I want to tell you about Ivy Russell, an amazingly strong and muscular weightlifter, wrestler, and all-around athlete, who managed to be all that while being an English woman in the first half of the 20th century. Despite her being a trailblazer and an advocate for women strength athletes in many respects, she is not very well-known today (she doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page), overshadowed by her better remembered successors, such as Abbye Stockton.
One consequence of there being very few sources on Miss Russell readily available online (my starting points were Todd 1992 and Stark Center 2021 — and almost everything else turned up by a Google search seems to be a rehashing of these) is that, when I decided to learn more about her, I had to do my own research. With me stuck in Oslo, that meant mostly searching through online archives of digitized periodicals (The British Newspaper Archive, Newspapers.com, and Trove), as well as getting my hands on a few issues of old fitness magazines. And one consequence of that was that I got exposed plenty to the way the press of the time was writing about strong and muscular women and women venturing into “men’s” sports.
So, in this (paper-length) post, I will attempt to trace Miss Russell’s life and feats, mostly through the lens of press coverage — as well as the few pieces written by Miss Russell herself that appeared in printed press — and by doing so, I will aim to accomplish two goals: celebrate this outstanding athlete, who has been unjustly forgotten by the wider public, and illustrate the views on strength, muscularity, womanhood, and femininity at the time (the echoes of many of which we can still very much hear today).
Let me say from the outset, though, that neither sports, nor history, nor gender studies, nor any combination of the above is my area of expertise. I am a linguist and but a regular gym bro, who only picked up lifting in Fall 2018, at the ripe age of 29. Thus, this piece should be taken for what it is: a partial report by a layperson about a bunch of old newspaper and magazine pieces she read.
So, Ivy Elisabeth Russell was born in 1907 in Croydon, England, where, as far as I can tell, she continued to live for much, if not all of her life. (My uncertainty about the latter is due to the fact that I have not been able to find any information on when, where, or how she died.) Weighing only 2lb. 13oz. at birth, she had lung problems as a child, “on the verge of developing tuberculosis” (Van Cleef 1938), which is why she took up sports at the age of 14 (Russell 1937; Van Cleef 1938; Todd 1992, a.o.). Under the guidance of Mr. E. A. Streeter, a retired member of the British Army’s physical training staff, Miss Russell was introduced, among other things, to gymnastics, boxing, wrestling, and weight-lifting (Van Cleef 1938; Todd 1992).
It very quickly became apparent that she was exceptionally strong, and she was progressing very quickly. She started making her first public appearances as a gymnast (the first mention of her I was able to find in the press was a news entry from on June 12, 1925 in The News about “a gymnastic and acrobatic display, under the direction of E. A. Streeter, late Army Gymnastic Staff, and Miss Ivy E. Russell, instructress”), often in roles requiring immense strength, such as at the bottom of a human pyramid — but she was going to expand her public emploi soon enough.
1932 Women’s Weight-Lifting Championship of Britain
In 1932, Miss Russell issued a challenge to Miss Tillie¹ Tinmouth, another woman strength athlete of the time and the holder of the 9st. Weight-Lifting Champion title, to compete for the weight-lifting championship of Great Britain. The challenge was accepted, and the fixture was set to take place on April 13, 1932 at the Croydon Baths. The prospective match galvanized the British press. For instance, The Daily Mirror (1932b) published a news story about the upcoming event, with a picture of Miss Russell lifting two boys on a bar featured on the back page.
Let us note two things about the article in ‘The Daily Mirror’. First, note the shade thrown on the British Amateur Weight-Lifting Association, B.A.W.L.A.: “The contest is not being held under the auspices of the Amateur Weight-Lifting Association, because they do not approve of women taking up a sport which has hitherto been exclusively to men”. Second, note the following words of Miss Russell’s coach Mr. Streeter: “In one way I entirely agree with the Weight-Lifting Association’s attitude about this contest. Neither Miss Russell nor I believe that weight-lifting is a proper sport for women to take up. To most women it would be harmful. But Miss Russell is exceptionally strong…” As we will see shortly, Mr. Streeter was misrepresenting the views of his trainee (and was, of course, completely, 100% wrong about the effect of lifting on women’s health, regardless of how exceptionally or unexceptionally strong a given woman is).
