Women's Crew:


In the early decades of the twentieth century, exercise was a school requirement for the men and women who attended the University of Washington. Every student was expected to take gymnasium classes or participate in a sport each term. For women, choices included basketball, handball, tennis, field hockey, track and field, baseball – and rowing.

In addition to sports, the women who attended the University of Washington in those early years were involved in many extracurricular activities and were serious about their endeavors. Women held class offices, were on the staff of the Pacific Wave (the precursor to the UW Daily newspaper), and were members of Sororities and clubs ranging from the Pharmaceutical Club to the Athena Debate Club. They were passionate about campus life and fought for equal treatment and consideration when necessary, steadfast and firm in their convictions that women should be treated equally, and voicing their opinion consistently via the Pacific Wave.

The women who participated in athletics at the University of Washington in the early 1900’s were called “gym girls”, and were honored by this anonymous poem published in the 1900 Tyee yearbook.

The pensive girl with the dreamy eyes
May sit in the corner and pose,
But give me the girl that plays basket-ball,
With her cheeks the hue of the rose.

Her step is light, and her eyes are bright,
She studies and works with a vim.
And all is due to the exercise
She takes in the dear old gym.

Then here’s to the girl in the navy blue!
With her steps so light and free:
With the golden wealth of her matchless health –
Oh! She is the girl for me.



Enrollment at the University of Washington was about 604 students at the end of 1901 and grew to only 631 in the spring of 1903. The women started rowing at the University of Washington sometime in these early days. According to the Tyee yearbook, they began in 1903; and although other accounts put the date at 1906, it seems clear there were women braving the waters of Lake Washington in 1903. (University of Washington Catalogs, Special collections, 1901-1909) 

The 1903 Tyee yearbook stated that…

“The co-eds have taken to rowing for the first time this year. A number of the young ladies of the dormitory may be seen each morning about six o’clock down at the lake training faithfully. They use the same boats used by the boys and under the same conditions.” (University of Washington Tyee Yearbook, 1903)

The men rowed in fours until 1907, when they acquired their first eights from Cornell, and the women trained in four-oared barges (much like modern-day wherries). The women dressed modestly in outfits that included long sleeve blouses and wide, gathered at the knee pants called Bloomers. The outfits could not have been very comfortable by today’s standards, but they were the only clothes that were acceptable at that time for women to wear. The invention of synthetics was decades away, and the sensibilities of the day would probably have been shocked at the sight of Lycra!

According to the year book there were ten women braving the elements on Lake Washington in 1903 – Ellen K. Hill, Ray Sheldon, Helen Wetzel, Rita Sinclair, Ethel Brown, May Corson, Anna Reinhart, Jeanne Caithness, Katherine Edwards, and Selma Hansen

The Pacific Wave also helps support the contention that women’s rowing began in 1903. An April article, entitled “Mr. Dooley on the Women’s Rowing Club”, is a tongue-in-cheek account (written in southern gentleman vernacular) of how Coach Jimmie (James) Knight, the men’s football and rowing coach (helped by Bill Lubby) aided the women in their initial pursuit of rowing.

The article details how Coach Knight coaches the “girls” about “trainin’rules” and encourages them to “cut out th’ dances, th’s pa-arties, th’ Fororestry class, th’ fades in ye’re boodwars, ‘cause they ain’t condoocive to good trainin’.” The article then goes on to detail how the Coach took the women out in a boat one morning. The Coach was sitting in the stroke seat and Miss Nabisco, “th’ gr-reat s’ciety quare” was in the bow seat. Coach Knight “accuses” Miss Nabisco of “lallygaggin’” with a young man and tells her it is against “th’ rules”. They rowed for “sivinty-foive minits” to return in time for breakfast. According to the article they only rowed 100 yards and afterward the women gave Jimmie a “thrillin’ ‘Hurrah”. (The Pacific Wave, April 29, 1903)

Not sure how factual this account is since Miss Nabisco is not listed in the 1903 Tyee as one of the ten rowers who turned out, but it seems appropriate to suspend belief for the anecdotal evidence!

