Those of you who are not British, not sporting geeks, and/or not die-hard feminists might not know that something history-making happened in London last Saturday, thanks to eight brilliant and sporty young women.
The Oxford Blue Boat won the first ever women’s Oxford-Cambridge boat race to take place on the Thames Tideway, on the same day and on the same course raced by the men’s boats every year.
(Here the Oxford women are, celebrating with well-deserved abandon.)
Although the men’s Boat Race is a longstanding UK tradition, and although the Oxbridge women have been racing each other, too, for nearly a century, NEVER before have they been granted equal opportunity in terms of course, location, and media coverage with the men alongside whom they train and study. In fact, as BBC commentator Claire Balding – herself a pioneering sportswoman whose choice to anchor the inaugural women’s race for BBC was controversial and provocative – noted several times during pre-race commentary on Saturday afternoon, even today some in the rowing establishment believe women should not race the same distance as men, while women’s varsity rowing has suffered as the poorer and far less respected cousin to the men’s sport for almost a century. (For the record, the Tideway course is 4.2 miles/6.8km long, from Putney to Mortlake in central-west London. It took the Oxford Women’s Blue team just 19 minutes 45 seconds to run the route; the winning men’s team, also from Oxford, clocked in at 17:35. Not exactly a shattering difference!) From anxiety about rowing as “unladylike” to fretting about women’s constitutions, those who opposed, or who still oppose, two “equal” boat races on the Thames are clearly tapping into a host of antiquated tropes about how women’s bodies restrict our cognitive and physical capabilities – despite all manner of evidence to the contrary.
And now these eight powerful, beautiful, drop-dead brilliant women from Oxford – alongside their equally talented, powerful, smart colleagues from Cambridge – have added further proof, for anyone still wavering, that women can row the boat every bit as well as men can.
(The Cambridge women’s crew on the Thames at Hammersmith Bridge)
But there’s more to this story than equality in sport, however important that is. (And to me, it’s extremely important. What society believes about the strength and capacity of women’s bodies impacts everything we experience: from women’s safety to our roles in government, the economy, the home, and everywhere else.) Each of the athletes, both men and women, who competed in the 2015 Boat Race is a current Oxbridge student, and each balances a rigorous training regimen on the water with a challenging study and exam schedule. The Oxford Women’s Blues study English literature, management, science, medicine; they are earning BAs, MBAs, MDs and PhDs. Caryn Davies, the two-time Olympic gold medalist who rowed Stroke for Oxford in the race and who is studying for her MBA, told Karen Attwood at the Independent that prepping for this event was more difficult than Olympics training, given the additional pressure of lectures and study. There’s no doubt in my mind, though, that this challenging pairing – daily on-water training, alongside daily study pressures – strengthened these athletes’ resolve while also broadening their physical and intellectual power bases. As I argued in a recent post about fitness and mental health, working the body supports the labour of the brain by offering an outlet for intellectual and emotional stress; similarly, the work of the body offers much needed time and space for the brain to process important information and make fresh, unexpected connections unconsciously.
For more than 150 years it’s been a given that the Oxbridge men’s teams must balance study and rowing; since the beginning of the tradition in 1856 the Boat Race has peddled the message that men’s rowing, matched with elite university education, builds community leaders and outstanding citizens. (No unmanly behaviour here! Quite the opposite.) This year, the women’s crews added a fresh, much needed chapter to that age-old story, as they proved the unstoppable force – the sheer physical power – generated by eight incredibly strong, bright, dedicated women working together, synchronous stroke by synchronous stroke, for a common cause.
As we leave this academic year behind, let’s take a lesson from the amazing, pioneering women of the 2015 Oxford and Cambridge crews. Let’s celebrate the strength and power of university women as they work hard every day to match the agility of their bodies with their intellectual abilities, fighting on through the battles for equality and fairness that remain. Let’s remember that such equality and fairness are not yet things we can take for granted, on the water or in the study hall. Let’s celebrate every victory. Let’s refuse to be cowed by naysayers. Let’s refuse to be defeated.
(Sheer strength, sheer joy)
Congratulations to all the Blues!