Now, as for the B.A.W.L.A., in anticipation of the upcoming match, the secretary of the association W. J. Lowry wrote an entry for the April 9 issue of the ‘Health and Strength’ magazine (as part of his apparently regular notes there), trying to justify the B.A.W.L.A.’s systematic rejection of applications for membership from women and refusal to adjudicate at “displays where ladies have been in evidence in the manipulation of weight-lifting appliances” (Lowry 1932b). At first, he says, we were dismissing these applications as “a passing whim of one of the sex which traditionally has the right to change its mind as often as British records change hands these days”. But them ladies have proven to be quite determined in their pursuit, and now they want to do this 9st. Ladies Championship, so here’s why we, the Executive Committee of the B.A.W.L.A., still don’t want to recognize them. First, contests between women will attract press publicity, but “not of a favourable kind”, and the B.A.W.L.A. has already been having hard time fighting against public ignorance about weight-lifting. Second, it’s hard enough to find expert weight-lifting instructors for men, and “the difficulty would be intensified in providing adequate safeguards for ladies” (no evidence cited, of course, to support the idea that women need some special “safeguards” that men do not when it comes to weight-lifting). Third, what if something bad happens to them ladies, and then the press will blow it out of proportion and blame the B.A.W.L.A.? “The contest to be held on April 13th, 1932, however, will be watched with keen interest,” concludes Mr. Lowry. “The manner in which it is received; the styles displayed and the abilities indicated by the performances will be noted for future guidance.”
The match happened as planned, without the B.A.W.L.A.’s blessing, and Miss Russell easily outlifted her opponent (who, to be fair, had to travel by motor coach from Sunderland for 12 hours, arrived on the morning of the competition, and got no sleep on her trip, according to Lowry 1932a), with 644.5lb. against 564.5lb. of cumulative weight over four lifts (Right Hand Clean and Jerk, Two Hands Snatch, Two Hands Clean and Jerk, and Two Hands Dead Lift). The match received wide coverage in the mainstream press, not only in Britain, but also (at least) in the US, Canada, and Australia, and, according to The Sheffield Independent 1932, attracted about 2000 people of live audience. We will talk some more about some properties of this coverage later, but you can get a sneak peek in the pictures below.
Among those 2000 people was the above-mentioned W. J. Lowry, who was there in an unofficial capacity and was forced to make a speech upon conclusion of the match, in which he admitted having been impressed by what he had witnessed and expressed his “regret[s] that official recognition was not at present possible” (Lowry 1932a). He then published a lengthy report about the event in ‘Health and Strength’ on April 30 (Lowry 1932a). This report is quite a fascinating read. He starts by acknowledging that he attended the match with “preconceived and prejudged ideas”, lists his concerns prior to the match about what could go wrong and how it would reflect on the B.A.W.L.A. if the association were to officially recognize the event, and even though he admits that none of his concerns materialized, he proceeds to bizarrely reaffirm his original verdict by saying, “…as I will proceed to tell, my views were not entirely without justification. At least the vision of the difficulties in front of us had something serious really happened is not at all overestimated.”
As is revealed later in the piece, Mr. Lowry’s remaining concerns were mainly about press coverage. In fact, a substantial part of his piece is dedicated to the press, where he laments that men’s competitions do not get the same media attention and, ironically enough, calls out a reporter for expressing preconceived views about the event. Said reporter wrote, “The Weight-Lifting Association, which governs the men’s sport, would have nothing to do with last evening’s contest. Frankly, I can understand their attitude. For ordinary women I should say this is the most harmful sport I have seen them attempt. Yet I have rarely seen two such perfect women. They were grace personified.” To that Mr. Lowry replied: “The attitude of the Press reporter is, frankly, like that of the average men when confronted with an apparently incontrovertible case. “Well, I know all your arguments, I hear what you say, but still I don’t think you can be right.” He feels instinctively that it is not the sport for women, yet what he saw puzzled him. Admiration wins him over…”
Speaking of admiration, Mr. Lowry spends an even larger part of his piece nerdily fanboying over Miss Russell’s and Miss Tinmouth’s technique. In another fit of surprising progressivism, he claims to have called out his assistant when the latter said, “Look at Miss Russell! She strides up to the weight like a man!” To which Mr. Lowry, according to his own words, responded, “She strides up to the weight in the only way that a weight-lifter can approach it — with a definite and positive idea of success, a confident knowledge of the task to be achieved, and with the automatic precision cultivated by expert instruction and repetition.”
