The Untold History of Women in Strength Sports

Female strength athletes had quite a different path to success than their male contemporaries.

Immersed in a cultural moment in which it may seem that strong women are more celebrated than ever, are women in fitness in fact bursting into weight rooms, packing on plates, cranking out sets, feeling the thrills and benefits of tight skin stretched across bulging, growing muscles?

Or do many women hold back on weights so as to negotiate what might be termed a culturally produced glass ceiling – or upper limit – on their muscular strength?(1)

Shari Dworkin and Michael Messner, 1999.

Writing in 1999, the sociologists Shari Dworkin and Michael Messner shed light on an often accepted but rarely addressed issue: the contentious nature of women in strength sports and gym culture. Previous articles on BarBend, specifically on the rise of physical culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, have highlighted the relatively unproblematic rise of gym going for men. This is in stark contrast to the female experience which has generally lagged in matters of bodybuilding, weightlifting and strength shows.

Official forms of female strength sports first officially came to powerlifting in 1978 and women competed at the World Weightlifting Championships for the first time in 1987. Likewise, bodybuilding shows were sanctioned in 1977, while the first World’s Strongest Woman event emerged in 1997. Only CrossFit advertised male and female competitions at the same time in its history. Owing to societal ideas surrounding women’s bodies, the emerging of female competitions has been a slow process, despite the great strides made by a handful of pioneers. Today’s post seeks to navigate the history of female strength athletes, looking at the early forerunners alongside the modern athletes.

Female Strongwoman in the Age of Physical Culture

Echoing several of our other history pieces on this website, the history of female strength athletes can largely be traced to the late nineteenth century. Some scholars, like Jan Todd, have looked further back to the early and mid 1800s when individuals like Donald Walker and Deo Lewis promoted some form of lifting for women.(2) For the purposes of today’s article, we will focus instead on the dawn of physical culture from the 1880s.

Physical culture was effectively an early precursor to our modern interest in keeping fit. There has, in the past, been a tendency to focus solely on the muscular male physiques of these early physical culturists like Eugen Sandow, George Hackenschmidt and Bernarr MacFadden among others. Smaller in number, but no less important, were the early strong women from this time.

Surveying the history of female strong women who, in effect, were the pioneers for female strength athletes, it is clear that the period 1890 to 1918 was dominated by three names: Katie Sandwina, Vulcana and Minerva. Of course, other wonderfully named strongwomen existed, like Charmion, but their popularity paled in comparison. Katie Sandwina, whose name was of course inspired by Eugen Sandow, briefly became the talk of New York in the early 1900s owing to her feats of strength. At that time Sandwina, who came from Germany, could press 200 pounds overhead with ease, lift her husband in the air with one hand and support a variety of heavy objects on her back.(3) My favorite story about Sandwina is that she supposedly gained her last name after defeating Eugen Sandow in a lifting contest in New York. Sadly there’s no evidence to support this theory but it is enjoyable nonetheless.(4)

On the other side of the pond in Great Britain, a Welshborn strongwoman, Vulcana, shared the spotlight with other physical culturists. What is interesting about Vulcana was that her career was at times tarnished owing to the claims of her fellow performer, ‘Atlas.’ Seeking to popularise his and Vulcana’s act, Atlas made a series of grandiose claims about both performers’ respective abilities. The result? Several counter challenges from audience members who at times defeated them in lifting contests. Regardless of these minor hiccups, Vulcana’s strength was sufficient to garner the attention of Edmond Desbonnet, a French physical culturist and historian of strength. Desbonnet gave Vulcana a medal for her athleticism which was said to include a bent arm press of anywhere from 120 to 145 pounds.(5)

Sandwina and Vulcana were undoubtedly strong women but they were not the strongest. That honor went to Minerva. In one of the most entertaining academic articles of its kind, entitled ‘Sex, Murder, Suicide’, Jan Todd retold the rise of Josephine Blatt (‘Minerva’) in American society. Perhaps of the first recognisable competitive female lifters, Minerva issued a series of lifting challenges to other women through the National Police Gazette, one of America’s first sporting newspapers.(6) Backed by the newspaper’s editor, Richard K. Fox, Minerva welcomed all challengers to best her in lifting a 300 pound barrel of lime to her shoulders. When it became clear that no one was stepping forward, Fox declared Minerva the strongest woman in the world, giving her a belt and cup to boot. Minerva’s belt was similar to the one worn by Louis Cyr below.

