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A Woman's Right To Skate

Change doesn't happen unless people make it happen and figure skating owes a certain debt to Madge Syers, the first woman to glide out on the ice at the World Championships and give the men a run for their money. In doing so, Syers set a ball in motion that afforded women the right to compete... and assured her own place in the record books as the sport's first female Olympic Gold Medallist. Minnesota's Mabel Davidson, whose fascinating story of travelling to London and Paris via Canada to give skating exhibitions with her bicycle in the late nineteenth century, remains one of my favourite 'finds' to date. However, the story of how women became accepted to a sport that was once an old boy's club is full of fascinating figures and facts, and I wanted to share some more of these people's stories with you.
Maria Weigel

One woman's story the history books don't mention gives you a clear picture of just how controversial females taking on a male dominated really was back in the days before women's rights and suffragettes were 'a thing'... and be warned, the next part isn't exactly a happy story. In the northeastern Alsatian area of France lies a town called Colmar that was founded in the ninth century. In 1851, a German woman living in Colmar named Maria Weigel decided to join her male counterparts ice skating and got a pretty icy reception. In fact, she was stoned by her own neighbors and barely escaped with her life, coming home with a bleeding head. Class may have played an inportant role in Weigel's cruel treatment at the hands of the townsfolk. Weigel was the daughter of a court physician, so she wasn't exactly a peasant, but she wasn't nobility either.

In contrast, Henriette Sontag was an opera soprano married to an Italian count had skated publicly in the 1820's in Austria and 1840's in Germany and she certainly didn't get hailed with stones by spectators. Her class level perhaps would have afforded her a certain level of freedom to do as she wished. After all, we know that back in 1776, Marie Antoinette skated in Napoleonic France when she wasn't busy saying "let them eat cake" to French peasants.

By the 1860's, skating was becoming more culturally popular in Vienna, owing to (according to Mary Louise Adams' wonderful book "Artistic Impressions: Figure Skating, Masculinity And The Limits Of Sport") an Austrian actress named Auguste Willibrandt-Baudius who "not only skated with men in public but sometimes did so in trousers". Meanwhile in Canada, the Montreal Skating Club began accepting female members in 1860 although they had held elaborate ice balls and carnivals prior to that with female skaters included.

As the trend of women taking to the ice spread slowly and cautiously across Europe, over the coming decades skating would slowly grow to be considered a little less controversial for females in the decades to come... although there were certainly some pretty sexist overtones in the way female skaters were treated as "delicate". Check out these skating rules from the 1864 edition of Hall's Journal Of Health:

"1. Avoid skates which are strapped on the feet, as they prevent the circulation, and the foot becomes frozen before the skater is aware of it, because the tight strapping benumbs the foot and deprives it of feeling. A young lady at Boston lost a foot in this way; another in New York her life, by endeavouring to thaw her feet in warm water after taking off her skates. The safest kind are those which receive the forepart of the foot in a kind of toe, and stout leather around the heel, buckling in front of the ankle only, thus keeping the heel in place without spikes or screws, and aiding greatly in supporting the ankle.

2. It is not the object so much to skate fast, as to skate gracefully; and this is sooner and more easily learned by skating with deliberation; while it prevents overheating, and diminishes the chances of taking cold by cooling off too soon afterward.

3. If the wind is blowing, a veil should be worn over the face, at least of ladies and children: otherwise fatal inflammation of the lungs, "pneumonia," may take place.

4. Do not sit down to rest a single half minute; nor stand still, if there is any wind; nor stop a moment after the skates are taken off; but walk about, so as to restore the circulation about the feet and toes, and to prevent being chilled.

5. It is safer to walk home than to ride; the latter is almost certain to give a cold.

6. It would be a safe rule for no child or lady to be on skates longer than an hour at a time.

7. The grace, exercise, and healthfulness of skating on the ice can be had, without any of its dangers, by the use of skates with rollers attached, on common floors; better, if covered with oil-cloth."

In 1870, members of London's Skating Club allowed a restricted number of women (twenty) to hold membership on its new skating club on the flooded archery pitch in Regent's Park. Based on the horrible tragedy that had happened there only three years earlier, I'd thought apprehension about numbers period might have played a role in the number of skaters accepted into the club, but the Club had no problem accepting a disproportionate number of men's memberships: one hundred and twenty. Restrained sexism was still in full swing in Jolly Ol' England.
Trade card of woman skating, circa 1880. Photo courtesy Historical Society Of Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile on the continent, by 1875, Viennese skating club Weiner Eislaufverein was holding a women's only competition. In 1885, according to Allen Guttmann's "Women's Sports: A History", "one of the earliest club-sponsored races for female ice-skaters was held in Hamburg". This didn't stop women from being ridiculed for their decision to pursue athletic endeavours. Guttmann points out that "in France and Germany as in Great Britain and the United States, there was acrimonious debate between those who welcomed the prospect of women's sports and those who feared that female athletes jeopardized their anatomical destiny as wives and mothers. In the Revue des Revues for July 1900, the poet Rene Francois Armand Sully-Prudhomme expressed his 'horreur' at the athletic woman's tendency to 'borrow from men the virile qualities that denature her and negate her charm.' The novelist and intrepid political activist Emile Zola strongly disagreed. He was receptive to 'whatever physical exercises can contribute to woman's development - as long as she doesn't abuse them.' Zola denounced the tyranny of received opinion and refuted the argument that sports masculinize the female athlete."

"Cutting A Figure" by Winslow Homer. Photo courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum.

We also know that the segregation of the sexes and discouragement of women in skating wasn't an "everywhere" thing. Accounts of female settlers skating in The New World predated Weigel's unfortunate attack by almost two centuries, as referenced in Charles Wooley's 1678 account of Dutch settlers in America: "And upon the Ice its admirable to see Men and Women as it were flying upon their Skates from place to place, with Markets upon their Heads and Backs." Of course, Lidwina, The Patron Skate Of Ice Skating had them all beat... she'd been out there doing her thing back in the fourteenth century... before it was cool!

"A Mistress Of The Art" by Hy. S. Watson, 1895

All of these examples of female skaters who'd been out on the ice before Weigel aside, I think the story of her absolutely disgusting treatment at the hands of her French neighbours drives home an important message to all skating fans. If you look people like Madge Syers or even in their own respects... skaters like Mabel Fairbanks (who pushed the color barrier), Rudy Galindo (an openly gay man who won a national title in a country that still has people who think people like Sarah Palin make any logical sense) and Toller Cranston (who pushed the boundaries of artistry in the sport), there are always going to be people resisting equality and change in the sport of figure skating just as there are "in real life". After all, it's 2015 and it's still called 'ladies' figure skating. How's that for outdated?

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":