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The Trials and Triumphs of Seattle’s Early Oarswomen

The Trials and Triumphs of Seattle’s Early Oarswomen

1905 Rower, U. of Washington

Early UWash women


hat a privilege to get a guided tour of the Green Lake Rowing Club and the old boathouse at the University of Washington where Seattle women broke into rowing! Judith Fagerstrom Clark, who was on the Green Lake women’s crew that competed in the First National Women’s Rowing Championship in 1966, took me around her old stomping grounds while I was in Seattle last week.
Her memories poured out. For one, she remembers an unexpected slumber party at her house because the Philadelphia Girls’ Rowing Club’s motel reservations had gone amok. Judy’s parents were out of town so she invited some of the Philly gang over, and forever friendships formed.
Of course, she became friends with Ernie (Tina) Bayer – daughter of “Mother of U.S. Women’s Rowing” Ernestine and Pennsylvania Barge Club Olympian Ernest. Years later, Judy visited Tina in Philadelphia as well as oarswoman Liz Bergen. A pioneer in her own right, Bergen in 1981 became the first female commodore of the Schuylkill Navy, more than 120 years after its founding in 1858. At that 1966 competition in Seattle, PGRC’s eight-oared crew came in first; second was Lake Washington. Green Lake, with Judy, came in third, though overall Lake Washington scored the most points in that historic regatta.

Judy Clark wtih Vesper mug at Green Lake, Seattle

Meanwhile, women of the University of Washington were not yet on the water, despite the prestige of its men’s program, including their triumph at the 1936 “Hitler Olympics,” memorialized in Boys in the Boat.  
Surprisingly, women at the University of Washington had raced as early at 1907, but only briefly. According to this account, UWash women started racing in ’07 under the school’s new coach Hiram Conibear (later the ’36 coach). That was blisteringly early for competitive women’s crew. The handful of other places with women’s rowing at the turn of the 20th century, such as Wellesley College and the ZLAC group in San Diego, were focused on grace and rhythm and fun. Then came the backlash at UWash. A female gym instructor in 1910 declared racing too difficult, too strenuous for women, echoing the words of the founder of the modern day Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, who famously said: “Women have but one task: that of crowning the winner with garlands. It is indecent that spectators should be exposed to the risk of seeing the body of a woman being smashed before their very eyes.” Opinion pieces in the UWash campus newspaper argued the pros and cons of women’s racing, with opponents saying: “Women are not physically constructed for great tasks of endurance, and a better ideal would be a more perfect self-control, the highest development of which she is capable physically and, above all, the ability to be a good loser.” For the next couple of years, women’s rowing at the University of Seattle limped on without racing. By World War I it had disappeared entirely as a woman’s sport, returning only in 1968, a half-century later! Now women have learned to become good winners!