Katie Brumbach knew how to handle her husband. Literally. She picked him up, performed the manual of arms as though he were a rifle, and set him back down. For his part, Max was cooperative, maintaining a rigid posture and smiling throughout his passive, acrobatic experience. In 1909, this exhibition of strength by a woman was amusing entertainment for crowds on the Vaudeville circuit. Katie, billed as "Sandwina," stood six feet tall, weighed 210 pounds and towered over her beloved Max. She used her size to advantage and trained to be exceptionally strong. Her success led to 30 years of employment by Barnum & Bailey, and she could still lift Max when they were both in their sixties.
Dr. Jan Todd, herself a weightlifting champion, found in her research that strength (resistance) training and women have a colorful history together. There is evidence of training specifically for strength even earlier than 1900.
Women in training Many texts, one in 1831, display illustrations of women using dumbbells while wearing layers of petticoats and fashionable dress. A gym for women was established in Boston in the 1860s, though the majority of people did not believe that women should train vigorously. There was some fear that femininity would suffer. However, a man named Winship, the owner of the gym and a Harvard physician responsible for the first sports medicine practice in Boston, was ahead of his time. He believed that "strength equals health."
This view paved the way for many women to train for strength, though the purpose was ostensibly to prepare the female body suitable for childbearing. As 1900 approached, proper posture became an extremely important goal as well, and some rather unique weighted helmets were designed to gradually strengthen the neck and therefore improve alignment of the body.
Enter Sandwina and her contemporaries, such as Minerva and Athleta, who performed impressive feats of strength. Minerva actually lifted a platform holding 18 men, a total of 3,000 pounds, a weight never again approached by a female. More oddities than role models, these pioneers were not the "ideal" women of the times. The female population did not yet aspire to such strength.
A few decades later, the popular comic strips did nothing to improve the respect for women with muscle. Mammy Yokum and Little Lotta entertained us, and we even cheered for them. But they did not inspire us to lift weights. We were amused and entertained, once again, by the apparent incongruence of "feminine" and "strong." Exercise in general and strength training in particular were still considered mostly inappropriate for women.
After World War II, Alice "Pudgy" Stockton introduced the idea of shapeliness formed by strength. Appearing in numerous health magazines, she and her muscle beach ladies gave fresh definition to strength training as a means to improved appearance. Her unfortunate childhood nickname belied her attractive adult feminine appearance. Interest was sparked as women noted that toned muscle improved physical appeal, and a new ideal began to emerge.
At this point, strength training also caught attention as a means to improve athletic performance rather than hinder it, as was previously thought. Swimming teams were the first to use weight training for female sports, and their success set an example for the boom of strength training for all sport.
With Title IX, strength moved even beyond athleticism. Cartoons disappeared, and strength itself became a worthy goal.
We have moved from amusement to beauty, to athleticism, to health as a reason for pursuing strength. Femininity is no longer challenged as women come to understand that their bodies do not necessarily have to become gnarled, knotty or bulging to be imbued with strength.
Embracing physical strength Function has become a spotlight for strength training as the geriatric population explodes. Culturally, we are embracing strength training as an antidote to aging. The research speaks loudly and definitively: To remain our physically best, we need muscle strength.
Strength training is definitely an end in itself. Strong, we can travel, live independently, perform easily the tasks of daily living and fulfill our dreams. Women continue to see the value of acquiring strength for motherhood, but with new perspective.
Dr. Miriam Nelson's series of books such as "Strong Women Stay Young" and "Strong Women, Strong Bones" addresses the reality that women can exercise to build strong structures as a means of improving quality of life and longevity.
We can now accomplish strength without tossing husbands into the air to prove the point. Even Max would agree that the trip was worth the effort.
Diane Standish is a certified health specialist who owns Starting Line Fitness, a fitness training and health consulting business. She also teaches at Rocky Mountain College, is president of the Yellowstone Rim Runners and a member of the board of directors for the annual Montana Women's Run. For more information on this year's Women's Run scheduled for May 10, go to www.womensrun.org.