The 19th Century Muscle Women
by C.A. Asbrey
The 19th century was a period of dichotomies. For every bit of enlightenment there was a flip side, for every sniff of disapproval, there was a simmering market for the objects of their disdain, and for each of their stereotypes, there was a high-profile exemption. Those exemptions usually garnered a following of some kind, whether it was novelty, as a breakthrough, or as titivation or entertainment. Strong women were just one example of this. They have been around for a very long time and were touring with circuses for at least a hundred years before they reached their pinnacle (as objects of entertainment) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In a period where women were considered too delicate for physical exertion, they thought nothing about sending women down mines, work as labourers, and do heavy work around farms and factories. There was a definite class element in the prejudices of the period. Working women, and women of other races, were seen as more brutish and animalistic than their own ladies. Those ladies who did exercise, were restricted to more refined programmes. Women were soon able to cycle, skate, golf, and even climb mountains, but they had to do so in restrictive, heavy clothing. Women who were physical were stigmatised and well ahead of their time. Lilly Langtree was amongst the famous beauties who discovered the benefits of exercise, and who worked out in private. She was happy to keep it as a secret to her youthful figure, rather than be seen as strange or obsessive. It’s notable that there were many vocal detractors of women doing anything physical at all, but women began to find the confidence to ignore the dissenting voices and embraced the changes and the freedoms available to them.
As The Literary Gazette said, “To gentle and proper exercise for youthful females at school, no objection can be urged…. But when you come to teach grown-up women – wives, mothers, and aught we know grandmothers…how to handle a pike and jump over a dinner table – it is possible that the gymnastical part of education may be carried too far.” Once puberty was reached, exercise was positively frowned upon. “If immediate injury does not result from sudden overexertion, the daily renewal of it has a more permanently bad effect, by wearing out the powers of the body and bringing on premature old age. Such a degree of exertion, indeed, is not likely to occur from almost any kind of exercise in the middle and higher ranks of life; but nothing is more common than to see young women, under thirty years of age, with the look of sixty, from having been over-worked as servants.”
There was a prevailing belief in the 19th century that humans were born with only a finite amount of energy. Exercise and over-work was seen to use it up and cause premature aging and ill-health. Of course, that is now a ridiculous notion to the modern mind, but it was commonly-held, and used to suggest that women who worked out would become less-desirable as partners and have problems procreating – which, after all, is what they were ‘for’.
However, there are some very dramatic exemptions to that rule. Even before P.T. Burnum, travelling shows liked to have a selection of ‘freaks’ and strong women certainly fitted that description. In a world where physical disability and medical conditions enabled someone to build a career in the world of entertainment, there was also an option to create your own ‘otherness’ by either getting covered in tattoos, or on building your strength.
One of the best known muscle women was Katie Brumbach called the “Great Sandwina”. Brumbach’s parents came from Vienna and were also circus performers. Her father was 6’ 6”, and her mother was also strong woman with biceps measuring 15 inches around). She performed with her family, including many siblings. One of Brumbach’s most popular tricks was to lift her 165 lbs husband over her head with only one arm. Another was to lift 300 lbs of weights with both. Nowadays Brumbacj would have been an Olympic champion, but in her day her only options were in the circus. She joined the Ringling Brothers, then The Barnum & Bailey Circus. Instead of collecting medals and being seen as a superior athlete, she snapped iron bars with her bare hands and lifted huge weights in a way which built her up as both beautiful and dramatic. At 57 she could still hoist her husband above her head with only one arm.
While strong women were much bigger than most women at the time, they were careful to make sure their femininity was emphasised. They wore clothes with showed off a curvy, soft body, but still compared their sheer size to men. Even then, it wasn’t their size or build that necessarily brought them fame or attention. It was a matter of amazement that a woman could be as strong as a man (and in most cases stronger than the average man), and still be feminine or desirable.
And they were desired. The idea of being dominated by strong women was seen as a particularly English fetish by the French, although there’s no evidence to suggest that it was restricted to Old Blighty, in fact, it seems to be both perennial and universal in its attraction. The allure persists, a mixture of taboos and fears writ large, of sexual attraction tilting the normal power bases in society; a fear of emancipated women fighting back. There was also an unreasonable fear of muscular women no longer needing men at all, or of it changing a woman’s sexual preferences.
Things have come long way since the 19th century. People soon caught on to the fact that exercise was good for both genders, and by the 1920s it was both mainstream and popular. The development of musculature was already considered a sport for men throughout the 19th century, but more and more women took it up and ignored the social taboos which discouraged them from developing their own muscles. The first female bodybuilding competitions took place in the 1970s, and women could win world medals for weightlifting from 1986. It took until the 2000 Sydney Olympics for female weightlifting to become an Olympic event.