3 Female Strength Pioneers Who Helped Pave the Way for Athletes Today

Today’s is National Women’s Day, but in my opinion, we shouldn’t need a scheduled day to remind us to honor badass strong women across the globe. In recent years, strength sports as a whole have grown, but on the women’s side of competition we’ve seen even an even bigger surge with female participation.

With the help of things like social media, we’re seeing a cultural shift with more women beginning to view strength as beautiful and normal, and not something to shy away from. Yet, that’s all here and now, what about the women who pushed the envelope years ago?

We’ve written about female strength pioneers before, but wanted to compile a quick list to honor some of strength’s most badass ladies for National Women’s Day.

1. Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton

Born in Santa Monica, California in 1917, Stockton was a major contributor in paving the path for strength athletes today. She worked as a telephone operator in her early life and earned the nickname “Pudgy” because she was in fact pudgy by society’s standards.

Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton

To counter this nickname, Stockton started weight training in the late 1930s — something unheard of for most women. Soon after she began regularly working out, she started to gain recognition as a regular face at Santa Monica’s famed Muscle Beach, where she worked out alongside with Joe Gold and George Eiferman.

Stockton stood at a height of 5′ 1″ and weighed around 115 lbs, and had quite an impressive resume of personal PRs. She had a best press of 100 lbs, a 105 lb snatch, and a 135 lb clean & jerk, and while that may not seem all too impressive now for female athletes, remember this was in 1947. In addition to her awesome lifts, Stockton organized some of the first sanctioned women’s weightlifting competitions.

Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton

After World War II, Stockton opened up a gym for women on Sunset Boulevard (one of the first, if not the first at the time). In 2006, Stockton passed away at the age of 88. When asked to summarize her life in two sentences back in 2002 Stockton said, “People used to say that if women worked out, they would become masculine-looking or wouldn’t be able to get pregnant. We just laughed because we knew they were wrong.” 

2. Katie Sandwina

Born in Vienna, Austria in 1884, came one of the strongest female athletes to grace the earth to this day. Sandwina’s original birth name was Katharina Brumbach; she adopted the name Katie Sandwina a few years into her strongwoman circus career, which we’ll discuss more in-depth below.

Brumbach was one of fourteen children, and was a circus strongwoman who performed feats with her family that are still relatively untouched today. Her father (a man who was known to lift 500 lbs with one finger) would offer male members of their performance’s audience a money prize to defeat Brumbach in wrestling, which no one ever did.

Katie Sandwina

Standing at 6′ 1″, Brumbach didn’t adopt the name “Katie Sandwina”, also known as, “The Great Sandwina,” until moving to New York in the early 1900s. It was at this time when one her New York based circuses offered a challenge to the crowd and the great Eugen Sandow responded to the offer. At the time, Sandow was often considered the “Perfect Male Specimen” and was well-known for his impressive strength feats.

Brumbach and Sandow went back and forth in their lifting challenge until they both found themselves with a 300 lb dumbbell in front of them. Brumbach was able to lift it overhead with one arm, while Sandow could only get it up to his chest – he had been defeated, thus earning Brumbach the name Sandwina (it was a homage to the great Sandow).

Katie Sandwina Strongwoman

In 1911, a journalist named Kate Carew wrote an article on Katie Sandwina discussing her career and struggles with society’s view on strongwomen. It was one of the first articles that took this point of view at the time and it helped display that while Sandwina was strong, she was also feminine and beautiful.

A description of Sandwina from Carew’s article stated, “Sandwina was not at all masculine and that although Katie’s arms could lift 240 pounds overhead, they were still supple and smooth enough to show off in a ball gown. No horrid lumps of muscle, dears—just a little ripple under the skin, like mice playing in a mattress.”

3. Elise Gillaine Herbigneaux

Gillaine Herbigneax, known as Miss. Apollina, was born in 1875 in Belgium. As a young child of eight, Apollina was always fond of partaking in activities considered at the time to only be for men. She mimicked the strongman athletes at the time and practiced similar strength feats performed in circus acts at the time.

To chase her dream of one day performing on a grand stage as a strongwoman and wrestler, the 16 year old Apollina moved to Paris (a popular hub at this time for these performers, athletes, and acts). It took a fair amount of time, but Apollina’s name finally began to gain recognition in the circus and wrestling community when she started to emerge as a dominant wrestler to both women and men.

Miss Apollina

Apollina stood at 5′ 4″ and would eventually become a world champion in wrestling after defeating 40 women in one contest. Her main claim to fame was wrestling, but some of her most popular strength feats were as follows: 105 lb one-handed snatch, pressing a 110 lb barbell eight times, lifting a 176 lb barbell without spreading the legs to get under it, and walking around dancing with a 550 lb barbell on her back.

Wrapping Up

This list only features a few of the awesome female strength athletes who helped pave the way for women today. There are a ton of female athletes from present and past who continually help make strength a norm in society, and not something that should be limited to men.

To all of the female strength athletes in the world, Happy National Women’s Day.