ESSAY Hannah Engelkamp

NWR Issue 119

Swimming Women

Wild Swimming to Save Humankind!

Wild swimming is the most free I can imagine being right now, for a brief time between chores, my phone left on the shore, my toddler in someone else’s care. A recent swimming multimedia exhibition, Swimming, at Aberystwyth Arts Centre called to me like a siren’s song. The artists were all women, and their artwork invited me to submerge my mind with them, in wild, cold Welsh water. They are not alone in feeling the joy; wild swimming is hot right now. What can we take from their work? Is it significant that they are all women?

Women are a Bit Wet

Water is associated with the feminine, as a classical element in Greek and Roman philosophy, in Taoism, the Indian Vedas, aboriginal cultures from Australia to Inuit. This all sounds pretty distinguished, but wasn’t necessarily great for real women. ‘In the Middle Ages it was a truth universally acknowledged that women were a bit wet,’ says historian Hetta Howes…

Aristotle was still the order of the day in medieval medicine, and his model for understanding gender is at the heart of much misogynistic rhetoric…. Babies are born female because they haven’t received enough heat during gestation, therefore women are cold, wet and weak by nature. Men, by contrast, are hot, dry and strong…. [Women’s] bodies are leaky, incomplete, and terrifying to men.

Anthropologist Sherry B Ortner set out in the 1970s that women are second-class citizens in all cultures of the world because we are universally seen as being closer to nature, while men are more identified with culture: ‘Since it is always culture’s project to subsume and transcend nature, if women were considered part of nature, then culture would find it “natural” to subordinate, not to say oppress, them.’

And it hasn’t necessarily got much better for us. An example of another wet vs hot row is the widely and rudely discredited aquatic ape theory, hit upon by Elaine Morgan in the 1970s. This put forward that human beings have evolved many of our unusual features – standing upright, hairlessness, women’s subcutaneous blubber layer – as a result of swimming in the sea...

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Hannah Engelkamp’s debut book, Seaside Donkey (a crowd-sourced publication, 2015), and her feature-length film (with Rhys Thwaites Jones) of the same name were both about travels in Wales with a donkey called Chico. She is a travel writer and editor with a background in adventure magazines and websites. Her great love is slow, resourceful, human-powered home travel, and she launched the positive-environmentalist magazine, The Outdoor Adventure Guide. Hannah is now struggling with being arrested by motherhood, and finding endless similarities between donkey and toddler.


previous essay: That Further Shore
next essay: On Building


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