A Timeline of Equality in Women’s Surfing


The women of big wave surfing have been in the news so much recently it has been hard to keep up. The women’s movement around equal pay and inclusion in competitions has “gone from 0 to 100 in the last year” as Shannon Reporting, host of the WSL big wave tour, put it in our recent interview.

The recent appearance of Paige Alms on the cover of New York Times Magazine with the title, “The Fight for Gender Equality in One of the Most Dangerous Sports on Earth” caught a lot of attention.

Immediately following the release of the NYT Magazine article, new legislation was introduced in California moving the issue of gender equality from not just surfing, but to all sports in the state.


Paige Alms Surfer
The front cover of the February 2019 issues of New York Times Magazine, titled “The Fight for Gender Equality in One of the Most Dangerous Sports on Earth”
Photograph by Dina Litovsky/Redux for The New York Times


The NYT article is well worth the 20-30 minute read. But in case you are short on time, here is a quick timeline of the developments that has lead up to such powerful change.


Timeline for Gender Equality in Big Wave Surfing and Beyond

  • 1959 Linda Benson rides at 20 foot wave at Waimea, Oahu.
  • 1963 Buzzy Tent authors an article titled Big Waves Are Masculine, Women Feminine, stating “One thing I can’t stand is girls riding (or attempting to ride) big waves.”
  • 1986 The first big wave competition, The Eddie Aikau Invitational is held at Waimea.
  • 1980’s Jeff Clark pioneers Mavericks.
  • 1990’s Laird Hamilton popularizes tow in surfing. The first 60-70 foot (faces) waves are ridden.
  • 1998 “Men Who Ride Mountains” becomes the first competition at Mavericks organized by Jeff Clark.
  • 1999 Sarah Gerhardt becomes the first woman to surf Mavericks.
  • 2004 Andrea Moller and Maria Souza (Hamilton’s ex-wife) began towing Jaws together.
  • 2006 The ASP removes Teahupoo from the women’s world tour due to safety concerns.
  • 2007 Keala Kennelly, one of the the top 10 female surfers and top performer at Teahupoo, leaves the world tour.
  • 2009 Gary Linden founds the Big Wave World Tour. This is an all male tour, with Mavericks as one of the stops along with stops in Chile, Peru and Mexico.
  • 2013 Association of Surfing Professional (ASP) buys the Big Wave World Tour.
  • 2013  Maya Gabeira tows into an 80-foot wave at Nazaré. Gabeira wipes out on a surface chop and has to be revived. Hamilton later commented on the incident saying, “She should not be in this kind of surf”.
  • 2014 Nelscott Reef in Oregon becomes the first ever big wave contest for women. Participants include Paige Alms, Andrea Moller, Keala Kennelly and Bianca Valenti.
  • December 2014 Female tech entrepreneur and woman supporter, Nico Sell discovers women are not able to compete at Mavericks so she finances several women including Kennelly, Moller and Alms, to travel there for free surfing sessions.
  • June 2014 Bianca Valenti confronts Jeff Clark publicly on the radio concerning the inclusion of women at Mavericks.
  • 2015 the ASP becomes the World Surf League.
  • November 2015 A meeting of the California Coastal Commission regarding the permitting of the Mavericks event is held. Female commissioner with the San Mateo County Harbor District, Sabrina Brennan, argues during public comment for the inclusion of women in the event. 
  • Early 2016 Clark verbally lashes out at Valenti during a chance encounter on a public street in Northern California.
  • February 2016 four female surfers, Valenti, Kennelly, Moller and Alms along with commissioner Brennan and labor lawyer Karen Tynan, meet with the coastal commission to discuss the California Coastal Act of 1976 which forbids discrimination in all use of public resources.
  • September 2016. The same six women formed the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing (CEWS).
  • November 2016 The Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing petitions the coastal commision asking them not to issue a permit for the Mavericks competition unless 12 females athletes are included and prize money is equal for both men and women.
  • October 2017 Paige Alms wins the second ever WLS big wave contest to include women at Jaws but with a pay discrepancy between the men and women.
  • July 2018, Valenti wins the first women’s big-wave event at Puerto Escondido in Mexico and receives 1/4 the prize money of the first place male winner. 
  • July 2018 CEWS increases pressure by sending a letter to the coastal commission stating the WSL is in violation of California civil rights law. Since the company is based out of California, it violates those laws in all contests worldwide. 
  • August 2018 The WSL sends a threatening letter to CEWS saying it will cut off all communication. The letter gets published in San Jose Mercury News.
  • Sept 5 2018 The WSL announces it will be the first global United States-based sports league ever to offer equal prize money for men and women worldwide. 
  • Oct. 26 2018 The opening ceremony at Mavericks is held with the inclusion of women for the first time and with equal prize money. (As of the publication of this article the contest has not yet run as favorable swell conditions have not lined up.)
  • November 2018 Kennelly wins the WSL’s Jaws competition and becomes the first woman to receive equal prize money.
  • February 2019 A bill is introduced to the California State Assembly requiring any contest of any kind (not just surfing) held on public lands to offer equal pay to men and women


The efforts of the women mentioned above have made huge leaps in a global fight for gender equality worldwide. Their refusal to be silenced has contributed to a major corporation (the WSL) becoming a global leader for women’s equality and now is even affecting public policy in California. To stay up to date on all of the latest you can follow Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing on Facebook.

bianca valenti surfer
Bianca Valenti at the Puerto Escondido Cup
Woman surfing big wave
Bianca Valenti, 2018 winner of the Puerto Escondido Cup
Keala at Jaws. Photo: Sachi Cunningham
Women Big Wave surfcompetition Puerto Escondido
Keala focusing before paddling out at the 2018 Puerto Escondido Cup
Keala Kennelly
Keala Kennelly in Puerto Escondido
Andrea Muller
Andrea Moller at Jaws Photo: Surfer Today


I am a writer and wanna-be big wave surfer. Surfing is my muse. I write about it and how it’s teaching me to live better. I hold certification as a nutritionist, personal trainer, yoga instructor, and lifeguard instructor. My story “100 Days in Mexico” of how a solo road trip surfing my way through Mexico changed my life can be found here www.melanielainewilliams.com


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