Aside from strongwomen, another important step in the move towards competitive female strength sports were the early efforts to create a female bodybuilding contest. In 1901, Eugen Sandow hosted the first recognisable bodybuilding show for British men. Buoyed by his successes, the Prussian strongman attempted to hold a similar show solely for female physical culturists who, based upon photo submissions to Sandow’s magazine, would be invited to compete in a female physique contest. The results were rather paltry. After several weeks Sandow discontinued the contest when it became clear that British women were reluctant to enlist.(7)

Bernarr MacFadden did not encounter the same problems in 1903 when he hosted a similar physical culture show in New York. Admittedly MacFadden’s show incurred the ire of the State’s censorship authorities, which ultimately led to a host of legal troubles, but that’s a different story for a different day. Offering $500 to the male winner and $500 to the female winner, MacFadden’s contest was inundated with female submissions. In the end, Emma Newkirk was crowned the winner and joined male victor Hugh Jenkins in collecting the prize money. MacFadden himself was delighted at the outcome and held several, admittedly smaller scale contests in future years.(8) While in England in 1913, he hosted ‘A most perfect specimen of England womanhood’ contest, won by Mary Williamson from Yorkshire. Mary, who soon after married MacFadden, later wrote of his almost religious like zeal in promoting female physical culture in an amazing post-separation memoir entitled ‘Dumbbells and Carrot Sticks.’(9)

Both the strongwomen and physical culture shows discussed above helped to normalize, however small it may have been, the idea that strength and/or muscularity were acceptable for women. It paved the way for the first major iteration of female strength athlets during the 1930s and 1940s.

Raising the Bar in the 1930s

As female physical culture and strength training slowly, very slowly, began to more from light weight work and calisthenics to heavy lifting, two remarkable women came to the fore of public attention during the 1930s. They were Ivy Russell and Pudgy Stockton. Sadly Ivy’s name has tended to be overshadowed in the history of women’s lifting owing to the immense impact made by her American counterpart Pudgy Stockton. Born in Surrey, England in 1907, Ivy helped to briefly popularize official female weightlifting in Britain prior to the Second World War.

Entering the iron game as a teenager, Ivy spent the 1930s touring Great Britain and Northern Ireland challenging those few female athletes capable of matching her feats of strength. Unlike Vulcana or Sandwina, Ivy’s lifts were based on sanctioned exercises like the deadlift or clean and jerk. Incidentally, Ivy could deadlift over 400 pounds at her peak.(10) Ivy and a small number of like minded athletes successfully petitioned the British Amateur Weightlifting Association to host an official competition for females in 1930, which Ivy duly won. This, to my mind, makes Ivy one of the first official women’s champions. Sadly it appears that the outbreak of international war halted Ivy’s lifting career but the strongwoman for Surrey had pushed female weightlifting to new heights.(11)

Where Ivy’s fame began to wane during the late 1930s that of Abbye ‘Pudgy’ Stockton was on the rise. First coming to prominence along with her husband Les for their remarkable hand balancing acts on Venice Beach, Pudgy became the face of women’s lifting and bodybuilding in America during the 1940s. Adept in calisthenics and Olympic weightlifting, Pudgy helped organize the first official weightlifting competition for women in America. She also, in many peoples’ eyes, became America’s first female bodybuilding champion when she won Bernarr Macfadden’s 1948 ‘Miss Physical Culture Venus’ competition.(12)

Aside from her own rather remarkable athletic career, Pudgy began writing a ‘Barbelles’ column on women’s weight training from 1944 in Bob Hoffman’s Strength and Health magazine. Through her several year tenure with Hoffman’s periodical, one of the most popular bodybuilding and strength training magazines of its kind, Stockton did perhaps more than anyone in popularizing female lifting for the iron game masses. It was no surprise that many of the pioneering female weightlifters, powerlifters, and bodybuilders of the 1960s and 1970s specifically cited Stockton as an inspiration.(13)

[Learn more: How early strength pioneers built insane strength with hand balancing.]

Fitness and Feminism in the 1970s

From 1945 to the late 1960s female lifting, while still paling in comparison to male lifting, was becoming more permissible. Although subject to the idea that women should use lighter weights than men or fears that weightlifting would make women ‘more masculine’, there was a slow but steady progression of women entering gymnasiums in Europe and North America.(14) Two different societal transformations helped propel the birth of female weightlifting as we now understand it.

