History’s Strongest Women (with Haley Shapley)

Today we’re talking to writer and journalist Haley Shapley, the author of Strong Like Her. Published earlier in 2020, Strong Like Her is an examination and celebration of women’s athleticism and strength throughout history. Haley is passionate about strength and fitness, and her own athletic journey served as an inspiration to write about history’s strongest women, something that’s been all too frequently glossed over or ignored for hundreds — and really thousands — of years.

We discuss the fascinating history behind women’s strengths sports from ancient times through to today, along with how women are continuing to push boundaries and change what is seen as societally mainstream when it comes to physical culture.

Haley Shapley BarBend Podcast

On this episode of The BarBend Podcast, host David Thomas Tao talks to Haley Shapley about:

  • The idea behind Strong Like Her (2:25)
  • How Haley’s own athletic background — including CrossFit and bodybuilding — influenced her interest in women’s strength history (5:00)
  • Some of history’s most influential women strength athletes (8:40)
  • More recent memory in the evolution of strength sports, including bodybuilding in the 1980s (14:35)
  • The trailblazers Haley admires (22:10)
  • CrossFit’s impact on women in competitive strength sports (24:00)

Relevant links and further reading:


Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

You can find so much information if you look back on the records that men were setting in the Olympics and what they were up to. We do know that there were some girls, particularly in Sparta, who were very active, but it wasn’t something at the time that they wanted to write down for posterity that they considered important. We’ve lost a lot of that history.

David TaoDavid Tao

Welcome to the “BarBend Podcast” where we talk to the smartest athletes, coaches and minds from around the world of strength. I’m your host, David Thomas Tao, and this podcast is presented by barbend.com.


Today, I’m talking to writer and journalist Haley Shapley, the author of “Strong Like Her.” Published earlier in 2020, Strong Like Her is an examination and celebration of women’s athleticism and strength throughout history. Available wherever fine books are sold.


Haley is passionate about strength and fitness. Her own athletic journey served as an inspiration to write about history’s strongest women, something that’s been all too frequently glossed over or ignored for hundreds and thousands of years.


We discussed the fascinating history behind women’s strength sports from ancient times through to today, along with how women are continuing to push boundaries and change what is seen as societally mainstream when it comes to physical culture.


I do want to take a second to say, we’re incredibly thankful that you listened to this podcast. If you haven’t already, be sure to leave a rating and review of the BarBend Podcast in your app of choice. Now let’s get to it.


Haley, thanks so much for joining us today. I’m really, really excited to chat with you. We’re talking about this before we hit Record because I don’t get to talk to authors and journalists on this podcast that often.


It’s neat to sit across from the table — the virtual table — with someone who is passionate about covering the space from that perspective. We’ll start with your book. Tell us the title, the topic, and then we’ll get a little bit more into your inspiration behind it.

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me on the podcast today. I’m excited to be here. I am the author of a book called “Strong Like Her” that came out earlier this year. It’s a cultural history about women and physical strength.


It starts in ancient times, and it goes all the way through today, making a connection between strong women and the many ways that they have contributed to society at various points throughout history.


Some of the stops along the way include the Olympics in ancient Greece, the circus rings of the early 1900s, the sands of muscle beach in the ’30s, the marathon courses of the ’60s and the weight rooms of the ’70s, and then the CrossFit gyms and Ninja warrior courses of today.

David TaoDavid Tao

That was a fantastic voice-over clip. I could imagine a montage of all these historical scenes as your voice described them. We need to put that together. That’s a YouTube video to promote the book.

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

[laughs] That sounds great. It’s wonderful. There are so many vivid places that I got to research for the book. There are some strong settings in it.

David TaoDavid Tao

How long did the book take from idea to become a published thing people could get their hands on? I’m curious about that timeline.

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

It took about three years from when I first got the idea to when it came out in stores. I spent about a year writing it, but I was researching it all along in those early days.

David TaoDavid Tao

You’re a professional journalist, so you were, I assume, also working and writing features and other stories on the side. This is when you say a year-long writing process or a three-year-long development process, you were also working your full-time career at the same time, right?

