New film documents the struggles of female pro surfers in the 80s and 90s

Pauline Menczer struggled to find sponsors and faced health issues.
Pauline Menczer struggled to find sponsors and faced health issues.

A new film featuring Northern Rivers local Pauline Menczer documents the fight female surfers faced in the 80s and 90s to gain respect in the male-dominated world of professional surfing.

World surfing champion Pauline Menczer remembers the day she decided enough was enough.

It was 1999, at Jeffrey's Bay in South Africa, and she and the other women surfers in her heat had once again been relegated to the worst waves of the competition.

"Every time the surf was shit they just put the women out," she says.

"They just kept doing this to us all the time.

"And then you'd get comments like - 'the women surf shit' and it's like - 'well you're putting us out in shit'. You know, let's see the guys do some turns in those waves.'"

The waves that day were 'absolutely pathetic,' she says.

"They weren't even contestable.

"So we decided to just sit down and not paddle out.

"We were sitting on the waters edge and I said: 'just stay here, don't move, everyone stay still.'"

At the time they were scared of what might happen - they thought they'd be fined - but as the clock ticked down they stood their ground and refused to move.

It was a moment regarded as a turning point.

Throughout the 80s and 90s women surfers were seen as a side show in the male dominated professional surfing world. Not only were they made to surf the worst waves, they had to dress in skimpy swimsuits, couldn't get sponsors and received a tiny fraction of the prizemoney the men did.

When Pauline and the other women took a stand that day, they realised they had a voice.

The struggles Pauline and her fellow female surfers' faced, and their victories along the way as they tried to gain respect and equality in their sport, is documented in the new film, Girls Can't Surf, which hits cinemas on March 11, and screens at the Byron Bay Film Festival this weekend.

It features surfing greats including Jodie Cooper, Frieda Zamba, Lisa Andersen, Pam Burridge, Wendy Botha, and Layne Beachley, who each share their fight against the odds to make their dreams of competing a reality.

Pauline and fellow surfer Jodie Cooper, who lives at South Golden Beach

Pauline and fellow surfer Jodie Cooper, who lives at South Golden Beach

The film is set in the 80s, when professional surfing was a sea of fluoro colours, peroxide and radical male egos. In the middle of it all were a group of disparate women who dreamt of becoming world champions, and came up against a culture that wasn't ready for them.

It wasn't until 1989, when the organisers of the Huntington Beach OP Pro dropped the women's event in order to devote more prizemoney to the top 30 males, that the media began to take notice. Although it would be another 20 years before real equality came, when the WSL, facing criticism over the disparity between male and female prize cheques, announced equal prize money for women in 2019.

"The film is about us pushing for what we believed in, and that was just us being included," Pauline says.

Never-ending challenges

Things were tough from the start for Pauline. Raised by a single mother at Bronte in Sydney, she and her siblings would head to Bondi Beach on summer days, collecting cans, towels and 'whatever was left on the beach' to make money.

She remembers going out with her mum when there were street clean ups.

"There were two sets of twins - I was the younger lot of twins - and she'd get two kids on each side of the road and we'd scour the sides of the streets. We'd collect whatever we could and then have garage sales."

"That's how I got to my first contest."

It was just the beginning of Pauline's challenges on the professional surfing circuit.

"It was never-ending," she says.

"We didn't have sponsors, we didn't have money.

"The guys were all staying in nice accommodation while we were all bunking together to save costs - or sleeping in the contest area. I did that many times. We didn't have any money, it was the middle of summer in France and it was so expensive to stay anywhere so you'd take your board out and sleep in your board bag."

The film is about us pushing for what we believed in, and that was just being included

Pauline Menczer

On top of it all, Pauline also faced crippling bouts of rheumatoid arthritis, which at times left her unable to walk.

Despite it all, she won 20 WCT events and 8 WQS events, the 1988 women's amateur world title and 1993 women's world championship - only to receive less than a quarter of the prizemoney of her male counterpart.

Pauline with her 1993 World Championship trophy

Pauline with her 1993 World Championship trophy

"It's was a whole other world.

"And you don't realise how bad it was until you watch this film."

Tide has turned

Now leading a quiet life in Brunswick Heads, where she works as a school bus driver and still collects 'junk' (she recently built a new camp kitchen in her backyard from entirely recycled materials), Pauline is proud of the path she and her fellow surfers forged for women in the sport today.

She says attitudes have radically changed

"It's absolutely awesome now."

Brunswick Heads local Pauline Menczer says the challenges were never-ending for women surfers

Brunswick Heads local Pauline Menczer says the challenges were never-ending for women surfers

She says she was 'crying her eyes out with happiness' on the day The World Surf League (WSL) announced that it would award equal prize money to male and female athletes - something she thought she'd never see in her lifetime.

"I was like - can I come back now?"

Since Girls Can't Surf premiered in Sydney in January, Pauline's been thrilled by the positive feedback she's been receiving.

"Heaps of women have been inspired and older women too. I've got one woman saying that her mum wants to start surfing now at 75.

It's just really nice the messages that I've been getting.

"If you can inspire anyone it's all worth it."

  • Girls Can't Surf will screen at Byron Theatre of February 26 as part of the Byron Surf Festival, and on Monday March 1 at Palace Cinemas Byron, with Q and A's with Pauline Menczer and Jodie Cooper. In cinemas Australia wide on March 11.