Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Hera's Daughters

"The Olympic Games", Cartoons Magazine, 1912

Hélène de Pourtalès, Sailor, 1900 Olympic Gold Medalist
The first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens, Greece in 1896 and included 12-14 nations (there seems to be some controversy over which countries actually participated in the games), 43 events, and more than 200 participants, none of which were women. International Olympic Chapter (IOC) president Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1896-1925) was greatly opposed to women competing in the Olympics, remarking that women’s events were “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect” and that a woman’s primary goal in the Olympic Games “should be to crown the victors.”[i] Although de Coubertin maintained this position until his resignation as president from the Olympic Committee in 1925, IOC members did not entirely support his gender exclusive views. At the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris, France, women were admitted and competed in lawn tennis, golf, crochet, equestrian, and sailing events.[ii]

Queenie Newall, Archer, 1908 Olympic Gold Medalist
By the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, archery, figure skating, and swimming were added to the women’s competition line-up, and in 1928, women’s track and field events were introduced to the games in Amsterdam.[iii] Despite the IOC’s attempts to include more women in more gaming events, competitions open to women were still very limited, and social and cultural views regarding femininity and the delicate female physiology did much to undermine women’s participation and placement in the Olympic Games. For instance, in 1912, the United States would not participate in the first women’s swimming competitions because our nation’s female athletes were required by law to wear long skirts. In the 1920 Antwerp, Belgium Games, American figure skater Theresa Weld was reprimanded by the judges for performing an “unlady-like” salchow jump in her program, which cost her the silver metal.[iv]
Theresa Weld, Skater, 1920 Olympic Bronze Medalist
However, one of the more controversial movements by Game officials was to remove the 800-meter race from the women’s track and field competitions in 1928, the same year it was introduced to the Olympic Games. Lynn Emery, professor at California Polytechnic University in Pomona, explains the following: 

Many conflicting stories of the 800-meter run exist: the most common that five finalists dropped out of the race before the finish, five more collapsed at the tape, and the eleventh runner fainted in the locker room. Newspaper accounts spoke of the spectacle, of the runners falling headlong to the ground, of the prostrate and distressed forms. The Congress of the International Amateur Athletic Federation promptly voted to eliminate the 800-meter run since it appeared to be too strenuous for women. 

A thorough examination of the evidence including eye-witness accounts showed that there were nine women in the 800-meter finals, all nine completed the race and several bettered the existing world’s record…Contrary to popular opinion, the runners did not fall on the track but several moved to the infield to lie down since they were not only winded but also disappointed at not winning.”[v]

Betty Robinson (L), Track, 1928 Olympic Gold & Silver Medalist

Spurred by incessant and erroneous media reports, affirmed by the social and cultural attitudes regarding female delicacy and feminine behavior, and sanctioned by the Vatican (even Pope Pius XI was in on the game), the 800-meter race would not be part of the women’s track and field competitions again until 1960. 

Tydie Pickett (L) and Louise Stokes (R), Track, 1936 Olympic Participants
By 1936, the year Alpine skiing was opened to women in the XI Olympiad in Berlin, Germany, the first African-American women, Louise Stokes and Anna “Tydie” Pickett, were permitted to compete in the games.[vi] Stokes and Pickett were initially qualified for the 1932 Olympics held in Los Angeles, California, but they were disqualified based on their race and replaced by two white athletes. Although black female Olympians were rarely given press or recognized as valuable members of their athletic teams, that changed in 1948, when Alice “Tuskegee Flash” Coachman became the first African American woman to win a gold medal in the high jump. Her athletic accomplishments set the stage for other outstanding African American women athletes, like Althea Gibson (tennis), Jackie Joyner-Kersee (track and field), and Sheryl Swoopes (basketball).

Alice Coachman, Track, 1948 Olympic Gold Medalist
Even today, more than 100 years after the first female athletes were admitted to the Olympic Games, issues surrounding femininity, gender bias, and sexism continue - we women are still making a scene and raising eyebrows. Or maybe it’s more correct to say that others are doing it for us – we ladies are quite aware that we come equipped with boobs and a vagina (generally speaking) and we don't seem to mind them, so why does everyone else?

Oddly, no one ever seems concerned with the masculinity or physiological issues surrounding male athletes, but I digress.  

So, here we ladies are, forging ahead despite bias, despite social limitations, despite cultural expectations. The 2012 Olympics is the first in history where every participating nation has entered at least one female athlete (token or otherwise - this is what some news organizations are calling the two gals representing Saudi Arabia). When women are given an equal playing field, one absent of gender bias, sexism, racism, and discrimination, our potential is infinite. For proof, we only need to look at what we have accomplished under these conditions - :)

Blessings and happy sewing!

1900 Olympics, Paris - Ladies' Golf

1904 Olympics, St. Louis - Charlotte Cooper, Tennis, Gold Medalist

1908 Olympics, London - Women's Gymnastics

1912 Olympics, Stockholm - British Women's Swim Team
1920 Olympics, Antwerp - Suzanne Lenglen, Tennis, Bronze Medalist

1924 Olympics, Paris - Adelaide Gehrig, Fencing, Olympic Participant

1928 Olympics, Amsterdam - Ethel Catherwood, High Jump, Gold Medalist

1932 Olympics, Los Angeles - Dorothy Poynton Hill, Swimming, Gold Medalist

1936 Olympics, Berlin - Hedwiga Wajsowna, Discus, Silver Medalist

(Proper citation when referencing this article: Thornhill, Angela. "Hera's Daughters." The Merry Dressmaker. Blogspot, 15 AUG 2012. <> (Accessed [Date]).

[i] “Case Study: Womens [sic] Participation in Olympic Games.” Higher Education Academy, FEB 2010. <> (Accessed 15 AUG 2012).
[ii] “Fact Sheet: Women in the Olympic Movement.” International Olympic Committee, JUN 2012. <> (Accessed 15 AUG 2012).
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Zeitz, Barbara. “Women’s History.” American Association for University Women (AAUW), AUG 2004. <> (Accessed 15 AUG 2012).
[v] Emery, Lynn. “And Examination of the 1928 Olympic 800 Meter Race For Women.” LA84 Foundation, 1985. <> (Accessed 15 AUG 2012).
[vi] Note: African American men have been competing in the Olympic Games since 1904 when George Poage, a Missouri native, won two bronze medals for his wins in the 200 and 400 meter races. African American women, however, were not granted entrance into the Olympic until the Berlin  Games of 1936 (This was also the year that Jesse Owens won the gold medal in track and field, humiliating Hitler, his regime, and the devastating the Nazi perception of Arian superiority).


  1. This is great. Thank you for this quick historic view of what women have always been capable of doing but had to wait to get the chance. Cheers.

  2. Thank you, Angela! Women's rights, women's history, and women's fashion, I'm always the proponent - :)