Whenever women challenge social norms, they automatically become outcasts. Imagine how strong female bodybuilders were seen during the nineteenth.
When we think about bodybuilders, the first image that comes to mind are people with huge muscles, posing and showing their biceps and legs at competitions. However, the art of bodybuilding dates back millennia to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians who basically used weightlifting as a form of entertainment. Performers would be very muscular and lift stuff for an audience. This form of entertainment was lost until the eighteenth century, when circus-like entertainment became common both at courts and for the general public. Now, when it comes to women in the business, people might think that their participation is more of a modern development. However, that's not the case. Women have been involved in bodybuilding for a long time, and as you’ll see in these pictures, they did it with a lot of grace and panache.
Not called bodybuilders but rather “strongwomen,” these women became really popular around the eighteenth century. For instance, there was the “Female Italian Samson” and the “Little Woman from Geneva.” Naturally, by the next century, when the circus business became even more popular, “strong women” all over the world joined to make a living as performers. This might sound very cool, but it actually wasn’t that lovely and fun. In fact, these women were considered to be freaks and were seen not as athletes or outstanding figures, but as something shocking to laugh and gawk at.
This has to do with science at the time, which considered that women were weak and shouldn’t do any additional physical exercise other than their household chores (which most of the time was even more demanding than the kind a man would perform at their office). This idea of weakness led to the impression that these strong women weren’t normal and that they were indeed either freaks or women with male bodies. Moreover, these perspectives actually made women in general avoid making any physical effort out of fear of being called freaks or abnormal. So, strong women were relegated to the stage.
Officially, the first “strongwomen” to be called as such appeared in the nineteenth century as part of circus propaganda. What I really like about these characters, despite the perception society had of them, is how they were presented, and the reversed gender roles in their routines. For instance, one of the most famous women at the time was Katie Brumbach, known as the “Great Sandwina,” who’s most applauded number was her carrying her husband above her head with just one arm. Her super strength made her one of the most successful performers in the world mainly because he merged perfectly her femininity with her power, but if you think about it, her act also showed that women were capable of being even stronger than their partners, which was definitely not a common thought at the time.
These women were also all about female empowerment and showing the world that their strength wasn’t only for the stages, but that it could actually contribute something to society. Welsh strongwoman Kate Roberts, best known for her stage name “Vulcana,” was seen as a local superhero for her deeds in her community. It’s said that she once saved a couple of kids from drowning, that she got a wagon out of a ditch in London, and that she caught a thief after he had stolen a bag from a passerby. These women were determined to shine for their unique abilities but also to tear down all the negative and hurtful prejudices of their time.
They fought to detach themselves from the outcast stigma they had and inspired others to challenge their strength. However, as history has proven, determination isn’t always enough to change society’s entire mindset, and eventually, this profession vanished into oblivion, at least for a while. Around the forties, after two world wars that proved women were strong enough to lift up their countries, the art of strongwomen resurfaced and eventually led to the insertion of women into sports like wrestling and the bodybuilding industry. All in all, leaving curiosity behind, what these photographs show are strong characters (not only physically but mentally), who despite the stigma they faced, gracefully carried on a life they loved and fought for.
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