Social attitudes

In speaking about women climbers it is impossible to dismiss the fact that that they were climbing not only a physical mountain but a social mountain of disapproval and incomprehension.

They suffered from a double discrimination.

People who do not climb cannot understand the motivations of any climber, as is shown vividly in this newspaper extract from 'The Scotsman', 22 April 1937, page 8:

'Mountaineering — Expert on people who ask for trouble — Educating the public'

'The causes of mountaineering accidents were discussed by a mountaineer Prof H W Turnbull, of the Chair of Mathematics in the University of St Andrews, in a talk to St Andrews Rotarians yesterday.

'He said mountaineering was becoming more and more a national pursuit, but there was a great deal of apprehension about it on account of the most unfortunate accidents which occurred. People were asking whether mountain climbing was really a dangerous sport, and if it was unreasonable to go in for it …

'Some people asked if it was a fascination or a craze, or if people who went in for mountaineering were just completely mad, and it was a difficult question to answer …

'Prof D E Innes said that to those of them who spent a certain amount of time in the hills, photographs of parties of girls all roped together with every chance of the lot of them going if one slipped were terrifying. People did not realise the tremendous physical strain of mountaineering, and many of the younger generation did not realise that to spend the week in an office and then a week-end in climbing might be a bigger strain than the human frame could endure.'

The Edwardian view

Mary Crawford wrote in 1909:

'Should women climb mountains? [Mountaineering] is for women one of the new things under the sun and every fresh mountain is a delight. Ennui has no place in the vocabulary of a woman who climbs, the words which rout it are enthusiasm and exhilaration. Diseases of the imagination cannot be discovered anywhere on a mountainside, where nature asserts herself so grandly to the consciousness and with such insistence that the ego and its troubles sink out of sight.'

Claude Ernest Benson wrote in 'British Mountaineering' (1914, revised edition, page 183):

'Mountaineering for ladies (a new chapter added specifically for this edition):

'I need hardly say that all I have hitherto said with regard to rambling, scrambling, climbing etc. is intended for them just as much as for men. I would suggest, moreover, that ladies should make a special study of the art of tying knots, and also of the proper management of the rope. I have heard it rumoured — that some lady mountaineers of repute are moderately helpless in these respects, especially in the former.'

On page 186, he continues:

'When a lady takes mountaineering seriously, she generally does so successfully. I think women, as a rule, have a nicer sense of balance than men, and I surmise that, structurally, balance comes easier to them. Moreover, I understand that they are built for mountain walking; they have little weight to carry, and all their strength is in the right place, besides which, though less muscular than men, they can climb rocks very well. Their greatest weakness in this respect is generally want of power in their arms … It is really delightful to see how skillfully a good cragswoman uses her feet, and there are few better lessons for the rock gymnast of the pull-and-grab school than to watch a lady expert at work. She will sometimes literally walk up a climb that has cost him a certain spell of hard labour … I use the term "weaker sex" advisedly, because women are not so strong as we are and they must remember it. Overfatigue has not infrequently permanently impaired the health of a strong man, and women are more susceptible to a similar distressing experience.

'(Footnote) … it has been remarked to me "A woman who has once overwalked herself seems doomed to be more or less and invalid for life" and "Doctors, in this age of feminine athletics, are constantly having girls on their hands who have overdone it, and will never be quite the same again".'

Rising to the challenge

From page 24 of 'Rising to the challenge: 100 years of the Ladies Scottish Climbing Club' [National Library shelfmark: HB2.210.11.688]:

' … when women do make it to the top and obviously expose themselves to high risk, they almost inevitable come in for a storm of criticism from the media, claiming that they are irresponsible, neglectful of their families, and unnatural. Such criticism, however, is not directed in such measure against the men, who are depicted as heroic, struggling against the odds. It is in great measure due to the efforts and enterprise of women like these founding members who have changed such attitudes and made it possible for women today to develop their skills to a high degree and enjoy the mountains in their own right.'