WOMEN IN SPORT : A Timely Fracture in a Sporting Glass Ceiling by Doloranda Pember

In our latest post Doloranda Pember reflects on her book: In the wake of Mercedes Gleitze: Open Water Swimming Pioneer (The History Press, February 2019).

When my mother died in 1981, little did I know of the full extent of her pioneering swimming achievements during her youth in a male dominated world of sport. Mercedes Gleitze was a pioneer open water swimmer in the 1920s and 1930s, and although she rarely spoke to me or my siblings about her sporting feats, thankfully she left a comprehensive collection of press reports, witness statements, photographs and personal letters in suitcases in our attic, covering her 10-year swimming career.  After absorbing the enormity of her achievements I felt compelled to put on record this missing piece of British sporting history, and have recently written her biography:  In the wake of Mercedes Gleitze: Open Water Swimming Pioneer (The History Press, February 2019).

The biography also covers my mother’s disrupted childhood, and her emergence after the First World War as one of the ‘new women’ of that era – young women who, often in the face of ridicule and scorn, challenged the centuries-old tradition which decreed that a woman’s place was in the home, and that it was only men who could realise their dreams and their potential.

In October 1927, after many attempts, Mercedes became the first British woman to swim the English Channel.  On the back of this success she made a decision to give up office work and launch what was then an extraordinary career as a female professional long-distance swimmer, travelling widely, and conquering many previously un-swum bodies of water.   What made her even more extraordinary was that she was from a working-class, immigrant background, without influence or financial support, just the sheer determination to succeed.

The blatant suppression of women in sport in those days was reprehensible – for example, the 1921 ban by The Football Association that disallowed women’s football matches on pitches used by its member clubs (subsequently lifted in 1971);   and it wasn’t until 2015 that the women’s University Boat Race was allowed to be held on the same Championship Course as the traditional male event.  Prior to this the women’s races were allocated shorter courses elsewhere on the ‘justification’ that female rowers were not strong enough to complete the main 4.2-mile course.  Were these boat race organisers really unaware of the many women and girls who were carrying out pioneering swims in that same tidal river?[1]  These swims were all covered in the media reports of the day.  Surely it takes more strength and stamina to perform a solo swim of up to 10, 20 or 40 miles in the Thames, than is needed by 8 men pulling together in a boat on its surface water over 4.2 miles?  And, of course, one must not forget the long, drawn-out battle to include women’s events in all disciplines of the Olympic Games.

Because my mother was a high-profile sportswoman, she became a female role model.  Her name was used to help change the behaviour of women who had been brought up to think in a narrow, limited way about their role in life.  During her career she was approached by and supported various women’s groups, including the National Political League which Mary Adelaide Broadhurst MA founded in 1911 to further social and political reform on a non-party basis. (Mary campaigned actively against the infamous force-feeding of suffragettes.)

As a female sportswoman Mercedes led by example.  She was not possessive with her talent and actively encouraged everyone to learn to swim.  The twenty-seven endurance swims she performed in corporation pools offered thousands of women and girls the opportunity to witness one of their own gender perform feats of strength which, up until recent years, had been thought to be the prerogative of men.

Although my mother’s main legacy was to sport, the part of her character that I am most proud of is her humanitarian predisposition and the help she gave to a number of impoverished families during the bleak 1930s.  From the start, her  swimming ambition lay in juxtaposition with a feeling of wanting to do something to help the unemployed, destitute people she witnessed living on the streets during the years leading up to the Great Depression – people who she said had been “battered by life.”  She felt a strong empathy with these dispossessed groups and made up her mind to try to lessen their suffering.  In 1933, at the close of her swimming career, she used the trust fund she had created with her swimming prize money specifically for this purpose, and established The Mercedes Gleitze Charity for Destitute Men and Women in the city of Leicester – its aim being to help unemployed people become self-supporting and regain their self-respect.  Full details covering the institution of the Gleitze Charity and the use it was put to are included in her biography.  As its author, I will be donating the royalties from the sales of my mother’s story to her trust fund – which, although small, is still being used today to help families in poverty.  My pledge is in the book.

Doloranda Pember.

[1] Davies, Caitlin, Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames (Aurum Press Ltd, 2015)