So, as we can see, Mr. Lowry wasn’t exactly the villain of the story — or at least he didn’t want to be one — but more of a coward fretting over hypothetical media criticism in case of hypothetical worst-case scenarios. In response to his worries, Miss Russell wrote a letter to the editor of ‘Health and Strength’, entitled ‘Give Us a Chance, Mr. Lowry!’, which was published on May 28, 1932 (Russell 1932). There she calls out the secretary of the B.A.W.L.A. on his spinelessness: “[The newspaper men] can, and rightly, say, “Why does not the controlling association have the courage of its own convictions?” — to be afraid of adverse criticism through the daily press is not the attitude to be commended. If the B.A.W.L.A. had really been afraid of adverse criticism, it would have died out years ago. In fact, it would never have commenced activities!!”
Miss Russell also responds to the idea (which, let me remind you, was also voiced by her own coach Mr. Streeter) that lifting is somehow particularly harmful to women, by saying, among other things: “Regarding the alleged evil effects of weight-lifting on women, let me say this: it is a pity that some of these “scare-mongers” and “old mother Hubbards” don’t try to prevent working girls from lifting heavy weights that are awkward to get hold of, and, moreover, the lifting of which is compulsory in their everyday work. These hardworking girls, in the course of their duties, take far more risks than I ever shall, because they are not trained to perform their tasks with the minimum of strain and output of energy.” She asserts that she knows from first-hand experience that there are plenty of women who are interested in weight-lifting and points out the obvious: “The veto of the Governing Body will only serve to discourage real lifters from accepting the training of ladies. Consequently ladies in many parts of the country will train under conditions far from ideal, with consequent harm, not only to the ladies themselves, but for the B.A.W.L.A. as a body.” Going back to the publicity issue, she notes that the press coverage of her match with Miss Tinmouth has been quite positive, but is unequivocal in her appeal:
Praise and admiration, however, are insufficient to satisfy anybody really as interested in weight-lifting as I am. I want action, as, at the moment, I feel like a ship without a rudder, and this is where the B.A.W.L.A. can live up to its name.
I don’t know if Mr. Lowry wrote anything else on the issue in ‘Health and Strength’ (or elsewhere), as UiO’s library for some unfathomable reason doesn’t stock vintage British fitness magazines (nor does NYU’s library, to which I still have access), and ordering them from a British bookseller I found on AbeBooks.com has been exciting (and very efficient, kudos to them!), but a tiny bit costly. But when Miss Russell got to compete against Nan Carquest from Ireland in 1937 to defend her now apparently “world champion” title, there was no more B.A.W.L.A.-related fuss in the press, as far as I can tell.² That said, in 1951, Sunday Pictorial called Miss Russell “the only British lady lifter ever officially recognised by the British Amateur Weightlifters Association” (although I am not sure how much we can trust this source, considering that they also report Miss Russell’s height to be 5ft. 8in., while it was between 5ft. 5in. and 5ft. 6in., according to all other sources).
1934 Women’s Wrestling Championship of Britain
According to Van Cleef 1938, after the 1932 weight-lifting championship, Miss Russell issued an open challenge to all women lifters to contest her title. For a while, there were apparently no takers, so she set her sights on a new goal: a wrestling title. According to Belfast Telegraph 1934, “Miss Russell publish[ed] a statement that she had been wrestling for two years and could not find any members of her own sex for opponents”. The challenge was accepted by Miss Peggy Parnell, a more experienced wrestler, and a wrestling match between the two was set to take place on September 12, 1934 at Lane’s Club on Baker Street, London.