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

Correct. Yes, I was laser-focused on the book for about three months of that, where I wasn’t taking on any other projects or doing anything else. I was continuing to write for various publications during this time and otherwise engaged with my career.

David TaoDavid Tao

Journalists are oftentimes the best hustlers because it’s always producing content. A friend of mine once said, “Content doesn’t produce itself.” They were joking, but it’s the truth. Where did you get the inspiration for the book?


We can talk a little bit more about your background and your athletic interests through that. I’m curious, three years ago or three years before the book came out, the idea that popped into your head.


What inspired that, or what sources of inspiration did you have? It might not be just one thing, I’m realizing.

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

It was a process to get to this idea. It started about five years ago when I started strength training. I had grown up playing a lot of sports and was always interested in athletics, but when I was younger, I never wanted to be stronger. It wasn’t something that girls focused on in my immediate circle.


I joined a CrossFit gym, and I started strength training. I felt my ideas about my body and what I was capable of were changing really quickly. I also felt I was seeing a lot of women in the public eye and on social media who were getting involved in strength training and seeing a lot of benefits beyond physical.


That led me to signing up for a bodybuilding show. When I signed up for the show, there was interesting reaction from the people in my life. Some people were interested in finding out what my training plan looked like? What the process of getting on stage would be? What my sparkly bikini would look like? All of that.


There was a group of people who said things like, “Don’t get too big, because men don’t like that,” or “How will you date?” or, “Don’t hurt yourself. Don’t lift too heavy.” I was interested in this idea that it feels like strength is more accessible to women than ever, but we still have these ideas about what activities are appropriate for women.


I went to the library. I wanted to read about this. I’m a journalist. I’ve always been interested in reading and books. I was curious about the history of women in strength sports and how that’s evolved over time. I found that there wasn’t a lot of material in these books about women and their place in strength.


I saw that as an opening to chronicle the history and do something interesting by putting the spotlight on some of these trailblazers, who have been around since the beginning of time, but who haven’t always been recognized for their contributions.

David TaoDavid Tao

I love how you make that distinction. Just because something hasn’t been covered, or because the information is it super accessible, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a rich and deep history of women in strength. Sometimes it’s all too easy to…I fall into this trap too, to think about, because I’m a strength history nerd.


I absolutely love reading about, “Oh, who invented this lift and why do we compete? Why is weightlifting the clean and jerk and the snatch? Why is it not this other thing?” Things like that. It’s very easy to take a male-dominated or male-centric approach to that because much of the recorded history — prior to your book, but to the recorded history focused on male contributions.


It hasn’t been like women lifting heavy things and working on strength and pioneering a lot of the strength training techniques and lists we used today for thousands of years. Who were some of the first women who stood out to you early on in your research, as these pioneers who you knew you were going to write about?

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

There were a lot. Touching on the point that you made, when we look at Ancient Greece, a lot of contributions from girls and women have been overlooked because it’s not recorded. You can find so much information if you look back through the records that men were setting in the Olympics and what they were up to.


We do know that there were some girls, particularly in Sparta, who were very active, but it wasn’t something at the time that they wanted to write down for posterity that they considered important, and so we’ve lost a lot of that history. As far as the importance or influential women, I think one of the first ones is Katie Sandwina.


She comes along, and she was born in the 1880s, in the back of a circus wagon. She came from a circus family, and her mom had 15-inch biceps, and her dad was 6’6. There was a newspaper reporter who said his fingers were so big that his wedding ring was the size of the half dollar.


She was born to be strong, for sure. She was able to become a star over here in the US in the circuses because she had this appeal. She had a very feminine appeal to people. It was important that at the time that women’s strength was put into that context of still being feminine.


A lot of the coverage of her talked about the fact that she was married, that she had kids, and she gave a lot of parenting advice. Her womanly curves were always emphasized. One journalist described her muscles are like mice rippling under a mattress.


It was [laughs] considered a good thing that her arms looked very ladylike in a ball gown and that she didn’t have this hard figure that was associated with masculinity.


