You’re right. It’s actually jaw dropping how recent official women’s weightlifting competitions have emerged in the history of the fitness industry. Looking at, say 2000 with Olympic weightlifting, how advanced it’s become in really 20 years.
Looking at the history of this, you can look at the late 1800s, the early 1900s, we have the first great wave of female strong women. People like Katie Sandwina, who again Jan Todd has written quite a lot on, and Rogue Fitness produced a wonderful documentary on Sandwina.
We have a number of very influential strong women in Europe who, I suppose, normalized so much just a little bit. They opened the door so much for this idea of female strength culture. Gym cultures for women really opened till the 1950s, 1960s.
It’s calisthenics, keep fit, exercise. If they’re using dumbbells or barbells, they are two-pound dumbbells, five-pound barbells. There’s no idea of progressive overload, of getting stronger. We do get some women who rise to the top despite this lack of promotion of strength.
In the 1930s, there’s a wonderful British powerlifter, Ivy Russell. She’s incredible, she petitions the British weightlifting federation to create a very short-lived women’s strength contest. She goes around Britain, challenging older women to feats of strength.
Travels to Ireland, challenges women to feats of strength. She’s deadlifting 400 pounds out of body weight of maybe 120 or 130. She’s incredible. Now in the United States, we have Pudgy Stockton, who was, for many people, the mother of female weightlifting in the United States.
She helped popularize it in the 1940s. She doesn’t get to compete because female weightlifting competitions aren’t actually regulated or formalized at that time. She writes a decade-long column in strength and health magazine called “The Barbelles Column”, which is quite clever, B-A-R-B-E-L-L-E-S, Barbelles.
She helps popularized some form of weightlifting for women in the 1940s, 1950s. Pudgy Stockton actually hold some rudimentary, very small competitions around that time. Then it’s starting to develop the 1960s, 1970s, again is a really pivotal moment.
We have to give powerlifting its due in that regard. Powerlifting starts to host women’s competitions in the late 1960s, early 1970s. The wonderful thing about women’s powerlifting at that time is that they have different weight divisions. They’re not trying to force female competitors into very strict body standards.
There is a heavyweight division, middleweight, featherweight, etc. While that’s happening, we also have women’s bodybuilding emerging in the 1970s. Women’s bodybuilding, since its creation in the 1970s, continuing to, 19-20 has always existed in a strange nexus of, “Do these competitors look too masculine?” Whatever that means.
Bodybuilding for women was very emancipatory as a wonderful thing to combat in the 1970s but there’s always been an unease in the rules of women’s bodybuilding between what is “feminine,” what is “masculine.”
That’s why you see things like the Ms. Olympia contest asking competitors to reduce their muscle by 10 percent so they look more ladylike or canceling the shows all together because the competitors no longer attract big crowds.
The real landmarks for women strength cultures, I would say, date from powerlifting in the ’60s and ’70s. Bodybuilding is also important within that story, but I think it has always been a lot more restrictive of female strength, female muscularity, whereas powerlifting, “Come on in. Lift as much as you want. Grunt as much as you want. We just care about your performance.”
Obviously, we have the explosion in Olympic Weightlifting late ’80s but really in the 2000s. Then the latest wave, which has probably been the most encompassing, has been CrossFit which has just been really incredible and really savvy.
Showing the world that, “Yes, women want to lift weights. Women want to be in the gym, and they’re going to be really good at it. They’re going to be strong. They’re going to be athletic.” As you say, that’s the real growth industry.
In strength coaches at the moment is women’s powerlifting, women’s weightlifting, women’s CrossFit, women’s bodybuilding because it’s been held back for so many decades where it’s finally the reins are off, and people got to do what they want.