To give you a bit of a context for the status of women’s wrestling in Britain at the time: a year prior, a match between Miss Jennie McDonald and Miss Flo King was supposed to happen in Hull. The two women appeared in the ring, after which the M.C. announced that “owing to unforeseen circumstances the contest would not take place” (The Leeds Mercury1933). Said circumstances involved the police showing up to the venue and explaining to the licensee of the venue that the match would be a violation of his license. Prior to the event, some church officials publicly expressed their opinions on the matter of women’s wrestling (The Daily Mail 1933), which included, for instance, “I think we have much to lose and little to gain in women breaking from the conventialities of the past” and “I think it is certainly degrading for the sport if women are to be engaged in it”. Perhaps the most outspoken was Rev T. H. Tardrew, vicar of St. John’s, Newington:
The proposal strikes me as repulsive. A few women here and there seem determined to rob their sex of the respect that decent men have hitherto accorded them. (…) Imagine the domestic bliss of the husband of a female all-in champion if an argument arose about mending the socks or cooking the dinner. (…) I am very dubious about the future of any race where the men are effeminate and the women masculine.
So, the news about the fixture between Miss Russell and Miss Parnell was predictably met with a bit of a shitstorm as well, which prompted Miss Russell to publish another piece in the press, this time on the pages of ‘John Bull’ (Russell 1934). The piece, entitled ‘Why Shouldn’t a Woman Wrestle!’, takes down the common “arguments” against women’s wrestling in a delightfully witty way.
First, she says, there are plenty of women wrestlers and women’s wrestling clubs around, and “and any who try to dismiss [the women’s wrestling movement in Britain] as the occupation of one or two cranks are very wide of the mark”. Next, some of the critics demonstrate their ignorance by assuming that “free style”, which is the wrestling style typically used in these clubs, means “anything goes” and entails brutality, of which there is none in free-style wrestling. Also, free-style wrestling has self-defense as its core goal and emphasizes skill rather than pure physical strength, which is why “at some of the clubs the girls wrestle with men”, as “[t]he slenderest skilled woman can more than hold her own against the strongest unskilled man”. She proceeds to address the concerns about wrestling being somehow physically harmful to women by discussing, among other things, the effect of athletic activities on her own health, and about wrestling “destroy[ing] feminine qualities” — an issue to which we will come back later.
The piece ends with the following passage:
“Outrageous,” said a parson the other day. “These women seem determined to rob their sex of the respect of all decent men.”
There we have the most familiar objection. There the cloven hoof peeps out! The old objection of the male. Is there a tiny, tiny bit of fear in it?
Our answer to that is the root of the matter — our set purpose, as well as that of strengthening and beautifying our bodies. It is self defense. It is “outrageous” for a woman not to be able to defend herself. Look in the Home Office reports for last year of the increasing number of attacks and brutal assaults on women if you want to find the justification for our sport.
I hope I have said enough to show that the objections to this new women’s sport will not hold water. They are as shadowy as were those to women’s cycling, hockey, field athletics, cricket, hiking, and so on. And they will vanish just as surely as they have always done.
Note that Miss Russell’s quote from “a parson the other day” is almost identical to what Rev T. H. Tardrew said in relation to the planned wrestling match between Miss McDonald and Miss King in Hull a year before. Sounds like the good old reverend was recycling an old sermon.
As with the women’s weight-lifting championship two years earlier, the wrestling match between the “Blonde Tigress” and the “Brunette Bearcat”, as Miss Parnell and Miss Russell, respectively, were routinely referred to in the papers, generated quite some buzz in the mainstream press, both prior to and after the event, with the news once again traveling outside Britain, as well.
Even ‘Peeps Into Other People’s Diaries’ in Reynold’s Illustrated News 1934, which, as far as I can tell, was an Onion-style humorous rubric with an ‘All the above entries are strictly untrue’ disclaimer at the end, featured the following two entries:
August 28. — Miss Ivy Russell.
Started my serious training for my all-in wrestling match with Peggy Parnell on September 12. Tripped the parlourmaid down the stairs, threw the housemaid into her pail, and pinned the cook down on the kitchen table. Funny, one can’t keep one’s servants.
August 29. — Miss Peggy Parnell.
This morning, I interviewed three maids who, by a coincidence, had just left Ivy Russell’s service. I engaged them to start work this evening, and mentioned that my profession was the same as Ivy’s. None of them turned up.
(Perhaps the funniest thing about these entries is that Miss Russell herself worked as a domestic servant.)
