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Water Women: Jenny Landreth’s Swell and the Female Swimmers Who Changed the World

Posted on 12th May 2017 by Martha Greengrass

'Men could plunge in anywhere and everywhere willy-nilly... and women just could not. We were graciously allowed bits of the sea as long as men were some distance away' 

These days, for most women the barriers to swimming are usually no more taxing than managing to find a swimming costume that fits and locating the nearest pool, seaside or (for the intrepid) wild swimming spot. Yet as Jenny Landreth’s new book, Swell, explores, it wasn’t always that way. Exclusively for Waterstones she introduces her ‘waterbiography’ and explains why the history of women’s swimming is also an enlightening history of struggle, determination and the dogged pursuit of freedom.

Everyone has their own ‘waterbiography’ – the story of how and where they learned to swim, what it means to them. Even when someone hates swimming, I’m keen to see if there’s a story in there, of why they do. In my own waterbiography, my first pool was a Victorian Baths in Birmingham in the 1960s, taught by my Aunty Mary. But who taught her, I wondered? As I started to dig around, I realised that she would have been a bit of a pioneer if she’d learned to swim as a child, because that wasn’t the norm for working-class girls. And I began to see how the history of swimming was representative of so much else. 

Firstly, the story was not the same for men and women. Men could plunge in anywhere and everywhere willy-nilly – they literally did swim mostly naked, so that phrase seems appropriate – and women just could not. We were graciously allowed bits of the sea as long as men were some distance away (and sometimes, trying to change under a towel on a busy beach, I’ve wished those rules were still in place). But it didn’t go much beyond that. There were exceptions, including some amazing young women who I feature in my book, but they were displayed like rare and exotic animals, paraded around and asked to perform their tricks.

Once you start to look at who was allowed to do what, a lot of stuff becomes apparent. It becomes impossible to ignore politics, class, and how society was organised; impossible to ignore attitudes to women’s bodies. You see who shaped the world and who changed it. Swimming opens the door to all of that.

If you look at places in the world where women got physical emancipation, the right to swim, you’ll often find they had suffrage too. And vice versa – the two things are good indicators of each other. But it was a fight on both fronts. It wasn’t like some kindly gentlemen were delighted to let us into the pool once we’d asked; they mostly dragged their feet grumpily and reluctantly into the twentieth century, writing furious letters to newspapers at every opportunity along the way. Nevertheless, she persisted. And with expanding swimming rights came opportunities in other, less obvious ways. For as long as mixed bathing was forbidden, women could only be in the water with other women; if they wanted to learn to swim, their teacher had to be ‘she’. And lo, women could build teaching careers, get recognised public roles independent of their relationships to men. A bit of status! Women started to compete so needed outfits compatible with speed swimming rather than underwater ballroom dancing. We could begin to get fit! To make community with other women! It was actual liberation and it must have felt, as it crept up on you, absolutely brilliant.

So next time you stand on the edge of the pool, dressed in a hi-tech scrap of lycra, about to show the world your great front crawl (which was, incidentally, first swum in this country by a woman, taught it by another woman), be thankful for your fighty foremothers. Because without them, women might not be in the water at all.

Jenny Landreth will be launching Swell with Waterstones on Tuesday 6th June at a special evening event at the historic Victoria Baths in Manchester, discussing her work with award-winning author Amy Liptrott.

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