History of the Women’s Boat Race

One of the things about the oarswomen of Cambridge is how they have each in their own way had to overcome all sorts of odds to have their race. First it was the resistance from the men’s colleges in the 1920s to any sort of race being held between women. And that first race between OU- WBC and Newnham College oarswomen was certainly an odd one. Two crews rowing against each other twice, judged once for speed and once for style, with male adjudicators from each university. (And then one part was annulled because the judges disagreed!) Despite attempts to play this event down in advance and it being timed to avoid large numbers of spectators, hordes of mainly male undergraduates turned up to witness it.

Now, after 75 years, the women’s crews, having finally achieved an equal footing with the men, should have been savouring all being able to row on the Tideway in parity with the men – but of course this year they have been ambushed by a virus.

So, this year’s race will be held not on the Thames, as is traditional, but on the river at Ely (where, just once before, the men had been forced to race during the Second World War). This time it will be followed remotely by spectators online around the world. Quite a journey.

During the initial years from the late 1920s until the foundation of CUWBC in 1941 the competition was between the rowers of Oxford University Women’s Boat Club and Newnham College Boat Club. The creation of a university boat club for women in Cambridge was facilitated at this point by the absence of men, many of whom were away at war. From then on the race took place fairly consistently, provided that both crews had enough funds and equipment to be able to row. Each year the race was rowed alternately either on the Isis or the Cam, with the winner challenging the loser the next year. The crews had to get to the other university by whatever means they could, even if it meant going by train and crossing London with oars in a taxi. On arrival they would row in a borrowed (usually antiquated) boat.

“That first race was certainly an odd one... two crews rowing against each other twice, judged once for speed and once for style, with male adjudicators from each university.”

In the mid-1950s OUWBC had a sticky patch when they were banned from the river after an incident on a weir, so no races took place from then until the mid ‘60s. In the early ‘60s when two female undergraduates had tried to resuscitate women’s rowing at Cambridge they faced strong opposition from another quarter closer to home. The resistance from CUBC oarsmen saw the battle even being covered in the national press. Eventually, with support from Canon Duckworth of Churchill, who had coxed the Olympic eight in 1936, the women prevailed, and the races continued. The problems were not over, however, as the women had no equipment, no premises, no gym and only unpaid, extremely dedicated coaches. They struggled along for decades with lots of help (often financial) from family and well-wishers.

The sport of rowing developed and lightweight racing was adopted nationally so in 1975 the newly founded men’s lightweight crew established a race at Henley and after some skulduggery in the 1976 event at Oxford the races for all women’s crews were moved the next year to Henley as well. This became the venue for the races over many years, despite the vagaries of the course (stream), the weather (equinox) and, on one occasion, foot and mouth disease.

Meanwhile efforts had continued over many years to allow the women to row on the Tideway as the men did. The argument continually given was that the women would not be good enough and would let themselves and the university down – this despite the fact that during this period many CUWBC alumnae were rowing internationally and also at the Olympics, with many successes. Eventually an agreement was reached that in 2015 the Blue Boats of OUWBC and CUWBC could compete on the Tideway just as the men did and the next year Blondie and Osiris were added to the racing. The lightweights were to join the other crews last year but in the event it was in fact only the lightweight crews that were able to race there due to the escalation of the pandemic.

So here we are, 75 years on and still rowing!

There is a lot more history about CU- WBC on the cuwbchistory.org website and in the book, Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club 1941 2014: The Struggle Against Inequality by Jane Kingsbury and Carol Williams.