Yet she could lift. She had overhead pressed 294 pounds or something along those lines, 129 kilos, I think. She was incredibly strong, and circus stars at the time had a lot of influence because they traveled around the country at a time when most people couldn’t travel. They made their own money, which a lot of women didn’t have the opportunity to do.


At a time when there wasn’t TV or the Internet, or even radio when the circus came to town, everything’s shut down. She was able to really captivate people all across the country and show that women could be incredibly strong.

David TaoDavid Tao

That might be one of the most interesting descriptions of physique I’ve ever heard — mice rippling under a mattress. If someone came up to me and told me that today, I wouldn’t know whether to be offended or not. It’s just one of those, “Huh?”

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

Sorry. It was mice playing in a mattress.

David TaoDavid Tao

Mice playing.

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

It was just a little ripple under the skin like mice playing in mattress, sorry.

David TaoDavid Tao

That does, contextualize…

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

That makes more sense. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

That does contextualize it a little bit more. I was, “Wow, that’s great muscular control.”

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

The idea, though, was that it was just peeking out from [laughs] underneath and not something that was over and in your face.

David TaoDavid Tao

Got you. In the context of what you were describing, that makes a little bit more sense.

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

[laughs] Sorry about that.

David TaoDavid Tao

I was going to go talk to a trading partner of mine and compliment them soon and really freak them out. Be “What?” No, I’m absolutely joking there. Let’s talk a little bit about, in more recent memory.


That wasn’t so long ago, being in the 20th century, her rising to prominence. Let’s talk about it in more recent history about women in competitive strength sports, because that’s not the only thing we cover at BarBend, but that is why BarBend was founded to cover competitive strength sports.


We’ve always covered women’s strength sports along with the men’s. That’s been a thing for the past number of decades. In your research, where did you start seeing the beginning of strength competition becoming a thing for women?

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

The big turning point for that was really the 1970s. There was a lot going on in that decade. The passage of Title IX was the biggest, which allowed girls, women, and educational institutions to have equal opportunity to play sports.


We see the marathon that women can run — the Boston Marathon — for the first time. We see the battle of the sexes between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. We see a lot happening during this decade. One of the things we see happening is women making their way into a weight room and starting to train with the intention of competing.


In the early days, many of them had to compete against men. Many of them were barred from competition, but toward the end of the decade, there started to be powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting competitions for women and bodybuilding as well.

David TaoDavid Tao

I’ve had the good fortune of talking to a few strength sports historians. It’s a relatively small community, and I’m sure that we’ve talked to some of the same people. The 1970s were such a formative decade for all of strength. That’s when powerlifting came into its own. That’s when weightlifting was codified as just the two lifts, bodybuilding became a thing.


Before that, strength athletes were bouncing around between sports, and they weren’t necessarily specialized in. Bodybuilders were doing powerlifting. Tommy Kono, one of the great American weightlifters, was bodybuilding and weightlifting, which we wouldn’t even really fathom today.


It seemed to be a pretty interesting time for a lot of restraint sports in general and obviously women’s contributions to those, fast forward to the ’80s and ’90s. What are some other inflection points that came up in your research that maybe you highlighted in the book regarding women in strength training, strength sports, etc.?

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

I don’t cover the ’90s very much in the book. In the ’80s, I touch on a bit in bodybuilding. That’s when we see there’s a lot of public interest in women’s bodybuilding. At first, it was seen as very strange for women to be competing in this, to be up on stage showing their muscles. People were confused by that. In the ’80s, it became popular for women to be fit.


That body type came into Vogue, and people started to really appreciate how women were able to sculpt their bodies and to appreciate the training that they put into that. One of the women I profile on the book, Elaine Craig, was an early bodybuilding competitor who still is very active in hosting bodybuilding competitions.


This era was when she and her contemporaries were really being written about quite a bit in the media. There was a lot of fascination there. It did go up and down as the figure started to get bigger than people started to turn away from that more. There was a line that was crossed, and then it was considered not a great activity anymore. That is what happened in the ’80s.

David TaoDavid Tao

What were some of the resources that you utilized in preparing for this book even before the actual final drafting process began? I’m very curious about that.