Miss Parnell, who was two stones lighter and six inches shorter than her opponent, was interviewed in her gymnasium before the match and delivered her prognosis about the outcome: “I am banking on my superior experience beating Miss Russell’s physical advantages” (North-Eastern Daily Gazette 1934). She was wrong. Miss Russell beat her swiftly and squarely, easily winning the first two submissions out of the three scheduled in less than 10 minutes total (Daily Herald 1934; Pix 1939; The Courier and Advertiser 1934, a.o.), thus, becoming the first woman wrestling champion of Britain. After the match, she said to a reporter (The Courier and Advertiser 1934):
Well, I won, as I thought I should. Is wrestling disgusting for women? I certainly challenge anyone to say so.
Miss Russell’s attempt to defend her wrestling champion title against Miss Florence Mason in July 1935 ended in a draw (The Dover Express and East Kent News 1935). It should be noted, however, that Miss Russell was competing while suffering from an injury; The Express(1935) wrote, “While standing on the platform at East Croydon Station [Miss Russell] was struck by the door of a moving train and sustained injuries to her arm and shoulder. In spite of her injury, Miss Russell defended her title of world’s wrestling champion against Miss Florence Mason at Dover. The result was a draw.” The press also covered some of Miss Russell’s subsequent athletic feats, including, for instance, her new deadlift record of 385lb. (The Guardian 1935) and the above-mentioned 1937 weight-lifting championship, in which Miss Russell defeated Miss Carquest. The latter once again got substantial coverage both in Britain and abroad.
Shortly before the 1937 championship, ‘The Daily Mirror’ also featured a piece by Miss Russell herself about her personal life (Russell 1937) and a bizarre report of an engagement a few days later (The Daily Mirror 1937b), both of which we will come back to in the next section. Later Miss Russell’s appearances in the press seem to for the most part be feature articles and cursory mentions, some of which I will evoke in the next section as well.
In 1939, however, Miss Russell made the news for a reason unrelated to her athletic pursuits. She was involved in a car accident that received substantial press coverage (apparently, car accidents with fatal casualties were still somewhat of a novelty back then). According to the reports in the British press (Advertiser and Echo 1939a,b,c,d; Birmingham Gazette1939; The Daily Mirror 1939; The East Kent Times 1939a,b,c, a.o.), Miss Russell was driving an Austin down the main road, when her car was hit on an intersection by a Riley entering from a side road, driven by Flying Officer Henry Arthur Halley Watts. The crash killed one of the two passengers in Miss Russell’s car, Mrs. Emily Streeter, presumably the wife of Miss Russell’s coach,³ and seriously injured the other passenger, Mrs. Lilian Webb. Miss Russell herself “sustained shock, concussion, and cuts” (Advertiser and Echo 1939d), but was discharged from the hospital after her wounds were dressed. Flying Officer Watts, whose injuries were treated on site, was later fined £5 for dangerous driving and £5 for being uninsured (Advertiser and Echo 1939a; The East Kent Times 1939a).
The latest press appearance by Miss Russell I have seen was in a November 27, 1953 piece on another woman strength athlete and Miss Russell’s friend Mrs. Agnes Smith in ‘Edinburgh Pictorial’ (Robertson 1953, found through Stark Center 2021): “Among Mrs Smith’s “muscle friends” is Ivy Russell, reputed to be the world’s best woman weight lifter. The “Russel muscle” from Surrey visited the Leith Club and astounded the mere males by lifting 410 1/2 pounds, a feat that is still talked about in awestruck tones.”
Press on Miss Russell, womanhood, and femininity
Now that we’ve covered the highlights of Miss Russell’s life, athletic career, and activism, let’s take a closer look at some properties of the press coverage she was getting at the time. I do not, of course, intend to do a proper analysis here (nor am I qualified to do so, as I pointed out at the outset), but let’s just have some fun, shall we.
In the databases I searched through (which were, once again, The British Newspaper Archive, Newspapers.com, and Trove), I did not find many instances of straight-up, vitriolic misogyny aimed at Miss Russell directly, akin to what we saw in the quotes from church officials in The Daily Mail 1933 about the planned wrestling match between two other women in Hull (although, of course, when Miss Russell writes in Russell 1934 that the news about her wrestling match with Miss Parnell was met with “a storm of prejudice, ill-informed criticism and abuse”, I have every reason to believe her). There were some that came close, however.
