Tomorrow marks the famed Oxford/Cambridge boat race, the 159th one in its history. But, it is only the first one that the women’s teams will race on the same day and on the same course as the men, with equal television coverage and equal sponsorship.
It was only in 1927 that the women’s teams were first allowed to compete in the boat race at all. They had to fight to be allowed to wear shorts, instead of skirts, wherein ‘one of the Cambridge rowers had to sit on a stool in front of university staff, simulating the act of rowing, to ascertain which clothes best preserved her modesty‘. A straight race was considered ‘vulgar’, so they raced separately, rather than directly against each other.
There were also points awarded for the ‘style and grace’ of the women rowers. When one of the rowers implored the rest of her crew to ‘row like hell’, there was a furore about the unladylike nature of the race and of women in sports more generally. Newspapers of the day reported men angrily shouting at the women on the riverbanks, believing they should not partake in a ‘men’s sport.’
There is an awful lot to be fought for in the representation and budget for women’s sports, which are eclipsed by that given to equivalent men’s teams (even when the women’s are faring much better – the England Women’s Rugby Team winning the World Cup last year, for example, but with the competition’s lack of coverage, you’d be forgiven for not even knowing it was occurring. A far cry from the back to back updates we get from the men’s.)
This year’s boat race is cause for celebration, with millions around the world watching the historic moment when the women take to the water on parity with the men. It certainly took long enough.