Yesterday at Henley-on-Thames, there were perfect conditions for the annual Women’s Boat Race. However, the idylic scene of Henley hides the battle of the past near-century for women’s rowing. Today, this event is as much a part of the scenery as the landmark Temple Island: some of the rowing teams have been staying with the same families for decades. Although the women’s race is the highlight for many spectators, the 2km race is flanked by other events including the women’s reserves, the women’s lightweights, and the men’s lightweights, in an annual tradition and order of events that seems ingrained.
However, this was not always the case. The first women’s Boat Race was held in 1927 amidst some hostility and concern. It was not a ‘race’ as we would consider it today. Points were awarded for 'steadiness, finish, rhythm, and other matters of style' as the crews made their way downstream, before racing back over the half-mile course. The race was held at lunchtime in order to prevent male undergraduates thronging the river; authorities hoped they would be more interested in food than 'cheering an unmaidenly spectacle'. Women’s rowing it was. Gender equality it was not.
The course was shortened to 2km, while the men continued to row nearly 7km. By the 1970’s, the race was well-established. However, the 1960’s saw CUWBC nearly fold repeatedly due to a lack of funding, and gender-based opposition persisted. One commentator declared: "women rowing was a ghastly sight, an anatomical impossibility and physiologically dangerous.” These words show us exactly what oarswomen were up against, and the strength of spirit necessary to fight against all odds.
2015 will mark a historic step in the ongoing battle for the acceptance of women’s rowing. Next year the women’s race will move from Henley to The Tideway in London, where they will compete on the same day and over the same course – at 6.8km, over three times the length of the course at Henley – as their male counterparts.
Sunday included a commemorative row-past of the inaugural 1984 lightweight women’s crews, celebrating 30 years of the women’s lightweight event. The women of both crews were part of several generations of female rowers in the ongoing struggle for gender equality in the sport. The 1984 event also contributed to the rise of international women’s lightweight competition, which was accepted as an event at the World Championships the next year.
This was enabled by investment from Newton. Helena Morrissey, CEO, was shocked to discover that the Women’s Boat Race did not receive funding anywhere near the level of the men’s, which is sponsored by BNY Mellon. She initiated a company investment in 2011, committing to a three-year plan, giving them the funding they needed to raise their game and prove to critics that they deserved to race in London. The BBC recently announced that, from 2015, they will cover the women’s boat race as well as the men’s, until at least 2021. This recognition by national media provides another, sorely needed, form of parity for women’s rowing.
Women’s rowing is now stronger than it has ever been in the UK. In just over three years from November 2009 to January 2013, the number of female British Rowing members increased by 3,847 from 9,600 to 13,447. GB female rowers won three gold medals in the 2012 Olympics, and one of these medallists, Sophie Hosking, MBE, presented the trophies on Sunday.
Accordingly, Sunday’s races were not just a sporting event: they were a celebration of 30 years at Henley, 30 years of lightweight competing and a celebration of funding parity. While the openweight women will be sad to leave beautiful Henley, and the progression in women’s rowing which this town has seen, they are no doubt eager for the challenge of the Tideway course and excited to be making history.