver that says:

…And you must not give anyone else the responsibility for your life.

And that’s just it. You are responsible for your own life. There are obviously external factors (and I’m not trying to undermine those) but ultimately, your life is what you make of it. Limiting yourself to what an organization thinks they can give you is a complete mistake. I say this from experience. I used to be an ambassador for one of these women’s outdoor communities and as I think back on leading hikes, there was an underlying tone that the women who accompanied me needed help and encouragement. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Once, I led a hike on an easy trail with 18 other women of all different shapes, sizes, and colors. But, we had one thing in common: getting outside on a cold March morning to summit a mountain. On the way up, I chatted with several women, each having her own reason for coming out that day. Personally, I was four months postpartum and trying to get back into the swing of hiking. As we trekked along, I realized I had a lot to learn from the women walking beside me. They didn’t need to be educated or empowered; they simply needed their strengths and accomplishments recognized.

They just needed someone to listen. They needed to feel heard.

By using the word empowerment, we automatically limit the notion of existing power. Women (especially the ones I’ve met in the outdoors) are amazing. We push babies out of a 10 centimeter hole and come close to death during childbirth; we gracefully deal with sexist shit every day (or in my case, not so gracefully); we’re professionals in high-heeled shoes during the week but dazzle in trail boots as weekend warriors; we overcome all obstacles without skipping a beat (because if we do, it’s a sign of weakness according to society); we do things twice as well to be considered equal to our male counterpart; and we constantly feel we can do better.

But one thing we don’t do nearly enough is embrace each other’s stories, heartbreaks, triumphs, accomplishments, failures, and everyday struggles.

Find your voice, find your power. Use it to blaze a trail and you might discover others will follow your path. Women are a force of nature and a force for good. Just imagine if all us women realized the power we already have; the possibilities are limitless.

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5 Comments

  • Reply Lindsey at

    I sat in on a talk with Jen from Coalition Snow a couple of years ago and she also had your same feelings on the word “empower”. Agree wholeheartedly!

  • Reply Jessy Shouse at

    You make some great points Sarah!! A couple I had not thought of before. Thanks for a very thought provoking piece! -Coloradomtnmomma-

  • Reply Rochelle at

    I love hearing your thoughts on this and another great perspective being added to the conversation. This will be a good article to mull over now and again.

  • Reply Caroline Smith at

    You are great. I am responsible for my own life. You make me brave enough after reading your blog. Thank you for sharing.

  • Reply Stephanie David at

    Let’s go women. Let’s empower each other. Let’s have a different voice in this world.

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