A Man’s Sport
It took a little while for women’s weightlifting in the USA to actually become a movement. For many years it was just the occasional entry of an adventurous female into what was traditionally considered a man’s sport. Weightlifting, which had been brought to America by European immigrants after World War I, was very much an underground activity that was conducted under clandestine circumstances sporadically around the country.
Although it was largely managed and standardized by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), the actual physical home network of the sport was the YMCA Except for a few private gyms, the sport was largely housed in the weight rooms of the YMCA’s, the M standing for men and white men at that. One of the leaders in the sport during my early years of participation was David Matlin, a Jewish attorney who founded the Southern California Weightlifting Association because the YMCA would not allow Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians or Native-Americans to participate in their weightlifting meets .
In those days the gender roles were rather strictly defined and that meant that women weren’t supposed to be physically strong and if they were, there were few outlets through which that strength could be expressed.
The Few I Remember
Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton is well remembered as one of the few women from the Muscle Beach era. She was largely an acrobat/gymnast who occasionally entered AAU weightlifting competitions in the 1940’s. Aside from her, there is very little memory of other women participating in weightlifting meets.
In 1974 Dwight Tamanaha, the National 56 kg champion, moved to Southern California with his girlfriend Monette Driscoll, a thrower. She lifted in a few meets. In 1980 I was coaching a track athlete, Dede Woodruff, whom I entered in one of our local meets. I recall that the same sporadic women’s participation was taking place around the country at that time. Each time the occasion became newsworthy enough to be documented in what then passed for the weightlifting press. For the most part they were considered novelties and not taken seriously as athletes.
I think this is a good time to include my feelings about women in weightlifting. Although I was one of the early coaches of female lifters, I’m not what many would consider a feminist. I just believe that anyone should be able to pursue his or her dela passion and not be excluded from doing so a priori because of gender, race, ethnicity or other uncontrollable factors. Don’t read this, however, to think that I’m against qualifying totals.
Let’s Hear It for Joel Widdell
Joel Widdell was a nationally ranked competitor in the 56 kg class who regularly finished on the medal stand. I guess Joel became aware of the few women around the country who were entering lifting meets and took the bold step forward of holding the first women’s nationals in 1981. He held them in Waterloo, Iowa and attracted a field of 29 women. This number probably surprised a lot of lifting fans. Looking back I feel that Joel never got credit for getting things started. The number probably got some people to sit up and take notice that there were women who were serious about this sport. Judy Glenney emerged as the first star of the sport.
1982—A Growing Community and …..
The second women’s nationals were held in St. Charles, Illinois. There were 46 entrants. I brought Diana Fuhrman to that event and she won a silver. She would go on to be inducted into the USAW Hall of Fame. Two things struck me at the meet
1. The women were beginning to form a community. In the local meets around the country the ratios were something like 30 men and 2 women. The women were not considered “real weightlifters” and for the most part were treated like novelties. At this event they were the primary focus and they were beginning to form links and bonds. A women’s weightlifting community was emerging.
2. Also emerging were coaches who considered themselves “women’s coaches”. None of them had any extensive background in coaching weightlifting, but suddenly they were experts who knew all the secrets of coaching women, whom we were to consider so different from men that no one else could figure out how to develop them. Basically they were charlatans.
The women’s nationals jogged along for the next several years, growing gradually, while some of the competitors were seeking out better coaching/training among the already established programs around the country. The charlatans continued to buzz around the sport in an attempt to establish credibility.
1987—We Have a World’s
From 1981 to 1987, a few other attempts took place around the world to have women’s competitions, but it wasn’t until 1987 when USAW president Murray Levin led the move to conduct a world championship, that the idea of women’s lifting began to get traction . The event, held in Daytona Beach, proved to be an unexpected success with strong teams from China, the US, Canada and India showing that the sport was gaining international stature. Although most of the traditional powers from the men’s side did not attend, the relatively large field ported a future for women in the sport.
With the top two countries being China and the US, there was every indication that this was a credible sports event and encouraged its development in other countries, especially in Asia.
Up until 1988, the National Championships for men and women were conducted separately. In 1988 they were held jointly with some interesting upshots. Whereas the two communities had existed somewhat separately for several years, they were now joined and a new format had to be developed for the championships.
The presence of the men’s coaches who were considered the authorities in the sport had the effect of moving aside the charlatan “women’s coaches”. While a few of the established men’s coaches had for a while coached women they were not considered so authoritative at the women’s only nationals. Jim Schmitz, John Thrush, Mark Lemenager and myself had our credentials in place during the segregated era when we coached a few women. The integrated nationals, however, had a different atmosphere as far as the credibility of the coaching was concerned. The charlatans vanished. The only one who had characterized himself as a women’s coach to survive beyond this point was John Coffee who had coached some outstanding men but preferred coaching women. John went on to coach, I believe, 17 national team titles on the women’s side.
To be continued.