Olympic weightlifting for men dates to the very first Olympic games in Athens in 1896. The first iteration for women came in 2000 at the Sydney Games. It took until 1987 for the first world weightlifting championship for women versus 1891 for men. Likewise, the first recognizable meets for women only came in the 1970s versus the nineteenth century for men. The last American men (Guy Carlton and Mario Martinez) to win Olympic medals did so in 1984 but the last women to do so (Katherine Nye and Sarah Robles) did so in 2020. This last statistic is our opening for this post.
Proving that I am a researcher who fundamentally cannot stick to one topic, my latest research is on the history of women’s Olympic weightlifting (henceforth weightlifting) in the United States. I know I only sporadically mention weightlifting on this website – mainly because I am just downright terrible at it – but I am a huge fan. Whereas some tune in to the Olympics for the 100m sprint, I tune in for weightlifting. Men’s or women’s, I don’t care. I just love seeing the mastery and athleticism of these elite athletes.
I’m nearly finished revising all my notes, which means the book writing will begin soon, and thought it no harm to give some of the history here in a three-part series. This is because very little exists online to celebrate American women’s contribution to weightlifting and, to put it as plainly as possible – America pioneered the sport.
So as some reading this chant ‘USA, USA, USA’ at the top of their lungs, the rest of us are going to learn some history. American women were the first to organise themselves within the sport, they petitioned the International Weightlifting Federation to recognise the sport and Florida hosted the first women’s weightlifting championship in 1987. Over three posts we are going to study the following
- The early history of women’s weightlifting
- Why the United States became a hot-spot for weightlifting in the 1970s
- How women’s weightlifting came to the Olympics
What do I mean when I say weightlifting?
This is a great question. From the 1970s weightlifting will refer to the two Olympic lifts, the clean and the snatch. When discussing the early history, we have to delve into the world of vaudeville strength and strongwomen but it all connects, promise.
Why does this matter?
Call it my fading hippy idealism but I truly believe iron sports are for everyone. To bastardize my favoured Henry Rollins quote, ‘200 pounds is always 200 pounds.’ This means that weight does not discriminate based on class, creed, or gender. It discriminates based on you being a weakling and, as early 1900s physical culturist Bernarr McFadden made clear, ‘weakness is a crime, don’t be a criminal.’
I began that idealistically and ended up as a teenage bully. I tried. More seriously, weight lifting and training of any kind is a beautiful thing that can be adapted to all shapes and sizes as well as age groups. I think any study to make weightlifting accessible is one worth studying. There is also something otherworldly about the determination and ferocity of earlier women weightlifters to find a way when no way existed.
The First Women Weightlifters: The Competitors
With that out of the way, this post focuses on the early history which, in this case, focuses on two different, but interrelated pathways – official competitions and strength exhibitions/shows. For reasons of expediency (for some reason it is generally agreed that anything over 1,000 words is long form writing’ – see Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death on why this should worry you), we’ll focus on the nineteenth century.
This does not mean that women did not lift weights before this time. Jan Todd, for example, has written on the Roman Bikini Mosaic of the 4th century which seemed to show a woman lifting light dumbbells. It was in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, however, that we began to find evidence of official weightlifting competitions between women.
The best example of this, but one that is not discussed enough, is the case of strongwoman Minerva (or Josephine Blatt). Sponsored by Richard K. Fox of the National Police Gazette, Minerva took part in a weightlifting competition with fellow strongwoman Victorine in 1893 (just two years after the first international event for men in London). Besting her rival, Minerva was awarded both a championship belt and cup from Fox with the intention that this would become a prestige award akin to a national boxing belt.
Minerva’s tumultuous personal life stopped this from happening, but it was nonetheless the first official weightlifting competition between women in the United States. The next sanctioned competition did not arrive until 1947 when Abbye ‘Pudgy’ Stockton hosted a weightlifting competition. What differentiated Stockton from Minerva was the body overseeing Stockton’s tournament, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU).