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

I have a huge resource list in the back for anyone who’s a geek…


…and he’s interested in that. [laughs] It has pages and pages long. I read so many books, and I interviewed about 40 people for this. I went down to the University of Texas, to the Stark Center, which is a research library run by Jan Todd, who’s featured in the book.


Anyone who is a strength sports nerd will know her as an absolutely amazing powerlifter who did start in the ’70s. Her first competition was in ’75. That was a great resource for me. I also took a couple of trips and watched some strength sports up close as well. It was mostly just a lot of reading.


While this hasn’t been covered in a comprehensive matter, there have been a lot of things written about individual athletes. There’s been a bit in academia written about it as well. I wanted to translate that for a mainstream audience.


I spent a lot of time reading about the minutia of some of these stories and really trying to pull out the most interesting aspects that people who have no background in strength sports and people who know their deadlift PR alike would both be interested in.

David TaoDavid Tao

Pulling out some of these narrative threads that can capture an audience. It’s always the tough part. The unfortunate thing is, there are a lot of really interesting people in strength who do things for a lot of really, sometimes kooky reasons.


We look back, and we call them crazy in hindsight. Maybe, they were crazy at the time, not so crazy in hindsight. Did any stories that you highlighted or researched for the book or any interviews that you conducted stand out to you as particularly surprising?


Were there any moments where you were, “Hey, that’s not what I was expecting to find here or to hear here.”?

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

Wow, that’s a good question. There were a lot of things that surprised me and didn’t. I interviewed Kathrine Switzer for the book, who was an early marathon runner.


I was surprised to find that, in the 1960s, people still believed that women weren’t capable of running that distance, that their uteruses would fall out, that they would start to grow facial hair, which is [laughs] wild to think about today because running is so…It’s pretty noncontroversial as far as an activity that many people can enjoy.


I ran into things like that all the time where women were told these wild things about what would happen to them if they participated in different sports.


There was a book in the late 1800s that said even taking a walk was too much strain on a woman and that lying in a hammock was the best way to get some fitness [laughs] in which I love lying in a hammock, but I’m not sure that that is a fitness activity. It’s interesting how pervasive these myths are about what women are capable of.


That’s probably what surprised me the most, but there are a lot of little interesting details sprinkled throughout about the different stories. It’s hard to think of all of them right now, but there are a lot of little nuggets in there.

David TaoDavid Tao

I’m trying to think of what my coach’s reaction would be if I told them I lay down in a hammock for a training session. I’m just trying to figure out what the response would be there, not…

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

It’s a great rest-day activity, for sure. Back then, people thought that energy was not a renewable resource that once it was gone, you couldn’t get it back. The idea was that women shouldn’t risk using their energy on something that wasn’t being a wife or a mother. Walking around the block didn’t fit that criteria.


Even walking up and down stairs was discouraged in something I read. It’s interesting how our thinking has evolved, but we still do have some holdovers from that kind of thought.

David TaoDavid Tao

What did this research and writing process do to impact, if at all, your personal relationship with strength training and strength sports? You’re a lifelong athlete. You’re an active CrossFitter. You trained and competed in bodybuilding, which by the way that’s going from zero to a hundred. That’s what a complete lifestyle refresh you need to do if you take that seriously.


It’s every waking moment, every sleeping moment, everything you eat. How did this research and book process change how you envision yourself as an athlete and in your relationship with strength?

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

That’s a great question. Yes, bodybuilding is a complete lifestyle makeover, which I [laughs] try to explain to people whenever they ask me about it. It’s different than training for something else where you focus while you’re training on that. Then, the rest of the time, you have to yourself. Bodybuilding is a 24/7 kind of thing.


As far as my own relationship with strength training, for one thing, it just made me appreciate the pioneers even more than I already did. Even when I was a kid, I was interested in Title IX. I researched it.


I remember when I was in elementary school. It’s interesting when I talk to younger people now, a lot of them don’t know about it. They have never grown up in a world that didn’t have sports for girls.


My parents and grandparents did grow up in a world where it was at least a little bit harder to access. I have a lot of appreciation for the women who blazed these trails for us to be able to compete and who showed that women can compete at a high level.


