Strongmen around the turn of the 19th century usually grab the attention of most people interested in Physical Culture. Almost everyone will know the name Eugen Sandow. Yet despite our preconceived notions that strength is an exclusively male pursuit, Physical Culture was in fact an all-encompassing movement that didn’t exclude based on gender. There were female performers as well, many of whom were stronger than their male counterparts. Society viewed these women with a suspicious eye. Was it possible to be strong and ladylike? Were they not too masculine? Katie Sandwina, once the ‘Strongest Woman in the World’ had to face many of these pressures. What’s more, she did it with a smile.
So who was Katie Sandwina and why should we care?
Born Kate Brumbach in 1884 in Vienna, to Bavarian parents. Kate lived strength from an early age. Her parents were regular performers in the German circus circuit. Their act consisted of formidable and impressive feats of strength. Her father Philippe was said to be able to lift 500 pounds with one finger. Her mother was said to possess 15-inch biceps. Strength was in Kate’s blood. As the years progressed and Kate grew older, she became a feature in her parent’s routine. Her 6 foot one frame was packed with nearly 200 pounds. She used to wrestle men on stage along with performing stunts with dumbbells and barbells. She was soon a huge draw.
Germany could never hold a woman with such talent. In the early 1900s Kate and her husband immigrated to New York. It was in New York that Kate would take up a new name. Gone was the name Kate Brumbach, now she was Katie Sandwina. Sandwina…very similar to Sandow isn’t it? She adopted this new persona after she defeated Eugen Sandow; yes that Eugen Sandow, in a strength contest in New York. It had all begun with a challenge. Katie’s new circus in New York had made a regular feature of Katie’s abnormal strength. Challenges were issued to the crowd to see if any man could lift more weight than Katie. Audiences were shocked when one night, Eugen Sandow took up the challenge.
Few people held out much hope for Katie. US Physicians saw Sandow as the perfect male specimen. He had a body carved out of marble and was known for his own lifting prowess. As the challenge began, it soon became clear that Katie was not easily fazed. The audience waited in anticipation to see this battle between two strength gurus. Katie would lift a weight and then Sandow would match the feat. This continued again and again until an incredible 300 pounds was packed onto a tiny dumbbell. Katie coolly pressed it overhead with one hand. Sandow only managed it as far as his chest. Katie had defeated the World’s most perfectly developed man and she had done it in front of hundreds of fans. Shortly after Katie adopted the name Sandwina. From there Katie Sandwina was to become a household name and with it, a number of societal pressures were placed upon the woman from Germany.
In 1911, Kate Carew, one of the US’s most influential journalists, ran a story on Sandwina that was to announce Sandwina to the wider United States. Carew had previously written about Mark Twain, Pablo Picasso and the Wright Brothers. Sandwina was in good company. The Carew article is one of the most fascinating documents written about Sandwina. Full of praise for Katie it displays the pressures faced by the Strongwoman. Carew was adamant that despite Sandwina’s strength, she was still an embodiment of femininity. Carew explained that although Katie’s arms could lift 240 pounds overhead, they were still supple and smooth enough to show off in a ball gown. Sandwina, she proclaimed, had
“No horrid lumps of muscle, dears—just a little ripple under the skin, like mice playing in a mattress.”
For some Sandwina was the embodiment of femininity, attracting suitors from around the United States. For others however she was the antithesis of what a woman should be. She was strong, independent and a known suffragette. Katie was frequently forced to discuss her maternal nature, to discuss her feminine love of the home and so on. This was done to ensure her acceptance into an American society still struggling with the concept of a physically strong woman. Katie was part of a new breed of women forging a place for themselves in a traditional male pursuit, but she was forced to do so within the guise of being a feminine performer.
What can we learn from this story? There has been and perhaps continues to be biases and misperceptions surrounding physically strong women. Female bodybuilders and strength enthusiasts alike are frequently derided with suggestions that they’re too masculine. Katie was forced to promote her ‘feminine’ features so as not to arose the disapproval of her peers. Femininity itself is a loose concept at the best of times, but it can be a barrier for women seeking to pursue their passions. For every Sandwina, there were many more women who were forced away from physical culture.
So what happened to the World’s Strongest Woman? From the early 1900s until her retirement at the age of 64 in 1945, Sandwina toured the United States dazzling crowds with her impressive strength. Once she removed herself from the spotlight Sandwina opened a restaurant with her husband where she was known on occasion to delight patrons by breaking horseshoes, bending steel bars and occasionally hoisting her husband overhead. Showing that strength ran in her blood, Katie was highly influential in her son Theodore’s physical pursuits. Theodore was a championship boxer during the 1920s and 30s. His record? A staggering 46 wins with 38 knockouts. Wow.