A special event, called Junior Day, was also born in 1903. Junior Day was a university-wide program that included rowing and canoeing (aquatic sports), basketball, athletics (track and field), tennis events as well as other University activities such as log rolling. Both men and women competed in the sports events and at times they competed together in mixed events. The activities and sporting events pitted each class against the other for bragging rights. In addition, each year the junior class planted a tree in front of present day Denny Hall with Professor Edmund Meany, and wrote and performed a farce play. The Junior Day events – sometimes lasting several days – usually ended with the Junior Prom. Although there is no record that the women of 1903 competed in rowing in the first ever Junior Day (May 1, 1903), we do know that efforts were being made for oarswomen to be a part of this unique all-campus event.

Women's Rowing: 1903
One of the paths through the thick forest that led from campus down to the lake shore. In 1903, women were making the wooded trek - down muddy and worn trails - to the boathouse to row. Tyee photo.
Women on the water, ca. 1903. Tyee photo.
Women's Rowing: 1904
Many "Junior Day" events, held in the spring, were located on the shores of Lake Washington's Union Bay. This collage from the Tyee shows the crowds and some of the water fun - including log rolling and the canoe fights. By 1904, women's rowing events had become part of this annual celebration. Tyee photo.
Women's Rowing: 1904
Along the shores of Lake Washington at the turn of the century, a serene landscape, particularly in the spring as the forest began to dry. There were very few power boats on the lake; even fewer in the enclosed area of Union Bay. Tyee photo.


The Emblem Committee developed guidelines and the Executive Committee implemented specific rules for awarding varsity letter “W’s” to students who participated in debate and sports teams. The women were awarded their “W” for debate and for basketball, and there were specific qualification requirements for each activity. Each sport received a different color “W” emblem to be worn on a specific color sweater. In addition, each sport was directed to wear a specific team uniform. An athlete or debate team member, who won a subsequent “W”, was entitled to an “eighth of an inch wide gold band” on “the upper right arm” of his or her sweater. (The Pacific Wave, January 6, 1904 p. 3) Women who participated in sports and debate were included from the beginning in the discussions about varsity letters. 

The March 23, 1904 edition of The Pacific Wave chronicles co-ed participation in sports across the country, and at the university. The following is an excerpt from that article:

“All over the country of late years there has been a great deal of interest taken in athletics by girls. Books have been written on the subject, magazines and newspapers have taken it up. It has been treated in almost every possible light and in turn has served as a topic for the society faddist, the comic artist and the zealous reformer.

But underneath all the surface commotion caused by this athletic wave into the land of the feminine, there lies a real and deep enthusiasm – an earnest interest – and it is for this interest and enthusiasm that the college girl stands.

While, perhaps, the feeling has not run as high in our own university as in some of the larger institutions, still the Washington coed has held her own in the field of athletics. She has rowed, played tennis and hockey, and won for herself a wide reputation for her victories in basket ball. …

Perhaps what the athletic girl in Washington stands for can best be shown in the fact that no word of financial embarrassment has ever had to be written on her account; that she has brought almost uniform victory to her university, and that there are now some half-dozen proud wearers of the purple “W”.” (The Pacific Wave, March 23, 1904)

In 1904, Junior Day was held on May 13th. Although, once again, there is no direct evidence that the women rowers participated in the official Junior Day activities in the spring of 1904, the May 4th edition of The Pacific Wave stated that –

“At present Junior Day and its accessories is one of the chief subjects of interest in student circles. The Junior Day committee is working to make the event one long to be remembered. Arrangements are being made to secure four boats exactly alike for the class races. The ladies of the different classes are also determined to show the public what they are capable of in the way of aquatic sports.” (The Pacific Wave, May 13, 1904)

This account seems to show that the women were slated to participate. There were just no results recorded in the subsequent editions of the campus paper.


