The Incredible History of Women’s Surfing

While there are still typically more guys than girls out in the lineup, ladies have without a doubt claimed their spot in the sport. The history of women’s surfing is exciting and by no means finished – it’s still progressing right before our very eyes!

The Beginning of It All

Originating in Polynesia as early of the 1400s, men and women have been catching waves in Tahiti and Hawaii for endless generations. One of the first women surfers recorded in history is Hawaiian Princess Keala of Maui. She was the best on the island in 1445 and even separated from her husband, a prominent chief of Oahu, so she could move back to Maui and surf more often.

Fast-forward a few thousand years and by the early 1900s American tourism in the Hawaiian islands was prominent. This helped surfing slowly gain popularity in the continental United States, however it was almost completely male-dominated. The surfboards were gigantic and bulky to say the least – often 14 feet or taller, very wide and constructed of solid, heavy wood. Ladies had a rough time hauling the boards down to the beach and getting them out to the lineup. Maneuvering these massive contraptions through oncoming waves was a challenge even for large guys in the prime of their fitness.

Few women surfed individually because of this, but couple’s tandem surfing was quite the popular pastime and allowed ladies the thrill of riding waves.
Couples tandem surfing in Hawaii in the early 1900s.
Photo Credit:

Tandem surfing lit the spark for some girls to start riding waves solo. Mary Ann Hawkins was one of these girls. A strong swimmer (to the extent that she almost made it to the 1936 Olympics), she was a ringleader of the small band of women surfers in the 30s.

Ladies lay on their surfboards and smile for a picture.
Photo Credit:

Women’s Surfing Catches Momentum

Throughout the 50s, surfboards changed dramatically in size, shape and weight. This was initially due to using lighter wood types and then the development of foam. Foam boards revolutionized surfing as a whole, but had a distinctly unique impact on the sport from a women’s perspective.

Ladies suddenly had access to boards that they could not only ride, but charge on.

Marge Calhoun is arguably one of the first and most famous female surfers of this time period. She turned her back on the 50s housewife culture to dive into surfing at the age of 32, winning the 1958 Makaha International Surfing Championships and pioneering women’s surfing in Hawaii. Her whole family followed her lead. Her daughters, Candy and Robin, also went on to become champion surfers. Candy is best known for being the first woman to bodysurf Newport’s The Wedge on a big day. The Calhoun girls were an unmistakable trio known for their fearlessness and competence in the water, their beachy good-looks as well as their skateboarding skills.

The Calhoun Girls made a large impact on the history of women's surfing.
The Calhoun Girls. Photo Credit:
The first official World Championships in 1964 paved the path for more surfers – male and female – to make surfing into a profession.

However, women’s competitions still had many drawbacks. Men frequently refused to leave the lineup when it was time for the girls’ heats, the competitions received almost zero media attention and the prize purses were dramatically unfair. For example, in one contest the prize was $200 for females and $1500 for males.

Orange County local Joyce Hoffman dominated the women’s surfing scene in the 60s and 70s. She rounded up tons of titles and was also inducted into the International Surfing Hall of Fame at an early age. Joyce had a competitive and focused approach to surfing – one of the first female surfers to implement structured training and gain sponsorships. The press loved Joyce and featured her constantly, bringing greater attention to female surfing as a whole.

Joyce Hoffman played a huge role in the history of women's surfing
Joyce Hoffman. Photo Credit: San Onofre Surf Co

Margo Oberg (during the 70s and 80s) and Lanye Beachley (80s and 90s) charged into bigger waves and rode shorter boards, pushing women’s surfing closer to the level of men’s surfing. These ladies surfed with feminine grace, but excelled at many of the maneuvers that the men did at the time. Both won many world titles.

Margo Oberg is featured on a poster for Lighting Bolt Surfboards.
Margo Oberg. Photo Credit:

The Ladies Take Off

The stage was set for women to reach new levels across the board (pun intended) as the late 90s and early 2000s rolled in.

The sport was becoming more professional as a whole. Sponsorships and fair, legitimate competitions were more typical. Having a personal coach was common. Prize purses and pay, while not quite equal to men yet, had increased dramatically. The overall attitude towards women in the lineup was slowly improving.

Enter icons like Rochelle Ballard, Lisa Andersen, and Keala Kennelly.

Outperforming many of the guys as they traveled the world to surf, these girls proved that women’s surfing could be just as daring and impressive as men’s. They chased bigger waves than women had ever surfed before. Kennelly was the first women to get towed into Teahupo’o, for example. This generation fought for the existence of the Women’s World Tour and promoted women’s surfing through events, surf camps, and lines of clothing with their many sponsors.

Keala Kennelly rides a heavy barrel. Photo Credit:

Many female pro surfers from this era also surfed in the ever-popular film, Blue Crush. This movie, and other similar Hollywood surf dramas, dramatically popularized the concept of women’s surfing and surf culture in general.

Many of us are aware of the ladies currently breaking barriers of the sport. Stephanie Gilmore, Carissa More, Caity Simmers, Molly Picklum, and Bethany Hamilton are just a few.

Each has brought unique strengths and overcome distinct challenges and together these women are re-defining surfing as we know it. From dominating monster waves, to creating crazy new aerials, competing after having four kids, and receiving unheard of scores, the limits of women’s surfing are now forever shattered.

Caity Simmers catches air.
Caity Simmers catches air. Photo Credit:

Two major changes in the sport reflected this. In 2019, all prize money from WSL competitions was finally equal between males and females. Things got even better in 2022 when the CT competition schedule was exactly the same for both genders. The ladies have since taken on Teahupo’o, Pipeline and every other break that the guys compete at. What victories!! What would the surfer girls of the 30s say if they could see this?!

A Community Behind the History

The history of women’s surfing has been, and continues to be, a group effort. It takes a large community to make such an impact on the sport. For every name mentioned here, are many others that also deserved to be acknowledged. Not only amazing professional surfers, but coaches, friends, shapers, and family. These people have propelled the ladies to be the best they can be and helped to make women’s surf history into something incredible.

If you want to become part of a community of female surfers, come join our Women’s Community Surf Classes!

We meet one Saturday each month for a surf session. These classes are for ladies with prior surf experience who want to build their skills and share the waves with new friends! Our next classes are on March 23rd in San Diego, Huntington Beach, and Los Angeles.

We’re offering a $20 discount if you bring a friend!

Text 310-910-9099 in a group chat with you and your friend. We will give you the code for both of you to get $20 off!

Ladies, let’s make history in the water together!! 💦




Women in Surfing: A Brief History

The Rise of Women’s Surfing

Margo Oberg: the inspiring story of a women’s surfing icon

Founding Mothers of Professional Surfing

Surf History Sunday: Joyce Hoffman

Candy Calhoun: First Woman to Body Surf The Wedge

Mary Ann Hawkins

Keala Kennelly

Blue Crush Generation: Rochelle Ballard

The Most Influential Surfers of All Time