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Thursday, 27 March 2008

Gertrude Ederle: A woman not equal to a man

At least according to The New York Times.

"All the News That's Fit to Print"
That's how the masthead read in early August of 1926 after Gertrude Ederle swam the English Channel from France to Britain in 14 hours and 31 minutes. Not only was she the first woman to make the swim (although it seems that only when this fact is mentioned was it ever "fit" to refer to her as a woman), but she had beaten the men's record by almost 2 hours.

I have before me two copies of that article: one, an authorized truncated facsimile printed in 1978. The other, an edited conflation posted to the NYT website in 2005. I can't always tell what is deleted from the one, or inserted by the other, except that the respective photos illustrating the story appear to have been inserted in both. But both samples were obviously copied from the same original text, consisting of a report by T.R. Ybarra on the scene in Dover. The paper text adds a sidebar from New York without a byline, and the cybertext adds a report sent in by Alec Rutherford, who crossed the Channel in a tug rented by reporters who weren't authorized to travel with the support crew, the Chicago Tribune Syndicate having been sold exclusive rights to her story.

What is interesting about this article (and I speak of the text shared by the two copies) is the extremely sexist slant to the reporting. Gertrude is introduced to the readers of the NYT as "the plucky little New York girl" and thereafter referred to as "Miss Ederle." In the sidebar to the web news piece, Rutherford condescendingly refers to her as "this pretty, tiny atom of humanity in her red bathing dress."

What is really interesting, though, is that the NYT did not see fit to print one very important piece of news in either copy. What is never pointed out in any of the articles, which do credit Gertrude with the best time ever across the Channel, is that she was already a champion swimmer and a medal winner in the previous Olympic Games! One would think that fact rather relevant to the story. This was, in fact, her 30th time to break a swimming record, including the 22-mile New York Bay swim--a record that was still standing when she died more than three-quarters of a century later.

The facsimile had this to say about her reception upon her return to New York:
" . . . there was no set celebration here last night in honor of her victory. . ."

Relevant to the story, though, is that upon her return to New York three weeks later, Gertrude received the biggest ticker-tape parade New York had seen since Medal of Honor winner Alvin York returned a hero from World War One. She was compared to Moses crossing the Red Sea in an eloquent tribute by Mayor Walker. This parade was mentioned in the cybertext.

Ah well, Gertrude may not have gotten her share of good press, but at least her place in history was secure. The saddest thing, though, was included in a postscript to the cybertext:

By 1933 she became deaf, the loss of hearing having been attributed to the Channel swim. She later spent many years teaching swimming to deaf children.

A high school dropout at 20, she had reached the pinnacle of her swimming career. Then, suddenly, it was all but over. After a brief fling with celebrity, she withdrew to growing obscurity. A generation after her feat, she had become largely forgotten. She lived on until 2003, never marrying, never getting past the fame of being the first woman to swim the Channel.

One thing about that "pretty red bathing dress:" It was evidently the world's first bikini. Gertrude faced a problem in making her swim: women's swimsuits of the day were just that, dresses. They were made of wool and weighed several pounds when wet. It would have been nigh unto impossible to beat the men's record wearing one for 21 miles, so she designed something that wouldn't slow her down. In fact, it covered less of her than what some of the five men who crossed the Channel before her had worn. It was embarrassing enough to be seen in it as she entered and left the water, but for purposes of being in the limelight it beat swimming naked, which had been the usual swimming attire in the Channel before the bathing dress was invented.

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