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1908 Olympic Games

25th March 2013, University of Chichester

The second event in the AWF 2013 Seminar Series was an introduction to a new area of research being conducted by Dr Martin Polley (University of Southampton) on women in the 1908 London Olympic Games. An audience of undergraduate and doctoral students, former and current staff and guests heard Martin’s historical overlook of the major societal and sporting issues that affected sportswomen in London’s first hosting of the Olympics.

Martin’s presentation was based on visual images to complement his narrative and he opened with experiences of gender equality that were witnessed at last year’s London 2012 Olympic Games. This was soon sharply contrasted with Pierre de Coubertin’s (founder of the modern Olympic movement) thoughts on female competitors in the early 1900s. De Coubertin is quoted as maintaining his ‘wariness of feminism’ and how women should ‘crown the victors’, not participate in sporting activity. Interestingly this quotation is from 1912 and thus post-dated the 1908 Olympics, leading Martin to introduce the juxtaposition between London 2012 and London 1908 approaches to women and sport.

Martin focused on societal trends and patterns that were emerging around 1908, including; women’s shifting social position and the influence of the suffragette movement, the ‘New Woman’ ethic that was beloved by the media of the time, and also shifts around homosexuality. Martin explained this was “a really interesting period for gender and sexuality”.

Previous Olympic Games were touched upon, including the fact that no women participated in the first modern Olympics in 1896 and how there are still disagreements as to the true number of sportswomen at the 1900 Games. London won the right to host the Games in 1906 and through document analysis, Martin has discovered that there is no evidence of a debate by the organising committee about women’s inclusion. Indeed, many women simply “turned up” to some Olympic events and sometimes could not be barred from participation because there was no rule inhibiting them to do so! Of the 24 events men competed in, women participated in archery (the only event where women competed inside the 1908 Olympic stadium but to nominal spectators), figure skating, motorboating, tennis and yachting. The sheer costs of travelling and also beliefs regarding women’s involvement in sport impacted upon numbers meaning only three countries were represented by women; the majority from the UK.

However, the media coverage of women’s success can be identified as relatively equal with male medallists. There were even examples of women being distinguished for their sporting endeavours, including the female motorboater, Sophia Gorham. Media reports were often located next to major news stories about women, especially suffragette struggles, further highlighting the aforementioned juxtaposition.

Martin concluded his presentation by introducing his explorations of census records from the period. He is using this to inform understanding about some of the sportswomen who competed in London in 1908 as there is very little readily-available information. Initial conclusions reveal certain demographics such as being predominantly middle-to-upper class and without an occupation, that is, their parents and/or husbands were wealthy enough to support them. Martin’s preliminary work seems to point to this demographic potentially changing from 1912 onwards. Martin’s research continues and his presentation finished by stating that the 1908 Games were a “pivotal moment” for women in the Olympics, and that future research will look to locate how the Olympics fits into other wider societal issues such as health, gender, sexuality, and suffrage.

A brief question and answer session followed Martin’s presentation and Dr Elizabeth Pike (Chair of the AWF) reminded the audience of the final two presentations in the AWF Seminar Series. To find out more information about the Series please click here.

If you would like to know more about Martin’s research, please visit http://martinpolley.co.uk/ or follow him on twitter @HistoryMartin where he uses the hashtag ‘#1908women’ for his work.