The 3rd to the 9th of October marks Women’s sports week. It stands as an important reminder of the progress made by women in all sports and not least in rowing. 2016 also stands as the 40th anniversary of women’s rowing joining the Olympic programme. Great Britain has become renowned for its success in rowing with it being the only GB sport to have won a gold at every Olympics since 1984. Women have been a crucial contributor to this success with medallists like Katherine Grainger, Helen Glover and Heather Stanning becoming household names. However, women’s integration into rowing has been by no means easy.
For most of its history rowing has been a male dominated sport. Even when women were allowed to compete in the Olympics in 1976 it was only at a distance of 1000 metres and was noticeably only after women were permitted to compete in similar sports such as swimming, athletics, cycling and canoeing. The women’s squad had to wait twelve years before their racing distance matched that of the male competition. But, rather than suffer in silence, many chose to take action.
On 3rd March 1976, 19 female rowers from Yale took off their clothes in the office of the director of women’s athletics. Each of the women had ‘Title IX’ written across their backs as a reminder of the law that had been passed four years previously that should have prevented the discrimination which they were protesting against. Chris Enst, who had been called the Rosa Parks of Title IX by Senator John Kerry, read a statement on behalf of the 1976 Yale women’s crew stating that they were ‘human and being treated as less than such’.
The women were protesting against the conditions faced by female rowers. Among their grievances; was having to sit outside after workouts while male teams used facilities such as showers, having to use old wooden shells whilst the men had state-of-the-art boats and also facing discrimination and abuse from the male rowers. Anne Warner, a member of the silver-medal winning eight from the 1975 World Championships, said ‘the men stood over us, hooting and calling us names’ while they were training in the weights room.
The incident was written about in newspapers worldwide and a facility for the women was built shortly after. A documentary ‘A Hero For Daisy’ was also released by Olympic Rower Mary Mazzio that chronicles the demonstration. More importantly, this event marked a turning point in women’s rowing and was still talked about in press conferences following the Rio 2016 Olympics.
Whilst this is just one event and one that occurred in another country, it shows not only the uneven start in rowing but the strength shown by women to bring about equality. Closer to home it took until this year for women to be able to race over the same distance as men in the Oxford and Cambridge boat race but perhaps it is a sign of more equal times that nobody had to strip to achieve this. But female rowing is still making unmistakable progress. In the Rio 2016 Olympic games forty per cent of the 550 rowers that competed were female, this is the highest level yet. It is not going to stop here either.
The International Olympic Committee has introduced proposals to implement gender participation equality across all sports for Tokyo 2020 which would increase this gender divide to 50-50. The gender balance rowing programme for the Olympics will be voted on in February 2017 during an Extraordinary Congress of FISU (World Rowing’s governing body). Hopefully this will act as a final push to promote the sport to a level equal to men’s and encourage the Great British Squad to continue pushing for golds.
Original Image by Lucy Hubbard