There is no mention of women rowing during the fall of 1904 and the spring of 1905 either in the Pacific Wave newspaper or the University of Washington Tyee yearbook, although Coach Jim Knight was retained for another year as the rowing coach. Enrollment increased by roughly 100 students to 707 total, and the student run “Board of Control” was adopted by the ASUW. (University of Washington Catalogs, Special collections, 1901-1909)

This board was the result of the expanding activities at the university and the various sports programs now considered too complicated for an “Executive Committee”. The Board of Control – operated and overseen by the students – was created via amendment to the ASUW Constitution to have “direct control over all affairs of the ASUW. It would determine all policies and direct all interests by means of standing sub-committees. It would elect all coaches, directors, the general manager and the book store manager.” (The Pacific Wave, April, 7, 1905)

From the 1905 Tyee, a drawing of a student in her rowing uniform. Tyee photo.
06 men's captain - and women's coxswain - Dick Gloster. Gloster was a leader at the boathouse and had no problem sharing the rowing facilities with female students. His participation with the women bridged the gap between Knight's departure and Conibear's arrival at Washington. Tyee photo.


The 1906 Tyee yearbook called the sports organization the “Physical Culture branch of the University.” The goal of the gymnasium program was to “bring the weaker students up to normal strength and development… rather than to make a few strong men stronger.” (University of Washington Tyee, 1906, p.126) 

The women’s gym classes included aesthetic dancing (“the object being to make the women graceful as well as healthy and strong”) and tennis, cross country running and rowing. In addition to the gymnasium classes, Dr. B.F. Roller (men’s Gymnasium Director) gave a class in hygiene. The Tyee stated that rowing was the “latest sport taken up by the young women, and crews of them practice in the shell and barges nearly everyday.” In addition, the 1909 Tyee commented that the women of 1906 “rowed on stationary sets in the boathouse before being trusted in the barges.” The women were coached by Captain Dick Gloster of the men’s crew in 1906. (University of Washington Tyee Yearbook, 1906, p.126)

Miss Lavina C. Rudberg, the “Instructor in Physical Culture for Women”, was instrumental in May of 1906 in developing a more formal women’s rowing program at the UW. The Pacific Wave noted that “Nothing has met with greater favor among the co-eds, and many are availing themselves of the opportunity to try their hand at this most healthful and beneficial exercise.” The article goes on to say that Captain Dick Gloster, captain of the men’s varsity, was helping to coach the women as well as acting as coxswain. The following women were said to have participated: Mayme Lucas, Fanchon Borie, Helen Blackman, Stella Scoles, Ethel Ames, Marjorie Moran, Jessie Burke, Lucile Annis, Christine Kanters and Gertrude Niedergersaess. (The Pacific Wave, May 25, 1906 p.1). The varsity – or as close to one as they got in 1906 – was composed of Lucas, stroke, Niedergersaess, Ames and Borie. The team was called “the Junior Crew”.

Two of these women – Ethel Ames and Gertrude Niedergersaess – were also listed as playing on the University’s women’s basketball team. In an article about the women’s basketball team, it was said that Miss Niedergersaess “doesn’t know the meaning of the word quit.” (The Pacific Wave, June 2, 1905) There was not the need to specialize in any one individual sport, and many of the men and women participated in more than one sport while at the University.

The intent in the spring of 1906 was to get a race going between the “Junior Crew” four and a group of other promising women in the group before the end of the school year. The Pacific Wave said that probably Marjorie Moran and Christine Kanters would be a part of that other crew; however, there is no further mention in the newspaper if such a race ever took place. The article did end with an optimistic comment: “It is to be hoped that next year (1907) we may see Washington represented not only by the men, but also by the co-eds in its intercollegiate regatta.”


Legendary coach Hiram Conibear was hired in the fall of 1906 to be the Athletic Trainer for the football and track teams. He was also asked to coach the crew and he accepted – although admitting his lack of knowledge about the sport. 

In addition to his training and coaching responsibilities, Conibear continued the rowing program for the women initiated by Jim Knight and Dick Gloster. He was a natural promoter and a seemingly determined organizer who wanted as many students – men and women – to participate in the sport. Conibear wrote many articles for The Pacific Wave newspaper and was readily available to comment on the activities of, and plans for, the crew team. These articles and comments reveal a passionate man who had real vision for what the sport of rowing could be at Washington.

The December 18, 1906 edition of the newspaper gave evidence of Conibear’s commitment to the coeds of the time. The article states that –

“Conibear is much encouraged by the interest taken in rowing by the co-eds who will this year have a crew of their own and will race in the four-oared varsity (men’s) shell. A number of them have been at work all fall rowing on the boat-house float, and the trainer says that several of them are showing signs of unusual promise. It is possible that contests with other colleges will be arranged for this crew and a series of girls’ inter-class races will be rowed during the spring.”

