When analyzing any sport it is important to acknowledge the power relationships and ideological discourses that occur within all sports. This idea is transnational.
My Engagement with the Sport:
It is important to recognize my position within the sport of rowing, and assess how it has shaped the ways in which I interpret the history and other ideologies which are embedded in the sport. In 2011, I was asked my height and weight by the men’s head rowing coach at Orange Coast College (Coast). Coast is the only community college that has a rowing team that also competes at an elite level of competition. Paul explained to me that he was looking for small people who could fit in the coxswain seat of the rowing shells and steer the boats. My experience on the water from sailing was an attractive quality that the men’s thought would help me in learning how to “cox”. At Coast, I raced on the varsity team for a year and was then recruited to UCSD by the head men’s rowing coach. I was involved with the men’s team for a year but I had this constant feeling that I was missing something. Being the only girl on an all men’s team, in a position that many rowers consider annoying or even pointless is not an easy spot to hold. There was a team aspect, and motivation that I was lacking at UCSD. In the spring, it occurred to me that I really had gotten all that I wanted out of coxing men’s rowing. I wanted to engage more with the sport. I wanted the level of fitness that all these people I yelled at on a daily basis had. I wanted to feel the excruciating pain that I had seen on people’s, but not been allowed to feel. I decided to switch to the women’s team and started to row in September 2013. There has not been a day that I have regretted this decision and there are new things that this sport continues to teach me about myself and others on a daily basis.
History of Women’s Rowing:
Competitive rowing (especially collegiate rowing) has its roots in elitist practices that were manifested from the very beginning of the sport. Originally, the only people who were considered eligible to compete in rowing were white men of the upper middle class. Evidence for this can be seen by the fact that governing bodies of the sport only considered a man an amateur if he did not hold a job that involved excessive amounts of physical labor. If a man had a job that did require physical labor he was not eligible to compete because he had an advantage over the white-collar workers. White collar workers did not have jobs that required copious amounts of physical labor. If a man was performing intensive physical labor on a daily basis he was seen to have an advantage over those men who had a desk job. “An amateur athlete was one who participated for pleasure, play and/or recreation, not for the pursuit of excellence or perfection”(Schweinbenz,3). It is important to note that this definition of amateurism is still upheld by the NCAA, the governing body of collegiate athletics. Originally only the very elite, private universities established men’s rowing teams and as a result continued to sustain the elite nature of the sport. Rowing is an extremely grueling sport, it requires endurance that is matched by sports such as cycling and swimming, but uniquely it also requires a level of strength and efficiency that is only developed through a complete dedication of one’s body and mind. “Victorian notions of female frailty deemed women unfit for such kinds of physical exertion, incapable of enduring the pain of harsh, vigorous sport” (6), these are traits that are considered synonymous with hegemonic masculinity. The excessive amounts of sweat, positions in which one is required to put their body and the extreme pain required to row were all reasons that women were barred from competitive rowing. The Women’s Amateur Rowing Association (WARA) was founded in 1923 when the British Amateur Rowing Association (ARA) continued to refuse to allow women’s rowing competitions. As a result women began to govern themselves, which in hindsight was a much better deal than being governed by the male dominated ARA. WARA continued to uphold very similar amateurism rules as the ARA. Therefore, women from the working class were barred from competition. In barring working class men and women from competing the sports elitist principles began to transcend across the gendered borders.
Women’s Bodies, and Reproduction:
Historically, almost all women’s sports have faced some type of adversity in the effort to become considered legitimate. Women’s ski jumping being one of the most recent to overcome this by finally being considered an Olympic sport. It is cited at some point in many sports such as biking, swimming, rowing and ski jumping, that a primary reason for the women’s sports divisions to not be considered a legitimate form of competition is their threatening nature on reproductive capacity. Rowing, like many others, was at one point also part of this discourse. Dominate ideologies that still exist transnationally uphold that women and men are said to occupy separate spheres of the world. The public sphere, meaning the work place, is for men. The private sphere, meaning family and the home, being a place for women. Women’s rowing originally was a hoby for wealthy, upper class women. Women of the working class were continually marginalized because of their lack of free time to participate in the sport. The fact that women all together have been continually banned from sport on the basis of harming their reproductive organs, or because they were not to leave the private sphere illustrates a larger issue that is necessary to understand in the context of women’s collegiate rowing. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is necessary to acknowledge in terms of modern women’s collegiate rowing.
