Living in Australia today, with swimming pools and lessons a fact of life for both girls and boys from the age of three to four months till well into their nineties, it seems hard to believe that the idea of women swimming or participating in swim events with men was something that some men and many feminists fought strongly against in the early 1900s.
The subject of today’s Google doodle in Australia is Sarah Durack who with her friend Wilhelmina Wylie invented the Australian crawl. But that is not why she is splashed across our computer screens today.
She was the first woman ever to win Olympic gold in 1912. But she was not the first woman at the Olympics. Despite the efforts to keep the Games exclusively male, American women had already taken part in archery in 1904 and British women in gymnastics, figure skating and tennis in 1908. These women were of course demurely clothed at all times, even though it might have hindered their movements. But it was chiefly women and the Church who had stopped Sarah from being at the 1908 London Games.
Feminists such as Rose Scott who was president of the New South Wales Ladies Amateur Swimming Association were completely opposed to women swimming in front of male spectators. This came from an established view of the time that men were essentially predators who would yield to the depravity within themselves if they saw women in the pool.
‘A girl who is in the habit of exposing herself at public swimming carnivals is likely to have her modesty hopelessly blighted,’ she told a meeting of the Association.
The Archbishop of Sydney added his twopence to the uproar, claiming that the ‘fabric of society’ was in danger of unravelling just because a couple of silly girls wanted to prove something to the world.
Thankfully, public opinion in Australia and the decision of the IOC to allow female swimmers both worked in Sarah’s favour. When the Australian Olympic Committee and Rose Scott’s NSWLSA excluded her from the team in 1912, there were protests across the country. Donations poured in, preventing the authorities from using lack of funds as a reason for Sarah’s exclusion. Rose Scott resigned in protest but obviously not many others cared for her opinion that it was ‘disgusting that men should be allowed to attend. We cannot have too much modesty, refinement or delicacy in the relations between men and women…this new decision will have a very vulgar effect on the girls, and the community generally.’
Sarah Durack to Leisel Jones,Libby Trickett and Steph Rice and all the way to Jasmine Greenwood who at 13 was the youngest para athlete at the recent Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast – no signs of the fabric of society fraying as an outcome of women’s swimming yet!
Stockholm Olympics Poster
(pics of Sarah Durack and a Stockholm Olympic poster: internet. I can’t resist pointing out the tasteful wrapping around the athlete’s ahem, manhood, as they probably called it at the time)