In the early decades of the 20th 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.
Over the first one hundred years, the “gym girls” have come a long way at the University of Washington. A great atmosphere and love of rowing was born in the first decade of the 1900’s, and although their involvement was not constant during the entire century, the same passion for the sport remains as strong today as it was in those early years. Cheers to the women who blazed the trails—those who followed would learn to appreciate their determination.
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:
“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 yearbook there were 10 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 10 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 on the water, ca. 1903. 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 basketball….
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 13. 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 4 edition of The Pacific Wave stated:
“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, 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.
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 every day.” 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:
“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 12, 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 16 edition stating simply that “Girl crews in the fours will furnish amusing and exciting contests.”
The May 1 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 7 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 Fosters 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.
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. The October 22, 1907 Pacific Wave stated:
“At the meeting of the Board of Control last Thursday evening, the sport of women’s rowing in the University was formally established, and Trainer Conibear was instructed to go ahead with his plans for placing this activity upon a permanent basis. Oars have been purchased, and everything is now in readiness for training to commence. The interest which is taken in women’s rowing is shown by the large number of girls who have expressed their desire to engage in this form of sport.”
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 17 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 20 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 classes 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 28. This newfound 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 classes had a strong eight to enter in the race. The following is the article (entitled “Women Plan Shell Race”) in its entirety:
“The crew women are planning another Junior Day race for this year and it promises to be an exciting one. The Juniors, Sophomores and Freshman each have a strong eight-oared crew. They are evenly matched in endurance, skill and determination, and after the regular practice they occasionally race each other to the boat house from the half-mile buoy.
It would doubtless be a surprise to say of the old ’07 (class of 1907) girls, who, though small in number yet great in spirit, started girls’ rowing at the University of Washington, if they should come back and see the enthusiastic crews of girls who turn out almost every afternoon. The increased spirit and progress is noticed even from last year when the patient work of the Freshman and Sophomore crews, on the boat house then in old “Nero” and finally in the barges, resulted in the class race on Junior Day.
The girls soon learned that with Coach Conibear the word business-like is written in capital letters and so they have their coxswains who see that the crews are complete and on time each day.
Those representing the classes are:
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 5 Pacific Wave article, headlined “Freshman Women Win in Fast Crew Race,” suggests that the women of 1908 raced and raced hard:
“One of the prettiest races ever pulled off on the lake was the Freshman-Sophomore Girls’ Race on Junior Day. The course of one mile was covered in five minutes three seconds (5:03) and the Freshman with a splendid start held their own to the finish. Both crews rowed in excellent form. The freshman crossed the line with a good half length, finishing with a fast stroke. The boating of the crews was:
Class of 1910 (sophomore)
Class of 1911 (freshmen)
There appears to be something amiss in the time and/or distance, since by comparison the 1982 women’s national championship varsity crew raced 1500 meters in a time of 4:56, in a shell as opposed to a “barge”. Even so this was a head to head event that suggests the women were motivated and ready to race.
As an aside, it is notable that Ada Etsell (’10), five seat in the victorious freshman crew, went on to win the Women’s Tennis Tournament in June. Etsell beat Christine Kanters (’09) by a score of 6 – 4, 9 – 7. This is an example of the many women who participated in other sports at the University, in addition to rowing, and is reflective of the value placed on competitive athletics throughout the student body, both men and women.
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)
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.” It also included a page about the “Women’s Aim in Athletics.” The essay (written by Lavina C. Rudberg, Physical Director of Women), states in part that:
“It is the desire of the University to do for its women in the physical culture department as much really artistic as well as practical work as can possibly be accomplished in the two years granted it in the curriculum. To this end the following aims are essayed: First, not only to improve but also to maintain the health of the women; second, to show them how so to conserve their energy as to create in them skill, grace, confidence and endurance.” Lavina also stated that the sport of rowing was “extremely popular and excellent physical culture is being obtained. The girls row whether it is raining or it is shining.” (Tyee, 1906)
In the fall of 1908, the women were so settled in rowing that they began to train in “Nero” – the training barge similar to the one that exists today – soon after school began. The September 23rd issue of the campus newspaper, The Daily Pacific Wave (name changed from the “Pacific Wave“), stated:
“Women will begin rowing on October 1, under the direction of coach Conibear,” says Miss Lavina Rudberg. “All women, turning out for rowing for the first time, will row in “old Nero,” Washington’s famous barge. After two months in “Nero,” training in the barges will begin.”