Conibear was impressed by the women who rowed in the fall of 1906, and was already making plans for their development. The February 12th 1907 Pacific Wave stated that “The girls’ crews are on the water at 1:30 daily, rain or shine.” Plans for Junior Day, 1907, were mentioned in the April 16th edition stating simply that “Girl crews in the fours will furnish amusing and exciting contests.”

The May 1st Wave printed the Junior Day plan. The women would row in class fours and mixed doubles canoe races. Another fun aquatic event for the 1907 Junior Day was a canoe war. The male participants were given a ten foot pole and the object was to force your opponent out of his canoe while avoiding touching the canoe itself. The winner was to be awarded a v-neck sweater donated by W. B. Hutchinson & Co. The winner of the women’s interclass shell race (junior class versus senior class) was to be “awarded a fine canoe pillow donated by King Bros.”

The results of the 1907 Junior Day were published in the May 7th Wave, describing the women’s racing between the freshman and sophomore co-eds and the seniors who raced later in the day against the clock. Conibear clearly saw no problem with women’s competitive rowing, and encouraged them to race:

“The ’10 girls (class of 1910), after racing even with their competitors for about half the course, drew on their endurance and shot ahead, finishing first by five lengths, and as they crossed the line they were given a frantic round of applause by their fellow classmen in the flotilla. The Senior barge crew raced against time later in the day, but they were crippled by the absence of a coxswain and hindered by a strong land wind, so that they gained only third place.” There were no times recorded in the article, but it stated that the course was about one-half mile long “commencing near the island and ending on a line between the varsity boathouse and a float moored to the left of it.”

The “island” referred to was probably Foster’s Island, and the race likely proceeded at a diagonal line toward the edge of Union Bay. The article described the spectators:

“Both sides of the course, for several hundred yards out from the finish, was lined with pleasure craft, and the boat house landing and shore were covered with hundreds of those who did not obtain canoes or launches.”

Besides the crew races were the ever popular canoe events:

“The mixed doubles was also a duel race, the teams being (Mr.) Huntoon and Miss Katherine Howe, and (Mr.) Harrison and Miss Ellen Shelton. The latter lost by half a canoe length after a heart-breaking struggle to make sheer nerve overcome lack of training. The race excited more enthusiasm than any other of the day, and both winners and losers were wildly cheered as the craft shot across the line.”

The water fight was then held in front of the boat house and the crowds were described as “an arena whose sides were packed three deep with boats.” It appears that in these early days women’s rowing finished each year at Junior Day and there is no further mention of it in the spring of 1907.

One of the earliest photos of women at the boathouse on Lake Washington, including coach Conibear. The women rest their oars on the giant timber cut down to float the building. Identified (but not confirmed) from their class photographs in the Tyee, left to right: Unknown, Helen Tillman, Conibear, Merle Tanner, Irene Conner, and Louise Renkin. Tyee photo.
An early photo dated 1907 (though unconfirmed) of the women in an eight. The women rowed consistently in wherries (called "barges" at the time); there is not a photograph that has surfaced of the women rowing in a shell in this era.
Out on Law Point, or "Fusser's" Point. "Fussing" was a turn of the century term for a couple in love who "fussed" over each other.
Helen C. Tillman, oarswoman, who on top of being a History major listed in the Tyee the following as activities: Pirates of Penzance (1); Orchestra (2), (3); Crew (2), (3); Secretary of Class (3); Tyee Staff (3); Glee Club (3); Farce Cast (3); Wave Staff (3); YWCA (1), (2), (3); Woman's League Com; Junior Party. This was not atypical of the women on campus in the early years; strong, self-confident, intelligent and active, they were, by most indications, respected and appreciated by their male counterparts. This at a time in broader society where women were not considered compatible in a board room, held very few leadership positions, and would not gain the right to vote for another twelve years. Tyee photo.
Hiram Conibear spent part of the summer of 1908 back east, his new-found passion now contagious. According to the Pacific Wave - via Conibear's prolific writings to the publication - he mentioned Washington’s co-ed program to Cornell, and, based on the success at Washington, Cornell planned to organize a women’s crew as well. (The Daily Pacific Wave, October 20, 1908)