Perhaps the most notable example is the piece entitled ‘Wrestling Women’ by an unidentified author in The Yorkshire Evening Post 1934, written as a reaction to the wrestling match between Miss Russell and Miss Parnell. Read this passage and tell me that you cannot easily imagine hearing it in, say, Ben Shapiro’s or Steven Crowder’s voice:
We have no congratulations for the first professional woman wrestling champion of this country. Wrestling in its native forms is a splendid sport — for men. It exercises qualities of endurance and strength, of will and skill. No one will deny that such qualities are a proper possession for women. But it also exercises combative energy and aggressive spirit, all very well for men, perhaps, but the last qualities most of us would wish to see expressed in women.
It is no old-fashioned clinging to notions of inequality between the sexes that makes the thought of women on the wrestling mat as repellent as would be a fight in the ring. Brute force between men has at worst a sort of masculine majesty; at its best between women it forms a degrading and repulsive spectacle. Physiological and psychological differences between the sexes make equality in such things impossible. The best woman boxer or wrestler would always be beaten by the best man boxer or wrestler: and if some women, admitting this, yet claim equality in the exercise of violent sports among themselves, it is still not equality that is achieved, but only a ridiculous resemblance. Equality resides in complementary relationship: imitative violence is a confession and emphasis of inequality.
Another example is a charming commentary by “the Man Who Knows Everybody” (according to the name of the rubric) Mr. Whitley in Whitley 1937, who apparently had access to an entire page of the paper where he, I guess, got to share his opinions about various events? This is what Mr. Whitley had to say about the weight-lifting contest between Miss Russell and Miss Carquest:
…I went down to Croydon to see the women’s world weight-lifting championship. It was won by a slim, muscular Ivy Russell, local domestic servant. I had expected to find a hefty wench, but she weighs only nine stone.
She lifted 171 lb. without turning a hair. Not that, being Eton-cropped, she has much hair to turn.
Miss Russell doesn’t mind watching boxing matches. Thinks it a matter of personal opinion and taste.
Her challenger, nineteen-year-old Irish Nan Carquest, is still determined to win the title. Left her native home to take job near special training centre.
Seems to be no limit to what women will do. I once saw, in Los Angeles, two women engage in all-in wrestling. Made most of us feel a little sick…
I don’t even know how sick Mr. Whitley would have felt had he learnt that Miss Russell not only watched boxing matches and dared have personal opinions and tastes, but was actually an avid boxer herself. Not to mention wrestling.
Focus on ~f e m i n i n i t y~
That said, most sources available to me were news articles rather than opinion pieces or commentary, so the attitudes of the authors would be conveyed indirectly, through their writing style and what they chose to focus on when writing about strong and muscular women.
Interestingly enough, many sources at the time would often express the idea — sometimes quite enthusiastically and with much admiration — that yes, womanhood is compatible with strength and muscularity (the latter to a lesser extent, but we’ll come back to that). However, the way this idea was often conceptualized then and is still often conceptualized now is that you don’t have to “sacrifice your femininity” to be strong and muscular as a woman. Which is, of course, true. You don’t have to. You can keep your femininity while gaining strength and muscle, if that’s what you want. The problem with this conceptualization is that femininity is viewed as an intrinsic virtue of women, and if you aren’t sufficiently “feminine” in the eye of whoever is the judge, you have “sacrificed” this virtue (presumably, in order to achieve something else). Furthermore, what this conceptualization often ends up meaning in practice is that to show that being a strong and muscular woman is compatible with being, well, a woman, you need to compensate, you need to prove that you are “feminine” elsewhere. In other words, being strong and muscular is still viewed as a decidedly non-feminine feature, which needs to be offset (and possibly even concealed in everyday life), lest anyone concludes that you have put your femininity on the altar of gainz.