“Interest in women’s rowing is greater than ever, judging from the number of inquires received. No woman will be permitted to turn out for rowing who are not able to swim. Rowing will be a part of the regular gymnasium course hereafter.”
Freshman women will turn out on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Sophomore (women will turn out) on Thursdays and Tuesdays.” (The Daily Pacific Wave, September 23, 1908)
Subsequent messages under the heading “Rowing for Women” appeared in the paper reminding the women of practice times and days. During the month of October, Miss Rudberg campaigned to get a pool built at the University. She was concerned for the safety of the men and women rowers and adamant that they should be able to swim. Miss Rudberg stated – “It is imperative that the men and women who are turning out for crew know how to swim, and there is no opportunity for them to learn at the present.” Miss Rudberg continued to say that coach Conibear and Director Hall were sure that a tank could be built for a “small expenditure.” (The Daily Pacific Wave, October 8, 1908)
Meanwhile, Coach Conibear was busy on the lake with fifty-one freshman and sophomore women turning out for fall rowing. Conibear stated that he would be available to coach the women from 1:30 until 4:00 every afternoon, and his plans included encouraging sororities to plan inter-sorority contests and also a fall race – specifically pitting students from eastern Washington against their western Washington counterparts. Conibear continued the system of having older, more experienced women coach the new rowers (Daily Pacific Wave, October 9, 1908), suggesting a program no longer in infancy, but rather becoming organizationally self-sufficient.
And then came what would be the first of a series of setbacks. What the Pacific Wave proclaimed as the “largest co-ed rowing squad in the United States, and probably in the world” was in part “disbanded” by the Dean of Liberal Arts, and faculty manager of the Board of Control, Arthur R. Priest. This is the first – but not the last – recorded time that upper campus administration, in an effort to rein in Conibear, would try to stop some or all of the women’s rowing program. The reason given was that Conibear was needed in the gymnasium and could not be spared to coach the women. The plan was to only let those sophomore women who had made the team the previous spring continue to row.
The ensuing uproar was predictable, as the women at Washington were now fiercely loyal to their sport (and their coach), as reflected by a letter to the Wave –
“We can not see why we should be deprived of this sport. It is pleasant, healthy exercise. Those who rowed last year were splendidly developed and we all like it so much. The fact that the women could row here all winter long has proved a strong drawing card for the University. In most places the weather or the winds make it dangerous.”
“Now, after having had a taste of the fun, we are to be put back in the stuffy old gymnasium all because forsooth, our coach must be set to work mending broken-down apparatus in the gymnasium….We women can’t understand why Rowing Coach Conibear should be called away from the lake to randle (sic) a job in the gymnasium that any $2-a-day jack-of-all-trades can do.” (The Daily Pacific Wave, October 23, 1908)
The women planned a mass meeting to discuss the matter. Their goal was to ask the faculty to re-consider Dean Priest’s decision. The Wave noted that the student run Board of Control “took no definite action as to Coach Conibear’s duties in the gymnasium, but went on record as favoring the continuance of women’s rowing.”
Dr. D. C. Hall, the Gymnasium Director, tried to clarify the situation in the October 27th edition of the newspaper, backtracking with, “only freshman co-eds would be barred from rowing and that those freshmen women who show that they are physically able would be allowed to row next spring…”. Hall wanted freshman women to do “indoor work from November 1st to April 1st” to make sure that they were healthy enough to row, saying that he supported outdoor sports for women, but also noting:
“Rowing for women is strenuous and it is absolutely necessary that precaution be taken. Freshmen need to be under the supervision of the Physical Director for one term in order to satisfy the department that those electing rowing have the strength and health to under take it.” (The Daily Pacific Wave, October 27, 1908)
Dean Priest also said that he supported rowing for women and even thought that keeping the freshmen out for a semester would “be an incentive to upperclassmen to turn out class crews if rowing is confined to seniors, juniors and sophomores and is considered a promotion to freshmen who have shown their fitness to take up rowing.” He also believed that the “foundation work in physiology and discipline” should be a “prerequisite.” (The Daily Pacific Wave, October 27, 1908)
The students could not understand why any of them should not be allowed to row, subsequently submitting a petition to “formally protest against the ruling of the faculty.” Specifically, their petition asked the faculty to reconsider the freshman ban and shorten the indoor training time so that the freshman could train with the varsity in the springtime. Only the sophomores kept rowing as the women waited for the ruling from Dr. Hall, Dean Priest and Miss Rudberg. (The Daily Pacific Wave, October 29, 1908, November 4, 1908)
Within days the faculty committee dismissed the women’s petition, but at the same time only put into place a ban on freshmen women rowing during their first semester. The reasons the committee gave were:
“In response to your petition asking that the ruling that young women shall not take part in rowing until they have completed one semester’s floor work be changed we have the following to submit:
First. We believe that every girl should be under the personal attention of the physical directors until the beginning of outdoor work in the spring. Rowing is a strenuous sport and unless the persons indulging therein are in good physical condition, it is capable of doing harm. Corrective gymnastics can be carried on only in the gymnasium. Instruction in general bodily deportment, discipline and hygiene must be given in the freshman year.
