Reflecting on Women’s Rowing: Oral Histories and Sporting Lives

By Lisa Taylor
The pace of change in women’s sport is quickening. More media airtime is being dedicated to elite women’s sport, while efforts to connect with more women with sporting participation through initiatives like Sport England’s This Girl Can have enjoyed hugely positive reception. Campaigns highlighting women’s achievements in sport, and their under-representation in public discourse, have made significant steps in raising awareness of the issue – even if a lot of work remains to be done.

Carving a meaningful place for women in a sporting environment is about more than access to venues, coverage and resources (although gaining this access is often no mean feat). Historically, the practice and the values of sport have been coded as masculine; changing this requires an understanding that attributes like physical strength, determination and competitive instinct are not exclusively male or, distinctly, masculine, prerogatives. It requires the female body to be understood as agentic – moving, sweaty, muddy, imperfect – not just the passive subject of the male gaze. It demands a change in social attitudes as well as sporting provision.

Two British athletes rowing in the 1970s. From the private collection of Lin Clark

Consider ‘the Boat Race’, the annual fixture between Oxford and Cambridge Universities, in which crews race head to head over the four-and-a-quarter-mile course from Putney to Mortlake. Women from these universities first raced in 1927, and annually over a two-kilometre course at Henley-on-Thames from 1964. Yet it was only in 2015 that the women’s Blue Boats began to battle it out on the same day, over the same course, as the men’s. The logistical obstacles to overcome were substantial – but so too were the historic, cultural ones.

The example of the Boat Race is in some ways unique. The men’s race has been contested since 1829 and carries the weight of history with it. It perpetuates a view of Oxford and Cambridge as enigmatic sites of extraordinary achievement, both sporting and intellectual. Coverage of the event highlights the distinctive status of these amateur, student athletes, and the single-mindedness with which they approach this one race. It emphasises the strength of mind and body required, and the drama of its binary result: win or lose.

In other ways, though, it offers an instructive, transferable example. The narratives attached to the Boat Race have, historically, been constructed in masculine terms: the race, an epic battle, the athletes within it somehow more than men. A women’s race would therefore require a reformulation of the meanings behind the race, or of understandings of female ambition, physical capability and emotional desire. The Olympic motto – citius, altius, fortius – faster, higher, stronger – encourages the pursuit of absolute physical progress. In almost all Olympic sports and disciplines, female success would be relative, not absolute. What, then, could the Olympics mean to a female athlete – and what effect would their participation have on what the Games might mean to men?

The point is that sport and sporting events are imbued with cultural meaning, and much of this cultural meaning is implicitly or explicitly gendered.

My research asks what women’s rowing can tell us about social and cultural change in Britain in the second half of the twentieth century. It focuses on the experiences of those who have rowed on the national team, and seeks to understand sport in the context of their lives. Collecting oral histories – recording loosely structured, informal interviews – is an important part of this exploratory work.

Documentary records like newspaper articles, magazines and archival records can only tell us so much. They tell us that when women gained access to international competition in 1954 they would race on different dates from the men, and over a shorter course. They tell us that the first Olympic Games to include women’s rowing was in 1976. They tell us that it was in 1985 that it was decided to extend the racing distance for women to two kilometres, the same as that raced by men. They tell us race results. They might offer some commentary, geared to a particular public audience.

The British women’s team relax after a test international event in 1951. © River & Rowing Museum, Henley-on-Thames

These records are valuable, but they are limited. Of course, oral history, too, has its limitations. Individual stories are exactly that – individual, unique. Memories cannot always be trusted. In telling a story, we are likely to share or emphasise different things depending on our audience. And yet, the more women I have spoken to, the more I believe in the power of using a collection of individual voices to build a richer, more nuanced, and more truthful account of human experience than would otherwise be possible.

By talking to me about their lives, the women I have interviewed have allowed me to write a history that places individuals at its heart. They have generously shared stories from outside the sport as well as within it: their jobs, their families, their childhoods. They reflected on their sporting careers with a kind of double vision, moving between their memories and how they think about how to interpret and communicate those memories now. They have considered their experiences in light of where the women’s sport is now, the athletes within it managed with cutting-edge sport science, world-class coaches and facilities, many adorned with Olympic medals. These connections are complex and powerful, and they are easily lost. This research aims to capture at least some of them – and to give voice to stories that might otherwise go unheard.

Lisa Taylor is an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded PhD student based at Manchester Metropolitan University and the
River & Rowing Museum. You can follow Lisa via
@LisaTaylor1985. Funding from the AHRC supports PhD students at Universities and museums, galleries, archives and libraries across the UK.

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