The first came from the lifting community itself. From 1930 to 1960, bodybuilding, Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting were, in North America and Great Britain, all lumped together in competitions. Thus, weightlifting shows were featured side by side with bodybuilders. While this still happens today, it caused great tension during this period as weightlifters felt themselves being marginalized in organizations thanks to bodybuilders or vice versa.(15) There was a need, and a desire, to create official organizations tasked with the governance of one sport.

It is for this reason that we see new and distinct powerlifting, bodybuilding and weightlifting organizations and competitions emerge during this period. Such organizations proved more welcoming to female weightlifters, or at the very least, encouraged women to set up lifting organizations of their own.(16)

The second, and perhaps far more significant development, was the recognition of the global feminist movement during the 1960s and 1970s. ‘Second wave feminism’ as this movement is now labeled, encouraged many women to question societal ideas about the female body. In particular, many women, not just those interested in sport, rallied against claims that women’s bodies were somehow lesser or frail.(17) Victories for female participation in public life began to ramp up, not least thanks to the passing of Title IX in the US which dramatically increased funding for women’s collegiate sports. Enter the weightlifters.

Driven by a sense of new opportunity, female powerlifters and bodybuilders began many of the competitions that continue to this day. Individuals like Jan and Terry Todd began lobbying for sanctioned female powerlifting events from the mid-1970s. The community’s response was ultimately positive as the first official All American Women’s Open was hosted in 1977.(18) This was the first sanctioned powerlifting contest of its kind for women. Demonstrating the large growth in women’s powerlifting, 1980 saw the first world International Powerlifting Federation for women.(19) Women’s Olympic weightlifting would have to wait another decade, but female powerlifters finally had an outlet. They were joined by female bodybuilders, who first began to compete against one another in officially sanctioned bodybuilding contests from the late 1970s.

Modern Turns

From powerlifting and bodybuilding, female Olympic weightlifting was the next logical step for female weightlifters. Unlike powerlifting or bodybuilding however, it took several more years for weightlifting competitions to emerge. Officially sanctioned contests for women dated to the early 1980s when Karyn Marshall and Judy Glenney were among the leading lights in this regard. Glenney won the first sanctioned American national women’s meet held in 1981.(20) Marshall, on the other hand, entered the Guinness Sports Record Book in 1984 for a clean & jerk of 289 pounds, thereby beating a previous record held by Katie Sandwina.(21)

By 1987 the World Weightlifting Championships featured its first female division. After several more years, the International Olympic Committee finally saw the merit in including women’s weightlifting at the Olympic Games.(22) Thus the 2000 summer games in Sydney made history by welcoming female weightlifters from across the globe.(23) Since then it has retained this place, much to the delight of weightlifting fans.

Were there any worlds left for female lifters to conquer? Two spring to mind. While the World’s Strongest Man competition came to life in the late 1970s, it wasn’t until 1997 that a women’s equivalent finally emerged.(24) This was not for want of trying. In 1979 Jan Todd, the powerlifter and now professor previously mentioned, lifted the famed Dinnie Stones weighing over 700 pounds, thereby becoming the first woman to do so.(25) Todd’s already considerable fame was heightened as she quickly became known as the strongest woman on Earth. What could have been a seminal starting point for strongwoman events slowly faded away. It was another two decades before any female competitor could officially claim the title of World’s Strongest Woman.

A final development in women’s weightlifting came in 2007 when, after nearly a decade in existence, CrossFit hosted its first CrossFit Games.(26) Interesting in this regard was the fact that the CrossFit Games were the first time that male and female weightlifting categories were established at the same time. Aside from the Games’ massive entertainment factor, they hold a historical significance.

Wrapping Up

Women’s weightlifting and physique building has, with the exception of CrossFit, been a secondary concern for much of the twentieth century. Where men’s powerlifting or weightlifting exploits were relatively unproblematic, interested women were forced to wait years, or far more commonly decades, before they could join their male counterparts in entering competitions. Disparities between male and female lifting still exist but a consensus has at least been reached that women’s lifting, be it powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, CrossFit, or strongwoman events, are an acceptable and even enjoyable thing to host. A corner has, it seems, been turned.

