Women Who Changed the World

Women Who Changed the World: Annette Kellerman

words: frances ambler

illustration: maria martini

 

Our cover girl for issue 38 is Annette Kellerman – the swimming star who challenged Victorian perceptions about women’s bodies by ditching pantaloons and skirts and daring to bare her flesh while swimming. It’s Annette who is responsible for the swimming costume as we know it today

Record-breaking swimmer, the highest paid women in vaudeville, a health and fitness pioneer, the first major actress to both appear nude and to wear a moveable mermaid costume on film – out of all of Annette Kellerman’s notable achievements, it was her own line of one piece costumes, the foundation of modern swimwear, of which she was most proud,for it helped liberate women, allowing them – for the first time – to really swim.

Born in Australia in 1887, Annette wore steel braces as a child and took swimming lessons to strengthen her weak legs. She took to the sport like the proverbial duck to water. To help her family's finances, she became a professional swimmer. As a record breaker, Annette travelled the world raising publicity, in London swimming in the polluted Thames; in Paris, racing men in the Seine. She was one of the first women to attempt to swim the Channel.

While for most of the western world, pantaloons, skirts, even corsets, were still the norm for women’s ‘bathing’, Annette wore a short legged, non-skirted costume to compete for Australia. Invited to perform for British royalty in 1905, she sewed a pair of black stockings onto her men's swimsuit, creating a full-length one-piece “figure suit”. “I can’t swim wearing more stuff than you hang on a clothesline,” she sniffed. Such an ensemble saw her being arrested on a beach in Massachusetts for indecency. From the subsequent publicity, she designed and sold her suits worldwide, one step towards liberating the female body.

Annette also challenged Victorian perceptions of women’s physicality. Her performances combined a kind of underwater ballet with high dives, her choreographed moves with her ‘Kellerman girls’ an early form of synchronised swimming. She starred in highly successful films too, appearing unashamedly nude in the 1916 film, A Daughter of the Gods.

“I insist that swimming is not only a splendid sport for women, but that it is the sport for women,” Annette said, benefits ranging from the physical to the psychological. “If more girls would swim and dance, instead of rushing into matrimony as the only joy in the world, there would be fewer divorces.” She encouraged women to throw aside their corsets and penned books on health and fitness. A lifelong vegetarian, she even opened her own health food shop.

Annette died in 1975, at 89, having swum well into her eighties. Her swimwear got a generation of women into the water for the first time, allowing them to experience what she described as this “clean, cool, beautiful, cheap thing we all from cats to kings can enjoy". 

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Women who changed the world: Kathrine Switzer

Illustration:  Will Jarvis

Illustration: Will Jarvis

“Running always made me feel powerful, free and fearless,” says Kathrine Switzer, a woman who has devoted her life to making other women feel the same. The first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon – a race that changed her life forever – defeated presumptions about the limits of female strength.

As anyone who has attempted it knows, the marathon tests will as much as endurance. For female runners in the 1960s, however, there was an additional challenge – it was generally believed they simply couldn’t run that far, that they would hurt themselves or become too ‘masculine’. So, when Kathrine entered the 1967 Boston Marathon (using her gender-neutral pen-name ‘K.W. Switzer’ on the form), she was breaking unwritten protocol, rather than anything in the official rules. Even her University coach had suggested that women were too ‘fragile’ to undertake that distance – she proved him wrong by running 31 miles in training.

However, rather than Kathrine finishing the Marathon, it was an infuriated official forcibly trying to remove her from the race that became the catalyst for change. With the intervention of her then boyfriend, Kathrine escaped and kept running. Captured on camera, the incident was circulated around the world, and later named one of Time-Life’s ‘100 Photos that Changed the World’. But the photograph alone didn’t change the world, it’s what Kathrine did next. Over her subsequent 24 miles, Kathrine realised she now had a mission. By the time she limped across the line at 4hrs 20, she had vowed to “become a better athlete” and to “create opportunities for other women in running”.

True to her vow, Kathrine created a circuit of women’s only races, spanning 27 countries and including over a million participants, debunking myths about running’s negative effect on women’s health. Thanks to her campaigning, the women’s marathon was finally introduced into the Olympics in 1984. To date, Kathrine has run 39 marathons – including, in 1972, the Boston Marathon, the first year women were officially admitted.

This year, 50 years after the event changed her life, Kathrine will be running it again, this time alongside women from her ‘261 Fearless’ project. Named after the bib number she wore that day, it promotes women’s running as a route to social change.

Today, that women can run alongside men, push our bodies, our will, feel the elation of crossing the finish line – but don’t have to fight simply to participate – is thanks, in part, to Kathrine. Little wonder that when she goes to the Boston marathon now, she describes how women approach her, crying: “They’re weeping for joy because running has changed their lives. They feel they can do anything”.

 

Further reading

Marathon Woman: Running the Race to Revolutionize Women’s Sports by Kathrine Switzer

kathrineswitzer.com

 

We include a 'Woman who changed the world' in every issue of Oh Comely. Pick up your back issues here

Women Who Changed the World: Freya Stark

“There can be no happiness if the things we believe in are different from the things we do,” said British explorer Freya Stark. In 1927, aged 33, while the majority of her contemporaries were embedded in domesticity, she embarked on her first expedition. Boarding a ship to Beirut, her destination was the places she’d encountered through the pages of her favourite childhood book, One Thousand and One Nights. 

Explorer Freya Stark, illustrated by Viktorija Semjonova for Oh Comely issue 31.

Explorer Freya Stark, illustrated by Viktorija Semjonova for Oh Comely issue 31.

While Stark’s travels in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Persia in the 1920s and ‘30s did benefit cartographers by filling in hitherto blank maps, greater still was their effect on a transfixed audience back home. Over her 25 books, she transported readers to the far-flung corners of the atlas, bringing it to life with the characters of the people she encountered, descriptions of how they dressed, ate, lived, and imparting her own giddy delight in exploration. 

Stark’s first book, The Valley of the Assassins, published in 1934, charted her journey in an area barely visited by Westerners, let alone Western women. She travelled alone and unarmed, as she did on all her travels. Over time, her packing evolved to include letters of introduction, medication, small gifts to hand out, as well as copies of Jane Austen and Virgil. Clad in Dior dresses and favouring elaborate hats to hide the effects of a disfiguring childhood accident, Stark took advantage of her gender to experience the aspects of women’s lives hidden from her male counterparts and, when she wanted, to bend the rules. “The great and almost only comfort about being a woman is that one can always pretend to be more stupid than one is and no one is surprised.” Her desire for exploration wasn’t driven by conquest or a need to assert superiority, but by curiosity, “I travelled single-mindedly for fun,” she stated. 

In her 1939 Baghdad Sketches, where a medical emergency left her close to death, she recounted that, “It was not my sins that I regretted at that time; but rather the many things undone”. Living until she was 100, and travelling into her eighties, Freya Stark was a woman who would never be “done”.Further reading: One Thousand and One Nights (Penguin Classics); The Valley of Assassins by Freya Stark (Modern Library Inc); Baghdad Sketches, Freya Stark (IB Taurus and Co Ltd)

This feature originally appeared in Oh Comely issue 31