By Dotty Brown
This week, as 20 U.S oarswomen compete in Rio alongside the men, they might give thanks to the Philadelphia women who decades ago struggled against the current of their time to win the right to row, long after they had won the right to vote.
The effort came in waves, starting in 1938 when the first competitive women's rowing club in the country, the Philadelphia Girls' Rowing Club, landed a berth on the Schuylkill only because Ernestine Bayer had been tipped off at her banking job that the Philadelphia Skating Club was moving out to Ardmore. Bayer rounded up a group of women, mostly secretaries and clerks, who snagged the boathouse before any other club on the all-male Boathouse Row heard about it.
Headlines called PGRC a "matrimonial club," its members mostly interested in dating oarsmen. Reporters asked if rowing was "good for the figure." And regatta organizers gave them permission only to do "exhibition rows" - for the entertainment value.
Hard as Bayer tried, PGRC could not find other oarswomen to compete against. The sport was seen as too tough, too masculine for women. So club members raced each other. It was 1955 before they found opponents at Florida Southern University, a match-up called historic by local papers.
Four years later, Joanne Wright Iverson, a teen who had grown up along the Schuylkill in Miquon, stepped into a shell at PGRC. "I had a blister on the ring finger of both hands, and the insides of my thumbs were raw . . . but I didn't care," she would later write in her book, An Obsession with Rings. "I was absolutely hooked."
She set her sights on the Olympics and was shocked to learn the Games had no women's rowing, even though it had been a male sport in the first year of the modern games in 1896.
In the 1960s, Iverson and Bayer, now in her 50s, each pursued different means to the same end - getting American women into international competition.
Iverson discovered that Ted Nash at the Lake Washington Rowing Club in Seattle and Edwin Lickiss, of the Lake Merritt Rowing Club in Oakland, Calif., were coaching women rowers. In 1963, the three founded the National Women's Rowing Association since the National Association of Amateur Oarsmen, as the title suggests, focused on men.
Meanwhile, Bayer's request that the International Rowing Federation allow American women to compete in Europe was denied by its U.S. director, whose office was on Boathouse Row.
"He said, 'No. You're not in the same class as the Europeans. If the Communists win, they'll rub our noses in it,'" recalled Bayer's daughter, Tina. But a turning point came in 1967 after Bayer wangled an exhibition row for PGRC at an international meet in Toronto. The oarswomen, including Tina, were to race against a boat of older men, many of them former Olympians. Among them was Thomi Keller, president of the rowing federation.
"They had never rowed together," Tina said. "We had and won!" Impressed, Keller personally invited PGRC to compete that summer in Vichy, France. Their eight finished last but the Europeans, also seeking Olympic competition, were grateful for the American presence. As the International Olympic Committee spent several years waffling, the highly competitive Vesper Boat Club recognized the inevitable and quietly broke ranks with Philadelphia's other boat clubs to recruit women with strong legs jogging past the boathouse. The arrival of women infuriated some club members, who nailed shut the door of the women's tiny locker room, hid their rowing seats, and rudely shoved their boat away from the dock.
The women persisted. Finally, in Montreal in 1976 - the first Olympics with women's rowing - the American women's eight crossed the finish line behind only East Germany and the Soviet Union, to win a bronze medal.
That was just the beginning. Today, all but two of the houses (all-women's PGRC and the all-men's Malta) on Boathouse Row are coed, and the wave of interest in women's rowing among the nation's high schools and colleges has generated the world's best eight-oared crew. Since 2006, the U.S. women's eight has won gold at every Olympics and world championship. The final for that premier rowing event is slated for Saturday, where America's entry will once again be racing on the shoulders of the women of Boathouse Row.