The early days

While pockets of competitive women’s rowing had existed in seaside locations throughout Europe for centuries, the rise of modern rowing’s popularity among the more affluent members of Victorian society all but ensured a less than open mind when it came to women’s participation. Despite this, rowing was quite popular with women and growing throughout the 1800s in America and Europe.

America’s earliest women’s rowing programmes were primarily focused on developing the perceived ‘feminine’ characteristics such as elegance and grace. The longest surviving of the clubs is the ZLAC Rowing Club of San Diego celebrates its 125th anniversary this year.

The rise in popularity may well have brought women’s rowing to the world stage, but social conventions of the day proved too strong; the founders of FISA, so visionary in their dreams of uniting all rowers within a global framework were unable to imagine anyone but men competing at the international level. It took over half a century for such hard reasoning to soften. Finally in 1954 FISA officials held a first Women’s Rowing European Championship.

Going international 

From the early pioneers of female participation in the 1950s and ‘60s the foundation of gender equality in rowing was laid through bold acts of training, competition and administration on an international stage so long dominated by men alone.

In 1969, FISA’s Women’s Commission was founded with Nely Gambon de Vos (NED) at the helm. “Thomas Keller (long-time FISA president) and Claus Hess (vice-president) were especially important in this,” says Ingrid Dieterle (GER). Both Dieterle and de Vos were instrumental members of the Women’s Commission, which immediately set to work on advancing the opportunities for women within the sport.

The Commission’s first task was getting women’s rowing into the Olympics. Dieterle compares the negotiations with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to a game of chess. “Holding a World Championship for women was the basic for moving on the resolution to introduce women’s rowing into the Olympic Games,” recalls Dieterle.

The first Women’s World Rowing Championship was duly held in Lucerne (SUI) in 1974. Held a week before the men’s regatta, the event was a success. Two years later, women’s crews lined up in Montreal at the Olympics for the first time.

From 1000m to 2000m

Dismissive attitudes concerning women’s physical abilities continued to be influenced by the social attitudes of the day, which led to officials deciding to hold women’s races over 1000m, half the distance raced by men.

Penny Chuter (GBR), who would also later serve on the Women’s Commission and the FISA’s Competitive Commission, remembers what it was like as a young rower herself during those early years.

“People used to say that rowing is bad for your heart and then in the 1950s and 1960s that became rowing isn’t bad for men’s hearts, it is only bad for women’s hearts,” recalls Chuter

As the world would soon see, things were much different within the Soviet sphere, where women’s rowing was developing under a profoundly different set of social conditions.

As advances in sport science were shedding greater light on the physiological stresses of the 1000m distance, the rise in doping sophistication was yet another incentive for changing the distance, says Chuter.

“This was just about the worst distance to have someone of ‘the weaker sex’ compete over,” says Chuter. “Things like male hormones were having a much bigger effect on women racing over the shorter distance than on men over longer distances.”

By the early 1980s, Chuter, Dieterle, de Vos and others had managed to get the distance changed. The Los Angeles 1984 Olympics, only the third Games to allow women to compete in rowing, were also the last where women raced 1000m. From then on it would be 2000m.

Other benefits to the sport quickly became apparent. With men’s and women’s races over the same distance, their events could now be interspersed within a joint World Championship programme. “The spectators had to watch women’s races too,” says Dieterle.

Changing for the better

For Chuter, who also served as Great Britain’s Chief Rowing Coach for many years – that nation’s first woman in such a position in any sport – she feels that the times and prevailing ideas about women in sport have changed for the better.

“We really were seen as the weaker sex,” she says. “I’d like to think all of that has gone out of the window completely. All the knowledge now and education and physiology have changed all that.”

Funding models have also changed as well and with them the money to grow competitive women’s rowing like never before. Notable has been the United States’ Title IX regulations of the 1970s that ensured equal funding for men’s and women’s university sport. This has given rise to a large collegiate women’s rowing system.

“A civil society reflects equal gender participation in education, jobs, sport, etc.” says Jacomine Ravensbergen, Chair of FISA’s Women’s Rowing Cross Commission. “A mature sporting international federation, as FISA is, should have gender equality.”

To gain a gender equal programme at the Olympic Games, FISA will propose to the International Olympic Committee, IOC, to add the women’s four. 

A strong position on equality is also good for men’s events says Ravensbergen. “FISA’s leading position on issues in the sport with societal impact – gender equality, universality, anti-doping policies – will provide ‘bonus points’ and a good position for the selection (by the IOC executive) of our events for the Tokyo Olympics. In this way, women’s strategy is beneficial for men’s and women’s rowing.”

For all the progress, it is important not to become complacent cautions Ravensbergen. “We still have to make some steps,” she says and points to a need for greater “retention of female athletes in the sport as coaches, board and commission members and umpires” as well as improving the “quality of coaching female athletes”.

20/20 vision

The decision to put forward equal events for men and women looks back at the effort of Chuter and countless others in their advancement of women in rowing. It also looks forward in setting an example for the world to follow.

“For the Olympic programme, this is the final step,” says Ravensbergen, “and therefore quite historic.”