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Western's women's outdoor club unable to congregate safely

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Students pose for a picture during the first Western Washington University Backcountry Squatters meeting held in December 2020. The club has not met in person since the COVID-19 pandemic started. // Photo courtesy of Geneva Ascher

Eva Copley just wanted to hang out with a bunch of other women, outside, exploring the backcountry around Bellingham. 

But that plan is on hold for Eva Copley and the other members of Backcountry Squatters, a network of college clubs dedicated to increasing the participation, leadership and representation of women in the outdoor community. 

“People aren’t able to do things like carpool to an outdoor adventure,” Eva Copley said, which complicates the fact that outdoor activities have been among the safest during a respiratory pandemic.

Backcountry Squatters has seven chapters in Montana, Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Vermont.

Western Washington University is home to a newly formed chapter of Squatters, led by club president Geneva Ascher. 

“[During] my first year at Western I felt like there was some sort of culture missing,” Ascher said. “I wanted to bring girls together outdoors. One of my friends at [University of Colorado Boulder] started a chapter, so I said, ‘Oh, I should do that here.’” 

WWU Squatters formed in December 2020, Ascher said.

“The outdoor industry and representation for a lot of sports is predominantly male, so having a group that promotes recreation for female and underrepresented people is really important,” Eva Copley said. “Having an encouraging group of people like this is crucial to getting as many people outside as possible.”

Jennifer Wesely, a professor in the department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at University of North Florida, says that clubs like Backcountry Squatters are important because they provide safety where there is a history of violence against women. 

“Women are often ‘reminded’ that they do not belong outdoors through experiences of being watched, surveilled or objectified,” Wesely said. “This most obviously occurs in public space through catcalls, verbal harassment and unwanted attention. This can make women fear for their safety to the extent that they circumscribe their outdoor activities.”

Wesley said that women’s outdoor clubs are empowering for individuals as well as institutions by increasing visibility and normalizing women’s presence in the outdoors.

“Women’s outdoor clubs provide an opportunity for women to develop a relationship with the outdoors with others who can empathize and relate to imposed meanings in gendered space constructs and, through that collective, push against those boundaries,” Wesely said. 

However, shortly after the club’s initial meetings, COVID-19 changed their plans. 

“It’s been interesting,” Ascher said. “We had our first meeting; we were really stoked. Then we tried to plan some events; we had three or four events planned with community partners, and then COVID-19 hit.”

The pandemic prevented the WWU Backcountry Squatters from forming the initial sense of community, which is one of the most important aspects of the groups, Ascher said.

“We weren’t sure what to do,” Ascher said. “We didn’t know where to take it from there. We’re waiting until it’s safer to get more meetings organized.”

A sense of community and inclusion could help reduce COVID-19 and isolation fatigue, Wesely said. 

“The availability of women's outdoor clubs may be one way to manage social distancing while providing respite from isolation and other COVID-19 related stressors,” Wesley said. “Still, it is important to consider that the pandemic and its effect on the context of women's lives and the resources available to them can curtail their pursuit of these activities.”

When the environment is accepting and inclusive, more women will be willing to open up to new experiences, Wesely said. 

“I think it’s a really good idea,” said Clara Copley, a club member. “I think it has the capacity to be a super powerful thing, allowing women to get outside without all the toxic masculinity that often goes with the culture.”

The WWU Backcountry Squatters have not held any formal club meetings online, Ascher said. The next time the club will meet is when it is fully safe to do so. 

Talus Lantz is a sports reporter for The Front and a second-year environmental journalism major at Western. His work focuses on recreational sports and local environmental issues. He enjoys mountain biking and skiing in his free time. You can reach him at taluslantz.thefront@gmail.com.


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