The University population grew by almost 500 students from the spring of 1907 to the spring of 1908 to include 1,592 students, and the crew and Conibear gained in popularity. Seattle and the University communities were getting ready for the Alaska Yukon Exposition to be held in 1909. New buildings were being constructed and plans made to attract citizens from all over the United States to Seattle. (University of Washington Catalogs, Special collections, 1901-1909) 

The women’s crew gained more legitimacy when it was officially sanctioned as a University sport at a late October meeting of the Board of Control.

Later in November, the paper reported that “girls rowing will commence soon and their big day will come on Junior Day when class crews will row for the college championship.” During that autumn, the co-ed’s training was similar to that of the men. On December 17th it stated: “Co-eds, under the direction of Trainer Conibear, are taking much the same work as their brothers, running cross-country and training for crews. They were last week assigned to divisions for practice.”

Both the co-ed’s and Conibear’s commitment appeared to be sincere and the women’s crew at the University seemed even more firmly established in the autumn of 1907. The following week the December 20th edition of the Wave continued its coverage of the women’s crew – indicating that there were many women interested in the crew. The article stated in part –

“Since the opening of college the women of the University have been taking a course in cross-country running to put them in condition for spring athletics. The crew is the biggest drawing card in the curriculum. Three class of the University are to be represented by women’s crews. The Senior girls will not enter the rowing races, but the Freshmen, Sophomores and Juniors will contend for honors on Junior Day. The co-eds are training three times a week under the personal supervision of Coach Conibear.”

The women’s crew received significant coverage in The Pacific Wave in the spring of 1908, and even the line-ups were added to the end of the article on February 28th. This new found publicity is a direct result of Conibear. He appears to have written to the newspaper daily or had the ear of the editor because there are days when more than one article appears. The February article described the upcoming Junior Day regatta and noted that each of the Freshman, Sophomore and Junior class had a strong eight to enter in the race.

Training continued, and in March the headline in the March 27, 1908 edition of the paper was “Upper Classmen Co-eds to Coach Rowing”. Conibear was setting up a mechanism for the varsity women to help the underclass women learn the art of rowing. The article reads:

“’It is my plan in the future to have the girls row in the shells in their Junior and Senior years and to have the coaching of the Freshman and Sophomore crews done by the girls of the upper classes.’ This is what Coach Conibear said yesterday concerning women’s rowing.

Interest in girls’ rowing is steadily increasing. Besides the crews that have been training since last fall, another Freshman eight has been organized and a first Freshman eight will be picked up from the two crews shortly after the spring vacation. The Sophomores have two crews and the Juniors also have an eight. In all forty girls are turning out three times a week, and some good racing is anticipated on Junior day between the several crews.

‘The racing this year will not be a mere test of speed,’ says Miss Rudberg and Coach Conibear, ‘but will include good form in getting into the boat, in starting and good oarsmanship. The contests will be judged by expert oarsmen who are judges of good form in rowing.’ Some exhibition work is also planned by the girls’ crews at the time of the christening of the new A.S.U.W. launch.’” (The Pacific Wave, March 27, 1908)

This is the first mention of the co-eds being judged on form and oarsmanship instead of speed. It would continue in that direction – at least in organized competition – as the women’s crew entered into 1909 and the second decade of the 20th century.

Junior Day arrived in May and the women’s class race was a highlight. The May 5th Pacific Wave article, headlined “Freshman Women Win in Fast Crew Race”, suggests that the women of 1908 raced and raced hard.


By the end of the first decade, student enrollment swelled to 1,846, and the 1909 Tyee boasted a Women’s Rowing heading and stated that “Women’s rowing at the University to-day (sic) is due largely to Captain Dick Gloster, of the Varsity, H. B. Conibear, and to the co-eds who turned out in the “wee hours of the morning in the spring of 1906.”

