The Women’s Boat Race: From ‘Steamy Slideshows’ to the Tideway
Tomorrow marks the first time the Women’s Boat Race, which began in 1927, will be rowed on the same course as the men’s race. This change in the structure of the event marks a historical change in the way the Thames race has been held, with the eyes of the world on women’s rowing. Much has changed since 1927, but some attitudes of the past are still present today in rowing culture.
The first Boat Races began in 1829 at Henley on Thames as an irregular event between the men of Cambridge and Oxford. Proving popular, racing moved to London in 1836, and the first race on the current course (Putney to Mortlake) took place in 1845. However, the race did not becoming a regular fixture until 1856.
The history of Women’s Boat Race began much later in 1927, with the first boat race of women’s crews. As with the Men’s Race, the race was an irregular fixture for the early years. Only after the rise of the feminist movement in the mid- to late 1960s did the women’s boat race become a permanent fixture.
The first ‘race’ was rowed on the Isis at Oxford on March 15, 1927. The race was a “contest decided on points for style and speed” after a proper race was forbidden by the heads of the women’s colleges. While the competition was split into two legs, the Oxford and Cambridge judges disagreed over style with level points going into the speed leg. Oxford won the race in a time of 3:36.2 with Cambridge coming in second in a time of 3:51. The race occurred between Oxford University Women’s Boat Club (OUWBC) and Newnham College, Cambridge, since Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club (CUWBC) was not established until 1941 when Girton College became the second women’s college to cater for rowing.
The event was scheduled for a time when it was thought that the male undergraduates would be at lunch rather than at the river “cheering an unmaidenly spectacle” as one newspaper correspondent put it. Despite the timings 4-5,000 people gathered for the event, which The Times described as “large and hostile crowds gathered on the towpath” . The Manchester Guardian noted that the event was watched by “Enthusiastic undergraduates, flinging confetti and streamers over the river, and blowing toy trumpets, ran along the banks, and in the general melee one of the judges twice fell off his bicycle” .
Coverage of this boat race in the Manchester Guardian included a detailed paragraph describing the outfits of the women rowing, showing how much more important the appearance of the women was than the race itself. Still in the late 1980s articles would focus more on the rowers’ appearance rather than the race itself. Articles such as “Slightly weaker sex in steamy slideshow” in the March 23, 1987 edition of The Guardian would comment on how the rowers were “fit … as butchers’ dogs” whilst talking about the reserve boat race sounding “like a hairdressing contest” . A pleasing progression is how recent coverage, especially in the run up to this year’s race, is much more focused on the history of the race, predictions and the rowing itself. This has been the focus of coverage of the mens’ race for years and it is nice to see that coverage of the women’s race has caught up. This year’s Boat Race edition of Rowing & Regatta for instance is dominated by the history of the womens’ race.
The first race, in 1927, was staged after much discussion of whether they could wear shorts, or their more demure gym tunics. One of the Cambridge rowers had to sit on a stool in front of university staff, simulating the action of rowing, to ascertain which clothes best preserved her modesty.
Over the years, the format of the race has changed. As we’ve seen, in the first race, the race was split into two point scoring events with the opposing crews on the water at separate times. In 1935, the format changed to become a proper contest over 1000 yards or a ½ mile in either Cambridge or Oxford, and once on the Tideway from Barnes to Mortlake (exactly 80 years ago).
Following the Cambridge and Oxford colleges becoming co-educational in the early 1970’s, the number of available rowers increased sufficiently to field a regular race between the reserve crews Osiris (Oxford) and Blondie (Cambridge) in 1975. In 1977, the two women’s races joined the Lightweight Mens’ race, established in 1975, at Henley on Thames, creating the Henley Boat Races. A lightweight women’s race joined the races at Henley in 1984. With the increase in prestige afforded the event through its location at Henley, the standard of rowing and rivalry between Universities over the races to win increased, fixing the event as a regular fixture in the Oxbridge sporting landscape.
Another of the big changes that have taken place is the composition of the squads. Annabel Eyres, 1987 and 1988 Oxford Blue boat, recalled how “in those days it was pretty unheard of for someone to arrive having rowed before”. By contrast, the current lineup has olympic rower Caryn Davies in the Oxford Boat. With the move to the tideway, it is thought that the race will start enticing top level oarswomen from around the world as the mens’ race has done for years.
The question as to why it is only now that the women have joined the men on the tideway is largely a question of funding. Whilst legislation in the US has mandated equal state funding for men and women in university sport since the 1970s Title IX protest at Yale, there is no such legislature in the UK. Back in the 50s the funding situation for the women’s race was so dire that the event experienced a 12 year hiatus due to lack of financial support. Even by the early 2000s, this disparity in the funding situation of the mens’ and and women’s’ races was 10 fold, with funding of the men’s race was in the order of £500,000 whilst each of the women’s clubs would survive on less than £50,000 a year. With this level of funding, it would have been impossible to make the move to the Tideway. With Newton offering funding from 2011 with the aim of providing the means for the women’s clubs to operate at the same level as the men, the dream of a moving to the tideway could be realised.
The race tomorrow showcases the strides that the feminist movement from the 1960s and 1970s have achieved in equalizing rowing, but as a society there should still be further striving for equality in sporting as a whole. Funding and scholarships should be given to men and women equally in the future at all levels of sport, after ensuring equal opportunity for women to participate.
Let’s see who will win, Cambridge or Oxford.