Review of Strong Like Her

Shapley, Haley. Strong Like Her: A Celebration of Rule Breakers, History Makers, and Unstoppable Athletes. New York: Gallery Books. Pp. 272. $29.99 Hardcover.

Reviewed by Richard Ravalli

A scan of social media pages devoted to bodybuilding publications and events will reveal images of heavily built women with accompanying comments that they are “gross,” and that the athletes “look like men.” Or consider Simone Biles, one of the greatest Olympic champions of all time, who reports getting mocked for her muscles in her youth and being called a “swoldier.” There is the tennis official who in 2014 referred to Venus and Serena Williams as “the Williams brothers,” and a 2009 survey that found that 71 percent of women would rather be perceived as too thin than as too muscular.

Gallery Books, 2020.

The long history of such attitudes regarding strong women and athletes, and how recent years are suggesting positive changes in public perceptions of the built female body, is the topic of Haley Shapley’s Strong Like Her: A Celebration of Rule Breakers, History Makers, and Unstoppable Athletes. Billed as part history, part biography, Shapley’s volume combines research with accessible and at times conversational commentary that makes for an intriguing narrative. Throughout the text, full-page, color photos of contemporary female athletes by Sophy Holland emphasize the women’s sporting abilities and muscularity. Strong Like Her is a popular history that makes a convincing argument for topics paradoxically both obscured by impassioned sentiments and ignored as marginal. It will encourage discussion and deserves a wide readership.     

Chapter 1 offers an introduction to female athletes in the ancient Mediterranean. Shapley summarizes the exploits of Spartan women and girls, the mythology of the Greek heroine Atalanta, and the existence of real-life Amazons. As she notes, not all ancient Greeks agreed with Plato that sport and exercise were acceptable pursuits for women. For Socrates, women exercising along men was “ridiculous […], especially when they are no longer young; they certainly will not be a vision of beauty” (p. 12). Such a dichotomy is further complicated by the available evidence from the ancient world. While the “Bikini Girls” mosaic from 4th century Sicily identifies women as engaged in athletic competition in the Roman Empire, other sources are difficult to locate. Shapley writes that “while we don’t have all the artifacts from ancient times to know everything that went on, what does survive shows that women’s efforts to pursue strength—and society’s attempt to prevent such efforts—go way back to the dawn of Western Civilization” (p. 18).

Chapter 2 fast-forwards the story of strong women to the 19th century and the sport of pedestrianism. As the name suggests, athletes would walk around a track for a certain amount of time or until a particular mileage was achieved. Shapley focuses on the achievements of the British racewalker Ada Anderson, who was described as “slightly masculine” yet was highly popular with pedestrianism crowds across the Atlantic. Following trailblazers like Anderson were late 19th century female basketball players and health advocates like William Blaikie, who encouraged American women to build their muscles. As much as Victorian notions regarding the inherent weakness of the female body were being challenged by the turn of the century, gender norms were reinforced through debates regarding athletic clothing. For example, “When women performing in a gymnastics exhibition at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics dared to wear knee-length skirts, they were chastised for being unladylike” (p. 36). According to Shapley, such historical indignities cast long shadows and continue to hinder the acceptance of females as real athletes.   

A brief overview of swimmers such as Australia’s Annette Kellermann follows in Chapter 3. In the early 20th century, she challenged the restrictive clothing that Western women were required to wear in the water and became a popular entertainer and fitness guru. Early strongwomen are the subject of Chapter 4, with the requisite amount of attention paid to Katie Sandwina, the “Lady Hercules” who broke chains, lifted men, and performed other strength feats for circus audiences in the first decades of the 1900s. Observers were amazed by her abilities but content that her figure was “not married by a display of muscles,” and her domestic pursuits and parenting skills were often emphasized. Throughout Strong Like Her, Shapley draws upon a wide variety of primary and secondary sources, including journal articles and monographs, in addition to interviews with experts and athletes. Her synthesis of data from sport history and physical culture results in an artful blending of information marshalled in support of spirited yet cogent analysis. It is popular history done right.

Shapley does consult some archival material in the book. Chapter 5 is devoted to the mid-20th century Muscle Beach icon Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton. Sources from the Abbye (Pudgy) and Les Stockton Papers at the H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports at University of Texas, Austin are referenced. Stockton’s weightlifting abilities and good looks inspired the nation through trying times and proved a powerful combination for visitors to the beach. The many sport accomplishments of Babe Didrikson are the topic of the following chapter. Unlike Sandwina and Pudgy, Babe’s angular looks and apparent indifference to men welcomed scorn and suspicion, the kind of assumptions regarding sexuality that haunt contemporary female athletes. When she married in 1938, Life magazine declared “Babe Is A Lady Now.” The chapter draws connections to the South African runner Caster Semenya and recent controversies regarding sex tests in sports. While Semenya’s extra testosterone and hyperandrogenism (detected by testing that revealed she has a rare abnormality resulting in internal testes) likely offers her an advantage, frequent accusations of “a woman not really being a woman is often a way to detract from her talents, to try and make her feel ashamed and inconsequential, as critics attempted to do with Babe” (p. 98).

Chapter 7, titled “Breaking Into the Boys’ Club,” introduces Katherine Switzer and her experience in 1967 as the first woman to officially run in the Boston Marathon. Switzer’s treatment at the hands of race director Jock Semple and the aftermath of her being in a marathon with men helped to question the emphasis placed in sports on greater male speed and strength at the expense of endurance and stamina. For Shapley, both Switzer’s trailblazing efforts and Billie Jean King’s 1973 tennis victory in the “Battle of the Sexes” suggest “a difference between wanting to be the victor and being so tied to the idea that men are physically superior to women that it causes a crisis of masculinity if that deeply held belief is challenged” (p. 115-116). Shapley returns to female lifters in Chapter 8 and the accomplishments of powerlifter Jan Todd and weightlifter Karyn Marshall. In the wake of Title IX, Todd’s records and Marshall’s victories helped break barriers for American women in the weight room. The tensions regarding muscularity versus femininity in the history of female bodybuilding are the focus of the following chapter. Twenty-first century competitors such as Dana Linn Bailey continue to face pressures on issues such as breast enhancement while American popular interest in the sport has declined markedly in recent decades.

The final three chapters in Strong Like Her emphasize contemporary concerns in female athleticism. Topics covered include the muscularity of CrossFit athletes, equal pay in women’s soccer, and lingering biases against strong and athletic women. For Shapley, boys wanting to wear Alex Morgan jerseys and the popularity of American Ninja Warrior demonstrate constructive developments in recent years and a growing openness in American society to female physical achievement. Short biographies of the athletes appearing in Holland’s bold photographs round out the book, along with photo credits and endnotes.

Strong Like Her is a valuable volume. Despite often cursory treatment of historical dynamics, Shapley’s engaging narrative provides an inviting guide and capably blends past and present. Her book deserves a place in libraries, schools, gyms, or any place where men and women might be inspired by stories of strength. 

Richard Ravalli is Associate Professor of History at William Jessup University. He has written on fitness and bodybuilding history, in addition to California and film history. He lives in Auburn, California.

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