Conibear did change the line-ups for the Junior Day regatta. The freshman women ultimately defeated the sophomore women in what the Wave said was “an exciting race over half a mile.” The line-up for the winning freshman boat was Minnie Dalby, cox, Gretchen O’Donnell, stroke; Marjorie Harkins, 7; Catherine Caldwell, 6; Bess Storch, 5; Millicent Sallberg, 4; Frances Stephenson, 3; Marion Radford, 2; June Kellogg, 1. (The Daily Pacific Wave, April 29, and May 4, 1909)

At the end of April, Conibear announced that the men and women would form into rowing clubs, “each club will be named after some noted woman and will compete with the others, thus arousing more interest and competition in women’s rowing at Washington.” (The Daily Pacific Wave, April 16, 1909) Conibear picked two captains for the women (Ada Etsell and Gretchen O’Donnell) and four captains for the men. Each captain was responsible to pick the other members. The Wave stated that “Both the men’s and women’s crew clubs are well started. The members are selected and from now on the competition for admission will be keen.” The women’s clubs were made up of Misses Tillman, Whittle, Etsell, Conner, Godfrey, O’Donnell and Lucas in the first club; and Misses Buckley, Latham, Rankin, Tanner, Drake, Richardson and Harkins in the second club. The men named their clubs “Gloster Club” and “Kirby Club” after the first two varsity eight captains. (The Daily Pacific Wave, May 7, and May 18, 1909). There is no record of any racing results.

The first decade of the twentieth century came to a close with record numbers of women racing and competing in rowing contests. Hiram Conibear was directly involved with coaching them, and was interested in providing the same opportunities as the men – with the exception of intercollegiate racing (due to the fact there were no women’s rowing programs on the west coast besides Washington). The team had weathered the freshman semester ban and the future looked bright for women’s rowing at the University. 

From the UW archives, a photo dated on the back "1909". Photo courtesy MSCUA Photo Coll 700.
Ada Etsell, varsity women's tennis champion and early rower at Washington. Tyee photo.

1909 Participants

The following are the names of women associated with the rowing program at Washington in 1909. These names have been drawn from various Pacific Wave articles, footnoted at the end of each paragraph (note – there will be duplicates): 

Wanda Knox, Lena Sawyer, Rosella Mohr, Millicent Sallsberg, Mary Losce, Marie Mitchel, Violet Dungan, Violet Negrath, Alma Wingate, Myrtie Crawley, Nora Curr, Cora Hall, Bonna Smith, Helen Ross, Aryeness Roeder, Minnie McGinnis, Irene Taylor, Lillian Allen, Madge Finley, Elsie Erickson, Bess Hanna, Eleanor Stahl, Freda Biegert, Gretchen O’Donnell, Doris Best, Beatrice Smith, Frances Jobst, Dorothy Drake, Lillian Killetz, Anna Ullin, Sabra Godfrey, Mabel Furri, Lillian Hawkins, Minnie McGinnis, Felsie Randall, Emma Graves, Alma Kittilsby, Ann Hammond, Sylvia Wold, Ethel Graves, Gertrude Mallette and Catherine Wilson. (The Daily Pacific Wave, October 29, 1909)

Miss Aryeness, Miss Boeder, Bess Hanna, Violet Dungan, Minnie McGinnis, Irene Taylor, Madge Finley, Elsie Erickson, and Alma Kittelsoy. (The Daily Pacific Wave, December 9, 1908)

Misses Dungan, Jobst, Kittelsby, O’Donnell, McGinnis, Crowley, Roeder, Church, Taylor, Finley, Erickson, Hanna, Randell, Drake, Kilty, Willin, Godfrey, Funy, Hammond, Young, Peastee, Wagoner, Bartow, Simpson, Whittle, Truesdale, Johnson, and Seaman. (The Daily Pacific Wave, December 16, 1908)

Cora Hall, Roxy Smith, Lura Sawyer, Annie Schively, Beulah Holeman, Frances Stevenson, Laura Yaw, June Kellogg, Minnie Dalby, Lillian Allen, Ruth Christensen, May Losse, Marion Radford, Millicent Soelber, Alma Wingate, Edith Hindman, Florence Thompson, Winifred Lovejoy and Hazel Belshaw. (The Daily Pacific Wave, February 3, 5, and 10, 1909)