Second. We desire to provide and foster an interest in outdoor sports especially for the benefit of seniors and juniors.
Third. Accommodations for rowing are limited to a comparative few, seniors and juniors to have the preference and sophomores third choice.
Fourth. With the small teaching force now in physical training, the entire services of one instructor cannot be devoted to one sport.” (The Daily Pacific Wave, November 5, 1908)
Although disappointed, the ruling was significantly pared back from the original plan, and the eligible women continued to train in “Nero” in all kinds of weather. The Pacific Wave makes mention of the co-eds fashioning turbans out of towels so that they could continue to row in the rain without getting their hair soaked. And – true to Conibear form – later articles imply that, among the women turning out in the dead of winter, some were freshmen training with Conibear in Nero. So much for the new rule. This in addition to working in the gymnasium three days a week with Miss Rudberg.
A few weeks later, after the winter holidays, freshman who had completed the requisite semester in the gymnasium (and could swim) were called again to row. The classes were scheduled on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at two and three o’clock. Women turning out for crew actually outnumbered the men in early January 1909; six weeks later, with Coach Conibear keeping tabs on who rowed on what days, a record number turned out for the sport on February 17th – one hundred and two men and sixty women – almost ten percent of the total student body. (The Daily Pacific Wave, February 26, 1909)
In early March, Miss Rudberg announced that the women would have an intra-squad regatta. On the Friday afternoon event, the freshmen and sophomores each entered two crews. The event was to be a form contest with the following point breakdown –
“10 (points) for loading, 10 for the stroke oar, 10 for starboard stroking, 10 for port stroking, 10 for starboard backing, 10 for port backing, 10 for coxswain, 10 for general position when ready to stroke, 10 for all baking and 10 for unloading.” A perfect score of 100 was possible and the women were judged on form only. “The idea in today’s contest will be to show which crew has acquired the best rowing form, no attention being paid to racing or speed work.” (The Daily Pacific Wave, March 5, 1909)
Conibear appointed Ada Etsell, Irene Patton and Helen Tillman as the judges. Gretchen O’Donnell and Marion Radford were selected as freshmen captains with Louise Richardson and Minnie Dalby as freshman coxswains. Bess Hanna and Dorothy Drake were selected as the sophomore captains, and Madge Findley and Alma Kittisby were coxswains. (The Daily Pacific Wave, March 5, 1909)
Gretchen O’Donnell’s first freshman crew won in what would be the first ever form contest. Only three boats competed, two freshmen and one sophomore crew. Captain Drake and Captain O’Donnell’s crews were tied at the end of the first round with O’Donnell’s crew winning after a second outing with a score of 87 points to Drake’s crew’s 71 points.
“The freshmen excelled in backing, both altogether and port and starboard singly. Their stroke also won more points and their coxswain made the best landing. The lineup of the winning crew was: Minnie Dalby, coxswain; Gretchen O’Donnell, captain, No. 8; Frances Jobet, 7; Cathryn Caldwell, 6; Bess Storch, 5; Alice Shelton, 4; Marjorie Harkins, 3; Marie Sauter, 2; and Anna (or Lillian) Allen, 1.” (The Daily Pacific Wave, March 9, 1909)
Conibear was very interested in increasing the number of students participating in rowing by starting intra-school clubs and planning subsequent races. Clearly he loved the sport of rowing and wanted everyone who was interested to participate. This would be something Conibear worked to achieve throughout the rest of his life, and he would continue to find ways to expand the sport by getting high schools and even the faculty to participate.