Richard K. Fox was a private entrepreneur who hoped to benefit financially from women’s weightlifting. If the public grew interested in it he could organize competitions, report on it in his magazine, and generally monetize the sport, etc. The AAU, by contrast, was a national sporting body that, from the 1920s, had overseen American weightlifting. Pudgy’s competition was the first inkling that the sport might be legitimized within the United States.
Interestingly Pudgy’s competition came just a few years after British weightlifter and powerlifter Ivy Russell got officially sanctioned meets for British weightlifting/powerlifting contests for women. In both instances, however, the competitions themselves did not lead to something greater. In the case of Pudgy, her influence over women’s weightlifting continued but primarily as a source of inspiration for later lifters.
The AAU did not continue meets for women and, although we have evidence of unsanctioned meets occurring in the 1960s, and women entering men’s competitions in the 1970s, it took until 1981 for the next national meet in America to take place. Critically the 1981 competition was the beginning of annual contests for women.
The First Women Weightlifters: The Strongwomen
It is significant that Minerva, who was a career strongwoman, was the first recognizable weightlifting champion because the worlds of competitive weightlifting and strong women feats were interchangeable for many decades. Even Pudgy Stockton, who did lift using the Olympic lifts, gained her fame for strength exhibitions in the 1930s and 1940s alongside her husband Les at Muscle Beach on America’s West Coast.
Jan Todd, and the wonderful Strongman project, have done a great job in highlighting the many strongwomen who gained a career in America’s Vaudeville theatres and circuses in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Here I am going to focus on just one name, because of their influence in the sport of weightlifting, Katie Sandwina.
Born Katie Brumbach in 1884, Sandwina gained her fame in the United States in the early 1900s. While it is often reported that she gained her name having best famed physical culturist Eugen Sandow in competition, there is no historical evidence to make this claim. Seriously. Jan Todd (who is the expert on Sandwina) and I once spent an entire afternoon discussing and researching this fact.
What is far more common is that Sandwina, searching for a stage name, chooses something resembling Sandow to add some gravitas to her name. According to the Strongman Project
Her big break came in early 1911, when she became the center ring attraction for the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Billed as “Katie Sandwina and Troupe,” Katie’s act consisted of supporting a 600-pound (272 ¼ kg) cannon on her shoulder, resisting the pull of horses and lifting barbells
Crucially for us, Sandwina’s best lift was reportedly a 286 pounds press overhead. This is significant as this record was not beaten for several decades. This became an easy criticism for those resisted to the sport in the 1970s and 1980s with the reasoning going something along the lines of ‘how can we take you seriously when no one has broken this several decade record’. This was a compelling argument given that weightlifting is predicated on consistently breaking records.
When famed 1970s and 1980s Karyn Marshall eventually broke Sandwina’s record in 1984 (with a 289 lbs. lift) she helped to legitimise the sport and usher in a new dawn of record breaking. There’ll be more on this in later post.
Two Concluding Observations
One thing I want readers to notice, and critique, are the gaps and absences of the above history. While I have focused on the big picture stories here, the truth is that there are large parts of this history were little to no women are reported as weightlifting (as opposed to just lifting weights). There were decades of women being pushed to the margins within the sport of weightlifting .
The next is the heritage that I want to stress within this sport despite the absences. Yes the sport is relatively new and while some may want to date it to 1981, or 1987, or even 2000, I think a fairer representation is the strongwomen of the early 1900s. They were the first inclinations of how a sport was born.
As always… Happy Lifting!
For those interested, my book on women’s Olympic weightlifting in the United States is my next big project for the next two years. It uses interviews from key figures (40 at the time of writing), weightlifting magazines and books, records from the IOC and US Weightlifting Association, as well as popular newspapers and television programmes to explore this history. If anyone wants to know more, or even better reach out with some information about family members, please get in touch.