Interesting study of American female swimmers

Therese Nordlund Edvinsson
Ekonomisk-historiska institutionen, Stockholms universitet

Lisa Bier
Fighting the Current: The Rise of American Women’s Swimming, 1870–1926
214 sidor, hft., ill.
Jefferson, NC: McFarland 2011
ISBN 978-0-7864-4028-3

Lisa Bier is a librarian at Southern Connecticut State University. In her book Fighting the Current (2011), she studies the rise of American women’s swimming during the period 1870–1926. Generally speaking, swimming was a challenging sport. For instance, it required clean and safe waters. If the swimmer was not careful enough it could be lethal. It was also considered a bit odd, as the swimmer could reveal the body more than expected in those days.

Lisa Bier discusses the investment in swimming pools, clean beaches and public pools in the United States, mainly in the New York City area. Swimming was also a matter of class. Not all women were expected to have the time or the money to swim. It was also a gender question. Objections were raised about female swimming. Some argued that swimming was too hard for women, because of their biological sex. They were believed to lose reproductive functions or harm themselves. However, as Lisa Bier explains, many women challenged these ideals. Some women enjoyed swimming, while others wanted to learn to swim merely for safety reasons. Some claimed swimming was good because of its health benefits. For a fee, private baths could teach women how to swim for health, recreational or educational reasons. However, in the beginning, these baths often attracted the upper class because of the fees. The swim teacher Kate Bennet opened a swimming school in 1870. She was good at promoting her school and did not only educate women how to swim. She was also responsible of several water shows and exhibitions.

The public pools admitted men and women of all social classes. For example, in New York City, free municipal floating baths were established in 1870. Men and women could bathe at different days. These public baths often had specific rules. The pool was free to use, but swimmers had to pay three cents for borrowing a towel and could only spend 20 minutes in the bath.  Bier shows that these pools became very popular. Yet, it was still a matter of class. Some upper-class women visited the pools in the company of their servants. Some pools also had different clientele. Gradually the public pools became very popular. For example, over 3000 children were educated in swimming in the summer of 1899.

In her study, Bier also discusses swimming as something more than a sport. It was considered a spectacle. For example, swimming the English Chanel attracted huge interest and audiences. In 1875 they started to hold races. Female participation in swimming races goes back to the 1870s. Swimming could also be regarded as “an entertainment for the masses”. So why did women start to compete in races? Bier suggests the swimming meant an income. Women who were good swimmers could work as educators or even entertain people by diving or swim in variety shows. Another good example of a swimmer was Marie Finney, who once dived from London Bridge. In the book, Bier describes many examples of early female swimmers who made an impact in the entertainment business years before Esther Williams entered the movie industry. Many of these women performed quite impressive stunts in the water.

Lisa Bier presents many interesting swimmers. The Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman played an important role in her day. She earned a living through swimming. She was even sponsored by Daily Mirror to get her to swim the English Channel.  The amount of money was dependent on the distance she swam. She forced herself onwards, although she was vomiting in the water. Her rivals were only men and they swam naked. She wore a bathing suit, which was uncomfortable. Eventually, the swim earned her 30 pounds.

He did not like the fact that women participated in swimming races for the first time in the Stockholm Games 1912.

In 1905, aged only 18, Annette Kellerman became the first woman to attempt to swim across the English Channel. Kellerman was a controversial woman at the time. She wrote several books, for example How To Swim (1918). She also entered the movie business. Her movies often combined a theme of water and adventure. She performed dangerous stunts, which included diving. She often played the role of a mermaid in her movies.

Lisa Bier’s study analyzes different themes, all of them focusing on swimming and women’s participation. Bier also devotes some chapters to the women who competed in Olympic Games in the early 20th century. It is especially interesting to read about Pierre de Coubertin’s frustration. He felt that “Olympic Games must be reserved for men”. His greatest fear was the future. “Could women become football players or runners?” He did not like the fact that women participated in swimming races for the first time in the Stockholm Games 1912.

The reader is introduced to many themes in this book. This is both positive and negative, in different ways. The book covers the 1920 Olympic Games, as well as the Games in 1924. The author also deals with the New York Women’s Swimming Association. However, she is not using any theoretical perspectives, the study is mainly empirical and descriptive. It is well-written and presents interesting cases, but Bier is mainly using sources from periodicals and oral histories. She could have told the reader more about the sources, methods and sampling. The study also lacks a summary where the most important results could have been presented.

Instead, in the last chapters, Bier introduces the swimmer Gertrude Ederle.  Perhaps it has something to do with the her intentions with the book. Originally she had the idea of writing a biography of Ederle. Instead it turned out to be a book that covered female swimming in general. I understand the point of doing so. However, some explanations could have been made, since the reader may get confused. Ederle (1905-2003) was an American competitive swimmer. In 1926, she was the first woman to swim across the English Channel. She won a gold medal and two bronze medals at the 1924 Summer Olympics.  She performed her successful channel swim in 14 hours and 39 minutes. Her record was set in 1926 and stood out until 1950. Only five men had been able to swim the English Channel before Ederle. According to Lisa Bier, this record breaking proved that women could be athletic and fight against prejudice.

Overall, this is an important book in many ways. It is interesting that many American women became pioneers in swimming. I especially enjoyed the biographical presentations and the historical discussion which concerned the swimming as a possibly way of earning money for women. The book shows that female swimmers did not only challenge the male athletics, but existing ideals and norms. The clothing was a huge problem, when it came to using appropriate, yet comfortable bathing suits. The book, which contains many unusual historical photos, is an interesting introduction to female participation in swimming history.

Copyright © Therese Nordlund Edvinsson 2012

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