Title IX and Women’s Rowing:
Title IX states that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance” (Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, found in Ware ). While Title IX’s roots were not based around women’s collegiate athletics, women’s rowing (along with many other women’s sports) has benefited significantly since its approval. Rowing required large squads of people, each boat can require anywhere from one person to nine people. A typical Division I or Division II football team can have anywhere from seventy five to one hundred athletes and a typical rowing team will have around sixty-five athletes (Thomas). Therefore, when Title IX began to affect collegiate sports women’s rowing came to the surface as a way to balance out the opportunities being given to male football players. As discusses in Barabara Carton’s Wallstreet Journal Article, there was so much money that needed to be given in scholarships the amount of highschool rowers was not enough. As a result, girls from other sports (ideally swimming, triathlons or cycling teams) are being recruited to colleges that will teach them how to row. The one catch was these girls need to be tall. I argue that “tallness” was not the only factor taken into account during the recruiting process of female athletes for women’s rowing.
Race and Rowing:
Once again, the elite roots of the sport have clearly influenced that ways in which it is treated in college. The exclusivity is extremely obvious to those within the sport and those who are on the outside and do not fit the ideal profile of “a rower”. With Title IX came a change that clearly helped many women’s sports teams across the country. But there are certain groups that are continually marginalized because of a failure to recognize a hiccup that occurs within the system as a result of Title IX. Women who do not fit the category of tall and “white” are not the first on the list to be recruited for rowing scholarships. While Title IX attempts to resolve the gender equity issue it continues to marginalize those of a different race, or social status.
The Intersection of Race and Gender in Rowing:
The failure of the system to recognize the intersection of race and gender within people that continues to marginalize those women who do not fit within the category of “white”. While the college recruitment process of female rowers seems like they will take just anyone who has some sort of athleticism and turn them into a rower, this is not the case. It is unsettling that a government policy, such as Title IX continues to uphold the elitist practices that are make rowing so exclusive. This is easy to see if you ever attend a rowing regatta, such as Crew Classic in San Diego. Crew Classic is the largest regatta on the west coast and many colleges, high school programs and masters programs attend. Spend one hour at this race, and it will become clear “who” this sport continues to be geared toward in the women’s sphere. White, tall (“genetically superior”), females. If one does not fit that bill, odds are they won’t be getting recruited by a college recruiter looking for walk-ons to teach how to row. The fact that there is a government policy so large that is attempting to resolve a gender equity issue, is huge. It is the continual failure to recognize that in many cases gender is not the only issue. And the intersectionality of race and gender operates in all aspect of society where suffers from inequality.
In the acknowledgment of the intersection of race and gender in those groups who are continually marginalized by policies such as Title IX, sports such as rowing will begin to be for everyone. America Rows is a group that is attempting to do just this. America Rows takes rowing to inner city high schools, and other places that because of the geographical demands of rowing (not covered in the scope of this paper) make it an exclusive sphere. In the recognition of the history of the sport and the future, it is necessary to shift focus from tall white girls and attempt to open the sport to the rest of the world. America Rows attempts to do this, giving the opportunity of learning how to row to everyone who wants it.
In high school, I struggled with grades and my priorities as a whole. Rowing, changed everything for me. Having been on three different rowing teams (2 men’s and a women’s) this is not an uncommon story. Many, if not all, people who walk onto a rowing team in college will tell you the same thing. It changed their life in ways that one cannot possibly imagine. Something about waking up at 4:30am everyday, putting on your trou and tank top only to go freeze on the water for twenty minutes and then be sweating more than you ever thought was possible teaches, you something. What rowing teaches you though, is not one single thing. It shapes you in all the different aspects of your life, that maybe once before you feel needed any adjusting. The physical and mental demands of rowing teach individuals to demand more of themselves, this is just what the youth of America need. Organizations like America Rows, that recognize this power are just the beginning, of the future, of the sport.
The above photos are when was coxing at Coast on the men’s team.
Here is our boathouse at UCSD. All of these photos are mine.
A Hero for Daisy. Dir. Mary Mazzio. 1999. Dropbox.
Butler, Richard. “US Rowing.” America Rows. US Rowing. Web. 15 Mar. 2014.
Carton, Barbara. “You Don’t Need Oars in the Water To Go Out for Crew — Colleges Have Plenty of Money For Tall, Muscular Women; `No Experience Necessary’” The Wall Street Journal 14 May 1999: n. pag. The Wall Street Journal. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.
McDonald, Brent D. “Learning Masculinity Through Japanese University Rowing.” Sociology of Sport Journal 26 (2009): 425- 42.
Thomas, Jim. “Division 2 College Football Scholarships.” LIVESTRONG. LIVESTRONG.COM, 17 Feb. 2014. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.
Ware, Susan. “Introduction: Title IX—Thirty-seven Words that Changed American Sports,” Title IX: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007, 1-31.
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