15 December 2016
Tim Koch writes:
Following the Henley Stewards’ December meeting, it was announced that there will be three new events in the 2017 Regatta, all for women: coxless fours, pairs and double sculls. This will mean there will be an equal number of events (six each) for men and women in the ‘open’ categories. The Stewards say that his will be done ‘without impact on the duration of the event, which will retain its current five day format’. The meeting also elected four new Stewards, two of whom are women.
Miriam Luke (née Batten) joins her sister (Guin Batten) as a Steward. She first represented Great Britain in the 1990 Worlds and went on to finish an uninterrupted international career culminating with an Olympic Silver Medal in the women’s quad sculls in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the first British women’s crew to win a medal at an Olympic Games. Since 2012, Miriam has been Chairman of Henley Women’s Regatta (HWR).
The other new female Steward is Dr Ann Redgrave (wife of Sir Steve) who rowed for Great Britain in the Los Angeles Olympics and in the 1985 and 1986 Worlds. Qualifying as a doctor in 1984, she later gained a Masters Degree in Sport and Exercise Medicine. She has been Captain of Marlow Rowing Club and also the Chief Medical Officer of British Rowing. In 2008, Ann took a full-time position to help prepare the Rowing Team for the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.
What does this say about the future of women at Henley Royal Regatta? Sadly, I have no inside information – but I can speculate. First though, an explanation for those who do not know how Henley Royal works.
There are presently 62 Stewards and they are a self-electing body running a self-financing regatta. They are mostly accomplished rowers but they also include some long serving and successful administrators of the sport. The 7,000 Members of the Stewards’ Enclosure have no voting rights or control over how the regatta is run. Henley operates on the old idea that some people know more about certain things than do others. It is an unfashionable way of doing things, but it works, the accumulated knowledge and experience of the Stewards produces a regatta that (mostly) satisfies both the competitors and the social attenders (though the former take precedent). Henley now thrives because it responds to a changing world. It is true that reform comes slowly, but rushed and populist change can produce poor long-term results. Today, most people cannot imagine that, in the 1960s and 1970s when the regatta did not move with the times, it almost died.
Of the 62 Stewards, only eight are women – 13%. However, most Stewards only reluctantly resign from the role due to death, so there is much historical legacy here. If the eight are taken as a proportion of the 32 Stewards elected since the first woman was given the honour in 1997, the figure is 25%. Of the last 10 Stewards elected, 40% have been female. As the pool of female talent that can be drawn on increases, there is no reason to think that this percentage will not rise.
What of races for women at Henley? The addition of three new events at once is unprecedented and the result is that the 2017 Regatta will see ‘parity’ in the open events. However, the only other event for women not in the ‘open’ class is the women’s junior quad sculls. Men have, in addition, three intermediate, three club, two student and two junior races. If the Stewards wished to include more races for women at Henley, there are several ways that this could be done.
‘Possible’ actions include extending the regatta from five days to six and/or decreasing the number of competitors in existing events. ‘Unlikely’ changes include making some existing men’s races into ones for women, cutting out the breaks in racing for lunch and tea, or holding some heats on the Sunday finals day.
The Olympics aims to force gender parity by 2020. Full parity is probably not Henley’s aim; it has to maintain an ‘Edwardian Garden Party’ and it would not want to press changes that would destroy the very thing that makes Henley Royal Regatta special. There is also the elephant in the boat tent – Henley Women’s Regatta. If Henley Royal somehow achieved gender parity – would this kill HWR? Is this HRR’s problem? Should the women’s regatta serve the intermediate and club rower while women’s open events become the prerogative of the Royal?
Of course, here at ‘Hear The Boat Sing’, we have long memories and very little is new to us. Henley was far ahead of its equivalent in cricket or golf in that it allowed women to become members of the Stewards’ Enclosure soon after the 1939 – 1945 War. On the water, however, the Regatta was less progressive. In 1974, Mimi Sherman, the female cox of the Santa Clara University Heavyweight men’s crew from the United States, was told by the Stewards that she could not compete as ‘it would be against the tradition of Henley’. She arrived in the UK anyway, hoping to change their minds. They did – but it took five months before the ban on women coxswains was lifted. Following this, Henley Chairman, John Garton, was quoted as saying:
I would emphasise that this is in no way the thin end of the wedge. It is not a triumph for women’s lib – or any nonsense of that sort.
This gives the impression that the Chairman and the Committee of Management were reactionary old fools, but, to his credit, Garton went on to say:
We may have to consider the introduction of women’s events before long….. the acceptance of a new situation brought about by a changing world….. cannot probably do the regatta any harm.
(Though, looking at Chris Dodd’s 2002 obituary of Garton, this was an uncharacteristically radical statement.)
Kingston Rowing Club tried to hurry the pace of reform when, in 1978, they sent in an entry for the Double Sculls in the name of A. Hohl and P. Bird. When Regatta Chairman, Peter Coni, discovered that these were the maiden names of the two best female scullers of the day, Astrid Ayling and Pauline Hart, he was not amused.
Between 1981 and 1983 Henley tinkered with some women’s invitation events over a shortened course. However, the experiment was carried out with little enthusiasm or thought and it ended without comment.
Real change started in 1993. An event for women’s open single sculls (now the Princess Royal Challenge Cup) was introduced, initially counted as a round of the World Cup. A women’s eights race was held as an invitation event in 1998 and 1999, but by 2000 it was formally incorporated into the regatta as a women’s open event, now called the Remenham Challenge Cup. A women’s open quadruple sculls race was introduced in 2001, later renamed the Princess Grace Challenge Cup. Finally, junior women’s quadruple sculls (now the Diamond Jubilee Challenge Cup) were offered in 2012.
While the Stewards seem to enjoy being seen as a little cussed, you do not get to run a unique, world famous and fantastically successful regatta for 178 years without recognising when change is needed. True, the pace of reform may not suit the social media generation – but the guardians of Henley Royal Regatta can probably live with that.