The USA dominated the women’s swimming programme at the Olympic Games Antwerp 1920. In the process, they not only kick-started a golden age for their nation’s female athletes, but also heralded a step change in the physical emancipation of women across the country.
Just one week after the amendment to the US Constitution to extend the vote to women was ratified, 18-year-old swimmer Ethelda Bleibtrey won the 100m freestyle at Antwerp 1920 to claim the nation’s first women’s Olympic swimming medal. Bleibtrey went on to take gold in both the other women’s events too – the 300m freestyle and the 4x100m relay. She swam in five races and broke the world record in every one, as the nation’s women completed a clean sweep of medals in the two individual events.
This medal haul is credited with helping to inspire the next generations of Olympic female champions. For example, the USA won four of the five women’s swimming gold medals at the Olympic Games Paris 1924. It also helped bring about a significant increase in the accessibility of swimming as a sporting pursuit for women across the USA. The Antwerp 1920 US women’s swimming team manager Charlotte Epstein played an integral role in both. A New York stenographer by day, Epstein became a symbol of the physical emancipation of women in her country.
Epstein had spent much of the decade leading up to the Antwerp Games campaigning to increase opportunities for women to swim both competitively and for health and leisure purposes. By 1920, she was head of the New York Women’s Swimming Association and partly responsible for improving competitive opportunities for women in swimming, which helped to produce athletes for the inaugural Olympic team.
Epstein and her team were also crucial to ensuring that, for the first time, women were free to swim without wearing stockings. Three-time Olympic champion Bleibtrey was among many who were censured for “nude swimming” before Antwerp 1920. In Manhattan in 1919, she had removed her bathing stockings in public before swimming, ignoring convention.
Epstein campaigned relentlessly to alter the perception of women in swimming and, within four years of the Games, she was advising the International Swimming Federation (FINA) Congress on new rules for female swimsuits, as the world embraced the changes she epitomised.
In 1926, one of Epstein’s protégées, Gertrude Ederle, became the first woman to swim the English Channel, comfortably beating the men’s record time in the process. Such a feat served to further elevate the standing of women in sport and society across the USA.