When the World Tour kicked off in spring 2011, seventeen female surfers sent out a battle cry that signalled the birth of a new generation in women's surfing.

When the World Tour kicked off in spring 2011, seventeen female surfers sent out a battle cry that signalled the birth of a new generation in women's surfing.

It’s Monday March 7, 2011, and the world’s pro surfing community is gathered in Snapper Rocks, Queensland, Australia, for the first events of the ASP World Tour – The Quiksilver and Roxy Pro Gold Coasts.

With the men’s round four out of the way, the girls have been centre stage all day, blasting through the quarters and semis in a toxic display of airs and barrels. Now sitting in the lineup for a tense final is Hawaii’s Carissa Moore and Tyler Wright from New South Wales, both the playful side of twenty. The beach is hushed. Everyone’s eyes are on the water.

With fourteen minutes to go, Tyler slots into a heavy Superbank barrel and is about to shoot out to victory – you can almost hear the judges’ scorecards flipping up – when suddenly Carissa, utilising her priority, drops in on Tyler and cuts her ‘perfect ten’ dream short. The crowd goes nuts. Carissa wins the heat. In fact, fast-forward four months and at eighteen she’s won enough heats to become the youngest ever ASP Women’s World Champ.

But this strategic show of surfing prowess was not just a sign of Carissa’s imminent world title; it was a sign of the times. Women’s professional surfing is in the throes of a revolution, and these young renegades are bustin’ down the door every time they step up to a comp. For the first time in surfing, equal opportunities and support across the gender divide are becoming commonplace. In fact, after the landmark high performances at Snapper and then Bells (the following event in Victoria, Australia), the industry put a megaphone to female pro surfing and the rebel yell has reverberated around the world. Everyone – man, woman, media, fan – has been talking about the ‘golden generation’ coming through. But why is this paradigm shift happening now? And why at all?

According to The Sociology of Sports by Tim Delaney and Tim Madigan, “Every social movement needs trailblazers” – those disruptive personalities that shatter barriers. In women’s pro surfing, you could argue, it was the Margo Obergs, Lynne Boyers and Debbie Beachams of the seventies. Margo, for example, is widely regarded as the first female pro surfer, taking the title in 1977 when the International Professional Surfers (a governing body that pre-empted the ASP) introduced a female division to its World Tour. These were women who surfed at a time when the women’s liberation movement was still in its infancy. They went big with dignity even though bikini contests on the beach attracted more crowds than their heats, which were put in the worst conditions between the men’s rounds – something that still happens today. Debbie Beacham, particularly, campaigned tirelessly for equal rights for female pro surfers, eventually joining the ASP board in 1982 to that effect.

As a result, there was a boom in women’s professional surfing in the nineties. Legends like Layne Beachley, Lisa Anderson and Rochelle Ballard, to name a few, grew up with these powerful role models and took women’s surfing to the next level. Brands soon caught up, launching women’s ranges, and finally sponsorship money started to trickle in. But there were still only a handful of names dominating the World Tour and although women’s pro surfing had evolved, it was still playing catch-up to the men’s in terms of style and tricks.

That is until 2007, when a sparky young Australian surfer called Stephanie Gilmore – then aged just nineteen – trounced long-time contenders like Sofia Mulanovich and Silvana Lima and made history by becoming World Champ in her rookie year. This was a defining moment – a change in consciousness for women’s pro surfing – and the world title is now, quite literally, anyone’s game. As a result, it’s become extremely exciting to watch. “There are a lot of really good women surfers now,” says current champ, eighteen-year-old Carissa Moore. “They’re really pushing the limits of the sport and keeping up with the guys. I like where our sport is going. It’s exciting.”

Seeing Steph Gilmore shake up the status quo made others realise they could do the same and the Tour this year – with four rookies all in their teens – is reflective of that demographic shift. Courtney Conlogue, a natural-footer from California, who has just finished an impressive seventh in her first year, enunciated her respect when we caught up at the Swatch Pro in Hossegor, France. “I definitely look up to Stephanie Gilmore and what she did from her Rookie year on,” says Courtney, a diverse athlete who also competes in track and field. “Getting four world titles back to back is really impressive. You have to have respect for that! And she’s done a lot in the surf industry for women.” Hawaii’s Coco Ho, currently ranked sixth, is quick to agree: “My brother always used to say, ‘Make sure you surf like a boy.’ And when I saw Steph I was like, ‘That’s what he’s talking about! I have to surf like that.’ She’s so strong yet graceful, and so easy to watch. I just love everything about her.”

