Friday, 14 March 2014



As we wrap up our week of blog posts honouring International Women’s Day (IWD), today’s featured object addresses the 2014 IWD theme, “Inspiring Change.” I am excited by this year’s theme because it has the potential to capture a breadth of achievements by women while urging us to look to the future -- in other words, we can celebrate what has changed while considering what progress is yet to be made for gender equality.
Gertrude Ederle. Source: NPR

This week’s object, Gertrude Ederle’s swimming goggles, represents change on many levels: a shift in perceptions of the physical capabilities of women, an advancement of a level playing field (whether athletically, intellectually, professionally, or otherwise) between men and women, and an inspiration for women to push their own limits -- in the water and elsewhere. The woman behind the goggles demonstrated the endurance, dedication, and ingenuity to contribute to these developments.

On August 6, 1926, Ederle entered the frigid waters of the English channel at Cape Gris-Nez in France. 14 hours and 31 minutes later, she emerged from the ocean on the English coast, becoming the first woman to swim across the English channel and beating the time records held by the previous five men to swim the channel successfully. Not only did Ederle’s success signify an extraordinary human feat, but also, as suggested by the Smithsonian Institutions’s exhibition Sports: Breaking Records, Breaking Barriers, Ederle’s “accomplishment dispelled conventional wisdom about ‘the weaker sex’ and proved that women could be great athletes.” Here, change means more than simply setting a new world record: this achievement was an important counter-argument to the common perception that the female body was frail, temperamental, and unsuitable for challenging physical activity. Indeed, even Ederle’s first coach (whom she later fired) doubted her ability, noting after her first failed attempt to swim the channel that “the torments of seasickness, indigestion, inflammation of the eyes, great cold and other disagreeable features may prove too much for any woman swimmer.”

Once Ederle reached her goal after a grueling second attempt, the arguments of those who doubted Ederle went quiet as her achievement shifted expectations. But her swim also helped to inspire women to take ownership of their own strength: according to the Telegraph, following Ederle’s swim the American Red Cross noted a significant increase in the number of women enrolling for a swimming certificate. Examples like this of initial progress following Ederle’s success worked to lay a foundation for greater inclusion of women in sports and initiatives encouraging gender equality in physical activity. Yet even contemporary organizations such as the Women’s Sports Foundation (founded by Billie Jean King) acknowledges that “we still have a long way to go” to achieve their mission of "advancing the lives of women and girls through sports and physical activity." This recognition wonderfully ties in to the 2014 IWD theme of “inspiring change” for the future -- while still commemorating women athletes who have excelled in sport on a level against all expectation.

To return to the object in question, the goggles themselves are an intriguing representation of Ederle’s “vision” (if you will) to push limits. The goggles, featured in the Smithsonian exhibition mentioned above, were of Ederle’s own design. A sign of her ingenuity, she crafted the goggles to prevent saltwater from occluding her vision during the fourteen hours she spent in the water. For me, this object encourages the viewer to imagine what these goggles have witnessed (or facilitated witnessing): through these lenses, how did Ederle look across the expanse of the sea as she stepped into the water? What did she think and feel? Whose gaze did she challenge? When she finally spotted the shore of England through the goggles, did she feel relief, triumph, or fear of failure so close to her goal?

Ederle's goggles. Source: Smithsonian Institution blog

As a tool which facilitates vision, I hope that the goggles as a museum artifact can encourage people today to consider multiple points of view: what was the perception of women in 1926, and how has it changed today? How can we critically analyze current perceptions of women (or any gender), assessing which social norms need to be reconsidered?

The goggles also allude to other types of lenses (physical or metaphorical) through which we might consider the roles of women: for example, women behind the microscope lens, the binocular, the telescope, or the camera. Through which lens are you inspired to see change for women?


  1. You made her so relatable Katherine, I really stopped to think about what she must of seen out of those amber tinted goggles! I also thought about the strength of character it took her to fire her first coach! I'm inspired to see change for women through the metaphorical lens of oration. I find a great speech, both masterly written and delivered, given by a woman with a voice she's determined to have heard, very powerful and inspiring.

  2. Katherine, I really like the way in which you framed the goggles as a lens to understand the role of women in the area of sports, but even more broadly. It is great to see museums collecting such objects and telling histories through them - histories which often challenge our perceptions of gender roles historically.