- Fighting the Current: The Rise of American Women’s Swimming, 1870–1926 by Lisa Bier
Fighting the Current: The Rise of American Women’s Swimming, 1870–1926 is an account of the many girls and women who took to the water in pursuit of leisure, careers in entertainment and teaching, unprecedented competition, and record-breaking challenges. While Bier successfully brings to light an all but forgotten past that deserves remembering, this history may leave its readers with more questions than answers. The book’s organization is at times wanting, and the telling of women’s experiences are often lacking in a broader context that would demonstrate the significance of their achievements, rather than simply telling the story of what was to have happened.
The book is organized chronologically into twenty-eight chapters, many of which are quite short and might have been combined with previous or subsequent chapters to improve the flow of the text. Bier begins with a description of swimming opportunities that existed for both women and men in New York City in the late 1800s. From here the book begins to feel unbalanced. Very little information is provided throughout the chapters regarding women’s swimming outside of New York except to follow some of the endeavors of New York women who traveled the United States and internationally to compete or entertain as swimmers, leaving one to wonder what was happening elsewhere in America, and if New York was the hot spot of women’s swimming, what made it so.
One of the athletes featured extensively by Bier is Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel. This book was originally intended, according to Bier, as a biography of Ederle, but as three other biographies were published before its completion, Bier decided instead to “highlight the women who had preceded Gertrude” (p. 1). Yet, Bier uses the last ten chapters and fifty-seven pages to describe Ederle’s swimming ventures and accomplishments. These chapters are highly entertaining and provide the reader with a good understanding of Ederle’s life, personal character, and the challenges one faced when attempting a feat such as the English Channel swim. However, to ascribe roughly a quarter of the entire book to one woman’s history gives this work an unfortunate imbalance—it either allots too much space to Ederle, or more likely, previous chapters needed more of this type of storied writing in order to go beyond the simple relation of names, dates, races, and events that it occasionally becomes.
Bier does highlight numerous female swimmers who had a great impact on the sport and women’s participation, but she fails to go outside of the individuals’ experiences to provide adequately enough context of the social climate these women were navigating. The title of the book suggests struggle and conflict; Bier effectively addresses the initial difficulty swimmers faced in finding safe and clean water and later maintaining participation amongst strict rules of amateurism and professionalism, but the struggle to succeed as women, not merely athletes, is not given its fair due. This is despite the fact that instances of gender inequality emerge at random throughout the book just often enough to make [End Page 164] one surmise that the female athletes’ struggle against societal expectations is really what this book is trying to be about. Unfortunately, this commentary is not developed enough to do the women who experienced this inequality justice. In fact, Bier paints a picture where extremely few are opposed to women’s swimming, causing one to wonder how the sport related to gender inequalities, beliefs regarding women’s bodies, and the women’s movement during the time period 1870 to 1926. The majority of notes refer to quotations taken from New York area newspapers and give us clues as to the sexist lens through which female athletes were viewed, but Bier too often leaves the quotations to speak for themselves rather than using them to guide the reader towards a...