I know you had Karyn Marshall on the podcast recently, who was an incredible weightlifter in the ’70s and ’80s. She was the first woman to press overhead 300 pounds. We needed those women to be the first, to show that it could be done, and look at what women are doing now. It’s incredible.


I gained a lot of appreciation, and I also just continue to evolve in my thinking about what I can do and what I might like to try, and how I view myself. That’s been the biggest thing that I’ve learned from strength training is that I am capable of more than I would have ever thought when I was younger.

David TaoDavid Tao

What are some barriers that you think we’re seeing start to fall down or be broken down when it comes to women in strength training, strength sports, or athletics? What are some more recent or contemporary examples of that?

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

I think we’re seeing more respect given to women. We’re still fighting for equal pay, equal prizes in sports in general. This wasn’t strength sports specific, but I talked about the US women’s soccer team and the struggles they’ve had to earn equal pay.


Even though they do generate more revenue than the men’s team at this point in time, they’re still not paid in a way that they feel is equitable. With sponsorships, salaries, and things, we still have a way to go.


I do think CrossFit is setting a great example because from the very beginning, the prizes offered at the CrossFit Games have been equal for men and women. I think that’s huge. I saw a conversation about this recently, after the 2020 CrossFit Games, where people were talking about what impact that has had on the sport.


It has just set the stage from the beginning that both men and women are equally valued. You see that participation is about 50/50. I make the argument. Not everyone agrees that if it had started out with men receiving more that we wouldn’t see as many women at the top level that we do today.


I think that’s what’s missing from a lot of sports that we have now, is that we’ve just never set the expectation, that women are just as capable, that they’re just as fun and entertaining to watch, and that their skill set is just as valued. We see these disparities in how the sports are viewed. Because this one started off on equal footing, we get a better result.

David TaoDavid Tao

It’s also worth noting. It might be easy for us to think, “Oh, CrossFit is relatively new. Of course, they started off on equal footing.” The first CrossFit Games was only seven years after the Sydney Olympics, which was the first Olympic Games, where women could compete in weightlifting.


If this isn’t ancient history, this is very much in…This is just to date us. This is in our lifetimes, very, very much. Some of our younger listeners it might not be.

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

That’s why you have to think about that there could be people listening, [laughs] who were born after that. That’s very true.

David TaoDavid Tao


We have to keep this a little bit family-friendly.

We do have some folks who are younger strength athlete, who I know listen to this podcast. Not to belittle their accomplishments, their…

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

Not at all.

David TaoDavid Tao

But they don’t really remember the ’90s. Sometimes, my references fall a little bit flat. All that to say, a lot of these things are in very recent memory. We had Dr. Karyn Marshall on. One of my favorite conversations we’ve had recently on the BarBend Podcast.


She never got to compete at the Olympic level, even though she was arguably the top weightlifter in her bodyweight category for a number of years internationally. It wasn’t until 2000. That seems so recent. Weightlifting had 100-year history at the Olympics before women were even invited to lift. I find that so fascinating.


Are there any other examples that came up in your book or the research for the book that surprised you for how recently women were given a seat at the table or anything beyond differences in pay scale, where it’s surprising that women still aren’t receiving equal recognition or aren’t allowed to compete in the same way?

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

One example that I think is really interesting that I wasn’t able to include in the book is in ski jumping, which is a very niche sport. Women weren’t allowed to compete in it until 2014, which is very, very recent. Probably, everyone listening was alive at that time. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

We would hope so. We would hope so. Kids, if you’re listening…

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

[laughs] You never know. You might have some five-year-old listeners. Women first got to compete at the Olympics in 2014. There was a lot of resistance to that within the ski jumping community. In this millennium, there was a ski jumping official who said that it wasn’t safe for women because their uteruses might burst.


There was another official who said that women just shouldn’t be participating because they had more important priorities, like taking care of heart and home.


It’s an interesting example because in ski jumping, there’s not a very big difference between men, women, and their achievements. You want to be light in the air. You want to be smaller. Women, in general, tend to be lighter and smaller, so there’s not a big gap in performance.


