Ladies, do you even lift? Gender and the norms of strength

YWCA women's rowing team carry their boat from Gardner's Boat Shed, Australian National Maritime Museum
YWCA women’s rowing team carry their boat from Gardner’s Boat Shed, Australian National Maritime Museum

Rowing requires strength. Friends think that it’s upper body strength and that I’ve chosen it as an additional activity to round out my cycling but it’s not quite that way. Says Wikipedia, “Rowing is one of the few non-weight bearing sports that exercises all the major muscle groups, including quads, biceps, triceps, lats, glutes and abdominal muscles. Rowing improves cardiovascular endurance and muscular strength.” That’s because you push off with your legs and you just need upper body strength to balance the strength in your lower body. It reminds me of track cycling that way.

I’m struck by how much strength is required both in the water and to lift the boats from the racks where they’re stored down to the docks for launching and vice versa. Sometimes I think a workout wasn’t that hard really and it’s not until I go to lift the boat out of the water that I realize how tired I am. Still, I like it that we carry our own boats. I commented on one of the other crews at a regatta recently having husbands (well, men anyway) help carry their rowing shell.

I told that story to a friend, a former Olympic rower, who said it was only in the 1970s that women were allowed to carry their own shells at the Olympics. That was the case even though the women regularly carried the boats for training. She thought it was a case of old fashioned norms about women and strength. It’s okay to be strong, to race, but you shouldn’t “show off.” Instead, men got to play the role of “knights on white horses” rescuing fair rowing damsels from the plight of being seen to be strong. She said the Canadians and Australians were first in changing the norms around boat carrying with the Brits and others following after. I don’t know the history here but it’s kind of fascinating. I like the story below too about when women’s rowing became popular as a sport. If you know any good books about the history of women’s rowing, feel free to recommend them!

This portrait depicts the crew of a Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) rowing team not far from shore. Read about the Trixie Whaling collection in Signals vol 102.
The 1920s and 30s were big decades for women rowers as more women joined the workforce and women’s team sports became popular. The ‘lady rowers’ of the early part of the century eventually emerged as popular women’s teams in the 1920s and 30s. This period saw a boom in women’s rowing through the formation of amateur associations, the successful staging of national sporting events and the increased coverage of women’s sport in the national press.
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