Fighting the Current: The Rise of American Women's Swimming, 1870-1926

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Lisa Bier's latest book
Fighting the Current: The Rise of American Women's Swimming, 1870-1926 (McFarland, 2011) is a latest book by Lisa Bier, a librarian at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, Connecticut. She wrote Fighting the Current: The Rise of American Women's Swimming, 1870-1926 that covers the early years of women's swimming, with open water swims going back to the 1870's, up to Gertrude Ederle's 1926 English Channel swim.

Review by Jessica Kenty-Drane

A riveting tale of American women fighting to secure their rightful lane in the swimming pool!

In an era when girls' and women's participation in competitive sports is part of both an American and international athletic landscape it might be hard to imagine that a short one hundred twelve years ago these same girls and women were prevented from Olympic competition with their increasing presence in the games contested for much of the last century. Bier's book, Fighting the Current, highlights the impact women swimmers had on women's athletic participation between the late 1800's and early 1900's. Her socio-historical treatment of this era reads like watching an engaging documentary. Her writing is creative yet descriptive enough for your minds' eye to envision what the sport of swimming was like for these early American swimmers. Using historical records and amazing photos Bier takes the reader into the world of swimming in the latter half of the 19th century - a time when pools were scarce and clean water perhaps more so! She describes the waste along America's shores, particularly in its cities, and the general environmental degradation of the coasts. Indeed early swimmers played an important role in the environmental movement to clean and protect our oceans and harbors as the desire to swim spread up and down the coast. Their work also resulted in local investments in year round swimming pools with safe, clean water.

Cultural norms presented an enormous challenge to girls and women interested in both recreational and competitive swimming. Modesty laws restricted women's choice of bathing attire with dire consequences as women and their children were constantly drowning due to the weight of women's clothes and their inability to swim. Bier documents how a national learn-to-swim movement gripped the entire country putting women in pools and eventually removing the cumbersome and restrictive clothing from women's wardrobes. As a result, accidental drowning of women and children fell.

Perhaps most engaging is Bier's thrilling account of women's swimming competition. The "amateur movement" of the 1880's differentiated between the financially compensated, and often working class, competitor and those who participated for the love of sport and personal reward of the win (i.e. primarily upper class college men). The patriarchal structure of amateur athletics prevented women's participation in recognized national and international amateur competition and so they were able, for a while, to engage in a gamut of sport competitions including those with monetary rewards. Thus, women swam in competitions and for work (e.g. entertainment shows) as they liked until they too joined the amateur ranks in 1914. They did so only after climbing inordinate institutional barriers and battling patriarchs like James E. Sullivan, head of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), in that time.

The greatest reward in this book comes from reading the gripping stories of the women athletes who battled their communities and sometimes families to swim competitively. These chronicles of numerous swimmers (e.g. Kate Bennett, Katie Allen, Ethel and Elaine Golding, Florence West, Annette Kellerman, Augusta Gallop, Clara Hurst, Adeline Trapp, Elaine Golding, Rose Pitonof, Katherine Mehtrtens, Charlotte Epstein, Charlotte Boyle, Aileen Riggin, Helen Wainwright, Helen Meany, and Gertrude Ederle) lives as athletes, competitors, and/or swim league instructors and administrators, are truly compelling in their own right. It is with lively story telling that Bier propels the role of the individual athletes to the center of the account of how women came to be liberated to swim safely and competitively in the United States and internationally. These tales build up to the triumphant English Channel crossing by Gertrude Ederle in 1926. Ederle was the first woman to accomplish this feat and she did so in record breaking time! With enough plot twists and turns for a mystery novel, Bier documents women as true competitors and athletes.

This book makes for an excellent read for sociologists and historians of sport as well as women's studies. It could be used in a classroom or simply as a fun read. A great gift for your swimmer friends and relatives as well!

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