I've never doubted that women's bodies are powerful; they had to be to survive life on Earth up until now. Even a hundred years ago, many women were planting, harvesting and cooking food or hauling wood and water over long distances. Oh, and they did all of that while pregnant or recovering from childbirth or nursing and caring for children.
Logically, how could women be "the weaker sex" if they had to do all this while surviving in often harsh circumstances?
Yet men are always considered to be the physically stronger sex. Maybe that's because we've always measured strength as defined by what men's bodies can do relative to women's, like lift heavy objects or run a faster sprint. But what about other types of strength? What about dealing with pain? How about endurance? Why is it that strength equals the kind of strength that men have?
It turns out that latter question is one that Jennifer Pharr Davis has also asked herself, especially after she beat the endurance record for the FKT (fastest known time) on the Appalachian Trail in 2011 by 26 hours. In 2012, the FKT record for the Pacific Crest Trail was taken by Heather Anderson, so for a time, both long-distance hiking records were held by women. Davis wrote about her experience, its ramifications, and what strength means for a very thoughtful New York Times article.
She thought that perhaps it was even because she was a woman that she set the hiking record, not in spite of it. Some people had posited she might not be a "real" woman in some way due to her feat. In fact, she wrote:
"In 2012, the process of conceiving, birthing and nursing my daughter served as an abrupt reminder that I was fully female, genetically and hormonally. As a result, I recognized not only that I was all right, but also that I was specifically and spectacularly engineered to carry the approximate weight of a backpack for several months and endure excruciating pain."
So Davis went searching for answers as to why women seemed to be as good as men (and sometimes better) when it comes to long-distance hiking. Anderson, who most recently beat the previous self-supported record for hiking the Appalachian Trail by four days, told Davis, “Women appear to be better suited for walking long distances because it doesn’t seem to take the same physical toll on their bodies. The women I see at the end of a long-distance hike look fit and badass, but the guys look emaciated.” Cheryl Strayed details this phenomenon in her book, "Wild," and Myla Faye, who recently hiked the 2,100 miles of the PCT says in a Hairpin Interview, "I lost about 5 to 10 pounds by the end, despite gaining muscle. Women usually lose less weight than men, which is an advantage on trail."
I've seen this first-hand. I've done a couple long-distance hikes, at least for me. I'm no record-setter, but I can be vain: I was certain that spending two weeks in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area of Montana would transform my body into a sleek version of myself. The results were ... not so much — my legs and core got very, very strong, but I only lost a couple pounds. My jeans were a touch looser, but it wasn't significant. That was 13 days of 15-20 miles a day, with a huge, heavy pack, and included climbing the Continental Divide. The young men in my group ended up holding their pants up with rope because they had lost so much weight so quickly, and it seemed all they did was eat.
When it comes to long-distance hikes, women also tend to be more conservative with pacing, especially in the initial days, which benefits them over the long haul. And several runners mentioned to Davis that when it came to long-distance running and trail records, mental fortitude was the thing to look at — and that women had that in equal reserves as men.
When she spoke with Timothy Noakes, a professor at the University of South Africa and author of "Lore of Running" he said, "Obviously, you and Heather are the extreme of the distribution of this ability in women, but you are the equal of the male outliers. If men were better, then there should be more and better outliers amongst men than amongst women. ... that means to me that men and women are equal on this type of event.”
Sidestepping the point
Most interesting to me was not the vagaries of how women are at least as strong as men in some respects, but how reticent women seemed to be about admitting it — and dare I say, finding pride in that strength. Anderson called endurance "most likely genderless" and a "human trait," while Ann Trason, a truly incredible long-distance runner on the same footing with top male athletes said, "... it comes down to the individual." Davis herself waffles throughout the article, never seemingly comfortable saying that women are better at some stuff.
I've been hearing about how strong men are my entire life, to the extent that it's just assumed I can't possibly lift the office water bottle or carry a 50-pound package out of a store. I can, and this assumption that all men are much stronger than all women in all ways is pernicious, leading fewer women to compete in the first place. (It's worth noting that all three times a woman has set out to break an FKT record in recent years, she has.)
Various tests have shown that even though women are likely to feel more pain (or are more comfortable reporting it), they are able to stand it better, and long-distance women swimmers regularly out-perform men due to naturally higher body-fat (which makes us more buoyant), and smaller frames, leading to lower heat loss and energy needed. Women live five to10 years longer than men, and have stronger immune systems, and we're probably at least as good as men at long-distance running and hiking.
Yet we're routinely told we are the "weaker sex."
Just because men can pick up heavier things and run faster at shorter distances doesn't mean that they are "stronger." It just means men are better at those aspects of physical strength. I'm not arguing that women are overall "stronger" either; simply just that the sexes are equally strong, in different ways due to our body shapes, fat distribution, hormones and muscle organization.
We know that part of the reason there's less representation by women in top jobs like congressperson, CEO or heading up a lab is because there are few examples of women doing those jobs for younger women to aspire to. I think the idea of women's physical strength is a similar thing, and the more we see women breaking world records (and sweating in public), conquering intense physical feats like becoming Army Rangers, and kicking butt in CrossFit classes, the more women will see their bodies as capable and powerful, if that's a route they choose.