I think when there’s not a big gap in performance, then you see people hanging on even more tightly to wanting to keep certain people out of competing. That was one I didn’t get a chance to include that blew my mind because it’s so recent.

David TaoDavid Tao

If you’d ask me to guess what year and even told me. It would be the answer would surprise me. I would’ve been like, I don’t know, 1998, 1994, or was it not the Nagano Olympics or something like that. But 2014, [laughs] that is remarkable.


I appreciate you sharing that, even though it’s outside of the context of strength athletics. I think it’s important to paint a picture about the sports world in general and how that impacts these different niches everyone lives and operates in.

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

Absolutely. I think strength sports one thing they’re infiltrating all sports now. It’s not just strength athletes who are now doing clean-and-jerks, and who are benching and some of these other things. Most of the women I interviewed in the book who are softball players or soccer players or whatever. They have a very dedicated strength regimen that they follow.


I think that is one big change that we’ve seen recently is that this isn’t something that just strength athletes are doing now. Strength training is part of almost every athlete’s regiment, and you didn’t see that in earlier decades, for women at least. You didn’t see going into the weight room if you were a swimmer. That wasn’t something that you necessarily did, and now you do.

David TaoDavid Tao

I mean, especially in America, it’s a little bit different depending on the sports cultures in different countries. Many of the great strength athletes or many of our lead strength athletes in the US, they don’t start as strength athletes. They start in a different sport, maybe a team sport or something.


They realize they enjoy the strength training may be more than their original sport, or they just really good at it. They might be cleaning and jerking or deadlifting to train for their sport, and suddenly someone is like, wait a minute, if you just did that, you’d be pretty dun good at it. It does cycle back and forth.


Strength training cycles back into the other sports, and also those sports become feeders and expose people to this lesson and eventually learn they can compete, which surprises some people still.

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

There’s just more opportunity now, more exposure to that. I could not have told you what the clean and jerk was in the 1990s, but now I can do them.

David TaoDavid Tao

Now you’re actively going to do some later today, so there you go. It’s been very interesting. That’s a separate podcast episode about how the growth of CrossFit has influenced the terms that people know, and the nomenclature people know about strength training.


We could dive into that for hours, I’m sure. Where is the best place for people to…I’m going to ask two questions. What’s the best place for people to follow the work you’re doing? That’s the first question.

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

You can find me on Instagram @haleyshapley or my website haleyshapley.com. That’s where I’m at the most often.

David TaoDavid Tao


Just to give folks one more plug for the book. What’s the book called? Where can they find it and any other part of the elevator pitch that we haven’t touched on in this recording?

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

 “Strong Like Her” is available wherever books are sold. You can find it online. You can order it from an indie bookseller, which is a great thing to do right now to support any shops that have been hurt by the pandemic. The other thing I should mention is that it’s a very giftable book. I teamed up with a photographer to shoot 23 modern-day athletes.


There are very beautiful photos of athletes from a wide array of sports, and they cover different body types, geographic locations. They all have different stories. There’s a weightlifter in there. There’s a strong woman. There’s a powerlifter. You’ll see a lot of athletes who you might recognize and ones whose stories will be new to you.


Those are intermingled with the chapters that cover the history, but it’s just a nice overall package. It is something that I’ve been getting great feedback on from men and women alike and from people who have interest in history and who don’t. As I mentioned before, from people who are already enveloped in the strength world and those who don’t know much about it at all.


I did try to make it really accessible, and I hope that people will come away from it with a better understanding of how strength sports have intersected with some cultural movements that we’ve seen over time. It’s about so much more than how much you can lift.


It really affects the other aspects of your life and of your general well-being. It highlights how strong women have made contributions in ways that we often don’t learn about.

David TaoDavid Tao


Haley, thank you so much for your time and for telling us more about your book. I would encourage all of our listeners to pick a copy, and this podcast will come out just in time for the holidays.

Pick up a copy for yourself, maybe gift one or two. Very much appreciate you diving in there. Thanks for joining us.

Haley ShapleyHaley Shapley

Thank you so much.