This section contains quotations from the women featured in the book ‘A Proper Spectacle.’

At the turn of the century, many doctors believed that if women took part in sport there was a strong chance they would become infertile, and it was a common view that sporting women might even turn into men. It was a time when women could not vote. Their main role in life was to marry and raise a family. Women who took part in athletics were seen as particularly unfeminine.

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Swedish sprinter Maud Sundberg competed in the Womens World Games of 1926 (held in Gothenburg) and the Amsterdam Olympics of 1928:

" We had a lot of difficulties introducing athletics for women in Sweden, people thought it would give us muscles like men. Women should be ‘Standing in the kitchen and bearing children!’ was a common saying."

Fellow World Games competitor for Britain, Vera Palmer (1901-1998) said:

"I would think it would be safe to say that 99% of the medical profession in this country were against women taking an active part in athletics. They said you were leaving your womanhood on the track, and it was quite possible none of us would ever have children. That made me laugh."

In spite of all the pressure, many young women continued to take part in sport - but it’s interesting to note that many of them had male figures around them who encouraged their sporting aspirations.

Violet Webb (Great Britain) Hurdler, 1932 and 1936 Olympics

" My father spotted my talent and he made a complete flight of eight hurdles which we kept at the ladies’ changing rooms at Paddington recreation ground. I jumped high over them as it hurt when you hit the solid barriers! I broke my arm once doing the hurdles, those awful hurdles. It didn’t deter me, I went straight back again. "

Audrey Brown (Great Britain) Sprinter 1936 Olympics
"My parents never saw any difference between my taking up athletics and my brothers doing so, but my other middle class relatives and family friends were not so accepting."

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Eva Dawes (Canada) High Jumper 1932 Olympics
"Where we lived we had a ravine at the back of the house and my father dug up a space and got some stands and cross bar and started training me out there. To make me get over the bar he used to put 25 cents on the bar and said, ‘You get over that, you can have this.’ "

Fernanda Bullano (Italy) Sprinter 1936 Olympics
"My father was an athlete and when I was in the Venesi Unica Club, a female athletics group was just being set up. My father suggested I enrol and so - without realising - I became an athlete. In 1930, no-one talked about women in sport."

Like athletics, swimming had been thought at first unladylike and too physically demanding for women. Debates also arose about whether or not men and women should swim together, and mixed bathing was banned at many pools

Jean McDowell (Great Britain) Freestyle Swimmer 1928

"In those days, there was no mixed bathing, so the ladies of the Warrender Club (Edinburgh) had Saturday mornings, and of course all the school kids were there. You’d just do what you could - there was no idea that I, as an Olympic hopeful, must have room to swim! We just swam up and down - there was no training like you people do today."

Women’s costumes became incredibly restrictive - thick, sometimes woollen knickerbockers to the knee and tunics belted at the waist were common place in 1900. These garments were vital to maintain decency and respectability - but not helpful if you wanted to swim very fast. While swimming for men was one of the first Olympic sports in 1896 women had to wait a few more years. The first competitive swimming and diving came in 1912 at the Stockholm Games.

Joyce Cooper (Great Britain) Freestyle and Backstroke Swimmer 1928 and 1932 Olympics
"My training started in the sea. We left Ceylon after the 1914-18 war, and in 1925 I was staying in Eastbourne and I went down to my local pool where I saw Vera Tanner swimming - she’d been in our Olympic team in 1924. She was doing the crawl which was quite new then , and I thought ‘Oh! perhaps I’ll do that.’"

Sarah (Cissie) Stewart (Great Britain) Freestyle Swimmer 1928 Olympics
"Things were different then. There were no sponsors, no going to a warm country to train, no electronic timing, everything was timed by hand held watches. I worked hard on my own to get where I did. My training was hard going - I just swam up and down. I never had a coach, I just used to watch my older sister, Margaret - she was a champion - and try to do the same, length after length. I was also working in a baker’s shop and I had to wash the windows at half past six in the morning before anyone else came in, and I got off at five o’clock."

Evelyn de Lacy (Australia) Freestyle swimmer 1936
"I was one of eleven children and learned to swim in the Swan River. Girls weren’t allowed to swim in what was called ‘swim throughs’ before they were fourteen as it was considered too hard for them. In Western Australia we did all our swimming in the river. The pools were built on the river, with floating pontoons for turning boards to cope with the fall of the tide."

Signe Johansson (Sweden) Diver 1924 Olympics
"Diving in the 1920s consisted of a standing jump from a diving board, five and ten metres, standing and with advance. A dry dive construction was built in a room at Stockholm Stadium existing of a springboard, lots of sawdust and a belt for the person who was training. We often trained with our male friends who were all top gymnasts and taught us a lot. There was not much practice in water."