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Women in the Surf (1986)


Women in the Surf is a film of its time – a reminder that the Australian surf was not always enjoyed equally by both men and women. It combines a look at the sexism in the sport and the perseverance of women to challenge this. With no narration the film relies on poetic images of women surfing interspersed with interviews to give a sense of the history of the sport.

Curator’s notes

While tracing the history of women’s surfing and its emergence as a serious sport, Women in the Surf lingers over poetic shots of women riding the surf. Inter-cut with these visuals are interviews with first-timers, amateurs and the new professional women surfers – all giving an insight into how they broke into this male-dominated sport and why they love it.

The stories of Isabel Letham, Australia’s first woman surfer, and 'Ma’ Bendall, who surfed in the 1950s, are a stark reminder of how unusual and risky it was for women to enter the sport. Amazing black-and-white footage of them surfing is a prelude to the 1970s when women got together to take on the social taboos and male chauvinist attitudes that were preventing them from competing (see clip one and clip two).

In light of recent surfers such as Layne Beachley (seven-times world champion), Stephanie Gilmore (four-times world champion and counting), and other Australian women surfers recognised all over the world for their skill, grace and competitiveness, these attitudes toward women surfers seem quaint. However, when this film was made in 1986, women’s surfing was just breaking as a professional sport – due largely to the Australian Women’s Surfriding Association getting women into amateur competitions. These images of women surfing were not only visually exciting but groundbreaking.

Stories of future legends like 13-year-old Pam Burridge and her mother travelling to competitions in Hawaii are fascinating (see clip three). The film also documents the time of long hair and ugg boots when Bells Beach in Victoria started to become a hot spot on the map for world surfing competitions.

Women in the Surf has a relaxed pace and no driving narration. This invites the viewer to ‘kick back’ and enjoy the visually powerful images of women taking the waves. The film does, however, lack one important element that was a signature of surf movies at the time – a strong music score.