These girls may have role models, but they’re becoming more and more radical as to where they’re setting their sights. World ‘number two’ Sally Fitzgibbons explains: “There’s some amazing women’s talent at the moment and we look for inspiration within our sport, but to go bigger and better it’s great having the guys there to look up to. That’s the direction I want to take. It’s great to have people paving the way and inventing new moves. Women’s surfing and men’s surfing are both so original, but there are definitely crossovers. They have their own separate identities and it will continue to go that way, but our sport is definitely blossoming and kind of reaching new heights.”

And the world is definitely starting to take note. Building on the momentum of those first World Tour events, Nike released their all-girl surf movie Leave A Message in May – the result of two years filming in some of the world’s best waves at Indo, Mexico, Hawaii, Australia and beyond – and it has been touted as ‘the best female surf movie of all time’. In a vertiginous display of fins-out badassness, the Nike team – including Malia Manuel, Monyca Byrne-Wickey, Lakey Peterson, Carissa Moore, Coco Ho and Laura Enever – fly, snap, float and barrel their way through twenty-four minutes of high-performance shredding that will blow your booties off. “Yeah, I think everyone’s starting to see us now,” says Coco about the reaction to the movie. “Nike gave us that platform to show the world and through events like Snapper and Bells, people are starting to be like, ‘Oh my god!’ It’s really good for the world to recognise and give us attention. And it’s no disrespect to the girls from the past, because they definitely paved the way for us and gave us the Tour we have now. […] But you know what, I think this revolution will be remembered, it’s kind of like a Bustin’ Down the Door time.”

Eager to see women’s surfing recognised on a global scale, the pros are also taking inspiration from social movements in other sports. “[Women's tennis] did a great job and it shows what can happen when you have equal sponsors for both [genders],” says Sally. “It’s similar to surfing in the way that there was an era – of the Martina Hingis types – who were winning aged sixteen, and then that group of women grew up the sport, you know? I think that’s the same in surfing. We have this great group of girls coming on, who are all super young, but we will grow the sport.”

Courtney Conlogue agrees, citing seventies tennis champ and founder of the Women’s Sports Foundation Billie Jean King – a staunch advocate against sexism in sports – as an inspiration. “I look up to people outside of surfing like Billie Jean King and what she’s done for women’s sports,” says Courtney. “I actually wrote a letter to her two years ago, like, ‘Hey, how can I improve women’s surfing?’ because I didn’t know which direction to go, and I got a letter back with some advice and stuff. It was really cool.”

Of course, there are still battles to be fought in this emerging mainstream sport. When the men’s and women’s competitions coincide, the women are given the worst conditions and this will have a massive effect on how they perform. Similarly, the women’s prize purse is substantially less than the men’s. Some brands feel that the real money in female surfing comes from promoting a fetishised lifestyle image that mostly revolves around male ideas of the female form – boobs, butts and beachy hair. There’s little doubt that encouraging women to be viewed as objects perpetuates the idea that they can be treated as objects. But as interest in women’s pro surfing (the action in the water, not the bodies on the beach) increases, these embarrassing digressions should fade away, sponsors should flock and the crazily talented, fearless rippers should get the respect they deserve.

“In five years I think the heats in women’s surfing are going to be so amazing and it’s just going to be so much more progressive and fun to watch,” says Coco. “There’s definitely a problem at the moment where the girls event will come on and all the guys will leave the beach. But that’s changing. I remember at Snapper, Kelly Slater’s girlfriend texted me like, ‘Yeah, me and Kelly watched, you were ripping!’ And it just makes you feel so much better, like, ‘Cool, they’re actually paying attention.’ It keeps you psyched. […] It’s just this generation. We’re all feeding off each other, and pushing each other and I think that’s why it’s at where it’s at today. Everyone surfs really progressively. It’s totally changing, and we’re stoked about it.”

And the hype isn’t dying down any time soon. “At Snapper, it was the women’s event, not the guy’s, that everyone was talking about,” says Courtney, still Champagne-soaked from the podium at the Swatch Pro in Hossegor. “This whole next generation – especially these rookies who just qualified for the Tour – really show where women’s surfing is going. We’re all really supportive of each other and we definitely see that the previous generation helped us with that. Now we’re just trying to push the limits even further.”