The Female Spectator

I received an e-mail from one of the loyal readers of this blog, Hélène from France. She came to think of Auguste Donnay’s painting Sculler and Woman in Plumed Hat (1865) when reading the entry about “Women Rowing in 1866” (posted on 23 September). Hélène writes “I was thinking that they [the women] have often been featured as having a spectator role rather than rowing themselves in the 19th century.” Hélène continues to mention an article published in June 1984 in the Bulletin of the British Society of Sports History. In the article, “Playing Like Gentlemen While Behaving Like Ladies” by Jennifer Hargreaves, Hélène quotes from the article, “At competitive events such as regattas […], women reinforced the superiority of men by adopting a spectator role as members of an admiring female audience watching the physical antics of men.”

Paul R. Deslandes also brings up these thoughts in his book Oxbridge Men: British Masculinity and the Undergraduate Experience, 1850-1920 (2005). About the rituals of Eights Week and May Week, he writes, “The most celebrated position a man could occupy was that of an active, fully engaged, athletic participant – the rower.” Especially at races like these the “masculine ideals and the cult of athleticism” were celebrating triumphs, it seems. The female spectators, as one undergraduate poet sees it, really had something to look at,

She saw her brother in a boat,
Exerting every muscle,
With staring eyes and gasping breath,
Join in the friendly tussle.

[published in a 1891 Eights Weeks supplement to the Oxford magazine New Rattle]

Of course, it was at these annual spring gatherings at the universities that a young woman met her brother’s friends and other young men under somewhat less formal circumstances. Deslandes has written a very interesting book about British culture at the Oxbridge universities during the period 1850 to 1920.

When women would find themselves in a boat it was not necessary at the oars, as I have tried to show in my essay “Rowing Women as Belles des Bateaux, or (To Say Nothing of the Cat)”. And when women would finally get to row, they were still seen more as sexual objects than female athletes in the eyes of the male on-lookers.

David Farmer, who organized a rowing exhibit at the University of California when the Olympic Games were held in Los Angeles in 1984, used a detail – the sculler, but not the lady in her plumed hat – from Donnay’s painting for the poster and the cover of the exhibit catalogue Rowing/Olympics.

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