Today saw more than 1,800 athletes take to the water in an idyllic setting about 37 miles to the west of London, as part of the Henley Women’s Regatta. For most female rowers in the UK, and around the world, this is one of the most prestigious and exciting events in the rowing calendar.
Women’s rowing has come a long way in the last 100 years. For most of its history, rowing has been a male dominated sport. Rowing has been around for a very long time, and can be traced back to the Ancient Egyptians.
In more recent history, modern rowing as a competitive sport can be traced to the early 10th century in London, in the UK, when races were held between professional watermen on the River Thames. The first Henley Women’s Regatta was held in 30 years ago in 1988. In the first regatta, there were 109 entries requiring 97 races, with predominantly British crews with a few from Ireland and one from the Netherlands. Today, there are 441 entries from over 1,800 competitors requiring 285 races and 17 time trials. A lot has changed in the last 30 years in women’s rowing…. but we have still not crossed the finish line in achieving gender equity in our sport.
At the Olympics, rowing is one of the oldest sports in the modern summer games, with the first rowing races for men recorded in 1900. For women, the first rowing races at the Olympic games were in 1976, at half the length of the men’s races (1000 metres). It has only been since 1984 that men and women competed over the same distance (2000 metres). At the London games in 2012, there were 6 rowing events for women compared with 8 for men. It was only in 2017 that a parity of events was realised for men and women in rowing at the summer Olympics which will take effect in Tokyo in 2020.
Here at Henley, the first women’s event that was included in the Henley Royal Regatta, was a women’s singles event in 1993 even though the regatta itself has been held since 1839. Even today, the Henley Women’s Regatta is a shorter distance compared to the male dominated Henley Royal Regatta, at 1500m compared with 2112m. As noted in the history for the Henley Women’s Regatta, women at Henley Royal Regatta are “separate, and not equal.” From the outset for Henley Women’s Regatta, it was made clear that the women racing could not use the enclosures or boat tents that were being set up for the Henley Royal Regatta which was to take place 3 weeks later.
At club level in the UK, it was only in 1998 that Leander – which incidentally is the year that I first learnt to row, in the USA – was opened to women. According to Leander themselves, they are the most historic, prestigious and successful rowing club in the world. The addition of women as members was astonishingly 180 years after the club was founded. Recent progress seems to have made up for lost ground, as in 2012 the Olympic medallist Debbie Flood was appointed as the first female captain of Leander.
On the other side of London, in Hackney East London, women’s rowing is a different story and has a long and proud history on the river Lea. Dating back to the late nineteenth century, the earliest women’s rowing on the river was by the women in the boat builders’ families. By the 1890s it was commonplace, and regular races were held. Lea Rowing Club (as it is now known) was founded in 1980 from an amalgamation of five rowing clubs on the river that included Stuart Ladies RC, which was the only club for women on the east side of London and had been founded in the 1950s.
As someone who is an intrepid and tenacious rower, who is also proudly the first female captain of Lea Rowing Club, the 30th anniversary of the Henley Women’s Regatta this year – just as the 100 year anniversary of women’s suffrage in the UK – coincides with a time to celebrate progress towards gender equity in sport and in society. It also coincides with a time to reflect on the distance we still have to go to achieve gender equity in our sport.
Take coaching for example. I have been privileged to be coached by two great rowing Olympians – Liz O’Leary and Gill Parker OLY – who both represented their countries the first time women competed in rowing, at the 1976 Olympics. This is certainly the exception rather than the rule, as it is estimated that only one in 10 rowing coaches internationally are women. Even in the USA, where Title IX (a federal civil rights law that meant that equal money needs to be spend on men’s and women’s sport at the collegiate level was introduced in 1972) has meant that women’s rowing therefore has been as competitive – and as well resourced – as men’s rowing. However even Title IX has done little to address the gender gap in coaching, as the funding simply created more job opportunities for experienced male coaches.
In Malawi, where rowing has only recently been established as a sport, it’s a different story. It’s a new team, that had access to their first rowing machines in 2016 and boats in early 2017. They competed for the first time at the African Rowing Championships in Tunisia in 2017, with equal gender representation with one athlete competing in the Junior Women’s singly sculling event, and one athlete competing in the equivalent Junior Men’s event. Both events were over the same distance (2000m). I have been a volunteer coach of the team, who have been supported by a few other volunteers – male and female – offering short term coaching. They have a small dedicated team of fitness and rowing coaches – male – in Malawi, who juggle their coaching and leadership of the rowing team with other professional commitments in personal training, business and politics.
Globally, there are strategies in the pipeline to address the gender gap in coaching, and in the coming years the International Federation of Rowing (FISA) propose a strategic women’s rowing programme will focus on female coaches and leadership. For the time being however, women’s strategic leadership and coaching in rowing endures as the exception rather than the norm.
Members of Lea Rowing Club joined thousands of other women in the procession in London on 10thJune to commemorate 100 years of the right to vote being realised for some women in the UK. We marched as women proud of our sport, our club, and in honour of the pioneering efforts of women and athletes who blazed the trail to provide for the rights and opportunities we have today. The finish line is in sight for attaining gender equity in rowing. We will get there, one stroke at a time.