The first All-University regatta was held on Saturday, April 10, 1909. The men and the women participated in the event on Lake Washington:
“‘Saturday marks an epoch in university aquatics’, says Coach Conibear. ‘This year for the first time rowing is open to all the students and the initial opportunity to see what the results are is offered at the regatta which will be held tomorrow starting at 2:30. The course being short, only a three-quarter mile, the races will be fast. One event will follow another so that there will be no waiting. The whole affair will be concluded by half-past five.’”
Reporters from all three Seattle papers at the time (The Seattle Times, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Star) along with the editor of the Wave and student members of the Board of Control rode in the launch. (The Daily Pacific Wave, April 9, 1909)
The women raced on a 600-yard course and the first freshman beat the second freshman boat, and first sophomore boat beat the second sophomore boat. The line-up remained the same for the first freshman boat and the line-up for the first sophomore boat was: Stroke, Sabra Godfrey; No.7 Grace Young; 6, Minnie McGinnis; 5, Roxy Smith; 4, Alma Kittlisby; 3, Grace Shearer; 2, Anna Ullin; 1, Dorothy Drake (captain); coxswain, Gertrude Mallette.
Joel Johnson, class of 1904, wrote an article for the Washington Alumnus describing the first All-University regatta and had this to say about the women –
“‘Especially interesting was the eagerness displayed by the feminine oarsmen, or should we say ‘oarswomen,’ in their races and by their loyal supporters in their large attendance. In this respect, at least, it must be owned that rowing excels other sports in its hold upon general interest. Tennis might be expected; it might even have the advantage that both men and women can play together in mixed doubles. Mixed eights and fours would probably not be so successful a venture. However, the enthusiasm displayed by the women of the university shows that in competition with tennis the only sport in the curriculum which they can share with men, rowing will hold its own in their favor. Considering this, it is fortunate that there is a great deal of Lake Washington, but not many tennis courts.’” (The Daily Pacific Wave, April 29, 1909)
Junior Day was planned for May, and Conibear began to select the women’s crews in April. The coach looked at the boats by class and planned to review the skill of each of the women so that he could make the best class boats. He made some switches and gave some women from the second boats an opportunity to row in the first boats. The women were clearly serious, the Wave stating –
“The shifting back and forth will go on all week until absolutely the best person is found for each oar. As a result the co-eds are all working with a will to make a place on their respective class eight and the competition is keen.” (The Daily Pacific Wave, April 22, 1909)
A later description in the article of the women noted that the freshmen were a little bigger than the sophomores, the freshmen averaging 146 pounds, and the sophomores weighing in at 142 pounds.
The article stated that it had been a “hard matter (choosing the crews) in several cases, as the form shown by two or three is almost the same.” Conibear went on to say that – “The girls have worked hard and shown the right spirit, and in several instances faithfulness in turning out will secure places for some over their rivals whose form is practically as good.”
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.
A letter to the editor in late May of 1909 would illustrate just how seriously the women at the University approached athletics and life on campus. At a time fully a decade away from the passage of the 19th Amendment affirming a woman’s right to vote, these students were already outspoken in their drive for equality:
“Editor, the Daily Wave:
The women’s gymnasium has been equipped this year with the following articles: Two twenty-five cent baseballs and tape for two tennis courts. The other articles usually required have been furnished by the young women themselves or left over from previous years.
Daily, women of the gymnasium squad that ranks third in size in the list of American co-educational colleges, practice with these ‘ancestral relics.’ Women’s athletics have been taken up enthusiastically by the Washington women. With the assistance of Coach Conibear they have made women’s rowing a success. Tennis and indoor baseball have also had their devotees. A class of girls has been willing to spend over an hour each way on a trip to the nearest swimming pool to learn that sport. Hockey was proposed this year but the crowd of girls who signed up were not able to play because there was no place to play – It requires a field of 100X60 yards.” (The Daily Pacific Wave, May 21, 1909)
No letter from a rowing “gym girl”, advocating for women’s equality, would be complete without Hiram Conibear’s name finding its way into the mix. Outspoken and passionate, it would be Conibear that would lead the women’s program into its heyday – and Conibear’s untimely absence that would lead to a fifty-year hiatus in this highly popular sport at Washington.
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.
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)
The history content on this website is copyrighted © 2001 – 2015 by Eric Cohen, ’82, Team Historian.