Speaking to People Magazine in 1979, then powerlifter and later professor, Jan Todd, argued that ‘strength should be an attribute of all humanity. It’s not a gift that belongs solely to the male species.’(27)

Thankfully, many now agree.

Featured image via @silentfilmfan and @alnational on Instagram

References

  1. Dworkin, Shari and Michael A. Messner, ‘Just Do . . . What? Sport, Bodies, Gender’, in J. Lorber, B. Hess, and M. Marx Ferree (eds.), Revisioning Gender (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1999): 341–61.
  2. Todd, Jan. “The origins of weight training for female athletes in North America.” Iron Game History 2 (1992): 4-14.
  3. Todd, Jan. “Center Ring: Katie Sandwina and the Construction of Celebrity.” Iron Game History 10.1 (2007): 4-13.
  4. ‘The Great Sandwina’, Legendary Strength.com. Available at https://legendarystrength.com/the-great-sandwina/.
  5. Desbonnet, Edmond , Les Rois de la Force (Paris, 1911): 396-397.
  6. Todd, Jan. “‘Sex, Murder, Suicide’: New Revelations about the Mystery of Minerva”. Iron Game History 10.4 (2009): 7-21.
  7. Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Ina. Managing the Body: Beauty, Health, and Fitness in Britain 1880-1939 (OUP Oxford, 2010): 114.
  8. Roach, Randy. Muscle, Smoke, and Mirrors. Vol. 1 (AuthorHouse, 2008): 79.
  9. MacFadden, Mary Williamson. Dumbbells and carrot strips;: The story of Bernarr Macfadden (Holt, 1953).
  10. Todd, “The origins of weight training for female athletes in North America.”: 6-8.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Todd, Jan. “The Legacy of Pudgy Stockton.” Iron Game History 2.1 (1992): 5-7.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Black, Jonathan. Making the American body: The remarkable saga of the men and women whose feats, feuds, and passions shaped fitness history (U of Nebraska Press, 2013): 63-88.
  15. Warpeha, Joe. “A History of Powerlifting in the United States: 50 Years after York.” (2015). Available at http://www.usaplmn.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/History-of-Powerlifting-Warpeha-9-4-15.pdf.
  16. Lowe, Maria R. Women of steel: Female bodybuilders and the struggle for self-definition (NYU Press, 1998): 57-60.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid. See also Dresden Archibald, ‘Women in Weight Sports. How It All Started Part One’. Breaking Muscle. Available at: https://breakingmuscle.com/fitness/women-in-weight-sports-part-1-how-it-all-started.
  19. ‘History of IPF Officials’. IPF.com. Available at: https://www.powerlifting.sport/federation/history.html.
  20. ‘18 Women Who Shaped Women’s Weightlifting’. USA Weightlifting. Available at: https://www.teamusa.org/USA-Weightlifting/Features/2018/March/08/18-Women-Who-Shaped-Womens-Weightlifting.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Dresden Archibald, ‘Women In Weight Sports, Part 2: Olympic Lifting In Modern Ages’. Breaking Muscle. Available at: https://breakingmuscle.com/fitness/women-in-weight-sports-part-2-olympic-lifting-in-modern-ages.
  23. Ibid.
  24. ‘World’s Strongest Woman’. Available at: http://www.bitlanders.com/blogs/worlds-strongest-woman/68977.
  25. ‘Dr. Jan Todd’. Dinnie Stones. Available at: http://www.thedinniestones.com/Lifters%20Pages/Assisted%20Lifts/Jan%20Todd.html.
  26. ‘History of the Games’, CrossFit.com. Available at: https://games.crossfit.com/history-of-the-games.
  27. Dennis Breo and Susan Jack. ‘That’s Not a Heavy Date but the 280-Lb. Husband of Jan Todd, the World’s Strongest Woman’, People. Available at: https://people.com/archive/thats-not-a-heavy-date-but-the-280-lb-husband-of-jan-todd-the-worlds-strongest-woman-vol-11-no-4/.
Conor Heffernan

Conor Heffernan

Conor Heffernan is a PhD researcher at University College Dublin. Studying physical culture in Ireland from 1893 to 1939, Conor divides his time between his PhD research and his website Physical Culture Study, a site dedicated to the history of fitness and exercise. When not in the gym or in the library he’s frantically trying to tire out his miniature schnauzer Bodhi.

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