Combine this with the ever-present obsession of the media with women’s appearance, and it should come as no surprise that the news reports about Miss Russell’s athletic feats contained much more descriptions of her and her opponents’ bodies, attires, and mannerisms, with focus on how absolutely feminine they were, than of the actual athletic activities. Here is a selection of relevant quotes (next time I teach intro to pragmatics, I will make sure to use some of these when discussing the Gricean Maxim of Relevance):
Wearing a white singlet and black tights, Miss Ivy Russell, a 25-year-old domestic servant, of Croydon, Surrey, last night picked up a 300lb. weight, and thus became the first British woman weight-lifting champion. (Daily Herald 1932)
Really [Miss Russell and Miss Tinmouth] looked more like beauty queens in face and figure than amazons. (The Sheffield Independent 1932)
A very good-looking “tigress” was beaten last night at Lanes London Club, Baker-street, by the prettiest brunette “bearcat” that anyone has ever seen (…)
There was nothing ferocious in the match. Miss Parnell, shorter by several inches and two stones lighter, looked very charming in an apple-green dressing-gown, while the sun-tanned, taller Miss Russell presented a picture of health and strength in her russet-gold dressing-gown. (…)
Both wore black swimming costumes for the match, but, whereas Miss Parnell’s was backless, Miss Russell wore a more conventional costume. The winner also wore black boots such as are favored by boxers, but Miss Parnell preferred to wrestle in white ankle-socks. (The Western Morning News and Daily Gazette 1934a)
But Ivy and Peggy looked much too feminine to dream of kicking. They both wore little black suits — similar to bathing costumes. Their hair was beautifully arranged. They had lovely dressing gowns — and Peggy actually entered the ring in dainty high-heeled grey shoes. (The Leader Post 1934)
The promoters called her the Blonde Tigress, but she looked to me a demure and pleasant little secretary as, still wearing the high-heeled shoes which go so well with her neat grey costume, Miss Peggy Parnell climbed into the ring.
The Brunette Bearcat (official), Ivy Russell, also belied her name. (…)
Peggy (Tigress) Parnell kicked off her shoes, gave her long wavy hair a feminine caress, and went to meet the approaching Ivy (Bearcat) Russell, who, however, made the mistake of smiling.
They both bowed and advanced in their black, bathing-costume-like suits. (…)
[Peggy] also seemed to be suffering from what the uninitiated would call a “half-Nelson” and her long wavy hair swept the canvas. (…)
The bout was rather unpopular. (Daily Herald 1934)
— Re “The bout was rather unpopular”, I do want to point out that another correspondent wrote, “Lanes Club, London, was packed for this exhibition, and there was plenty of applause” (The Daily Mail 1934), just to balance it out.
Feature articles about Miss Russell also made sure to emphasize her compensatory “feminine” qualities:
Except for her face, which is distinctly feminine, Miss Russell has the physical appearance of a well developed man. (The San Francisco Examiner 1934)
— Here it is perhaps worth noting that while there was obviously nothing like the current transphobic discourse about trans women taking over women’s sports at the time, people questioning the sex of some athletes based on their appearance was apparently not unheard of. For instance, in The Western Morning News and Daily Gazette 1934b, right under the report about Miss Russell and Miss Parnell’s wrestling match, we see a news entry about allegations that some “foreign athletes” in Women’s World Games “were shaved and had very deep voices, and gave the impression of being of the masculine sex”. So, it’s possible that by characterizing Miss Russell’s face as “distinctly feminine” here, the author was trying to preemptively address similar allegations about her.
In spite of her strength, Ivy is shy and retiring and has a purely feminine outlook. She enjoys cooking and sewing. (The Daily Mirror 1937a)
Miss Russell in evening dress gives no clue to her prodigious strength. She is well-known for her charming personality (…) She enjoys such typically female tasks as cooking and sewing… (Pix 1938b)
Of course, Miss Russell herself was well aware of the fear of defeminization, as she wrote in her ‘John Bull’ piece:
It will destroy the feminine qualities,” is another objection which has greeted all women’s ventures into male sports. Nonsense! You will find as much lipstick and powder, and as many pretty clothes in the dressing-rooms of the women’s wrestling clubs as you will find in any boudoir. With the difference perhaps that our members have got healthy bodies to adorn. (Russell 1934)
That said, her own femininity was apparently compromised a little bit by what she herself chose to do (or rather not to do) with her face, which is, of course, an essential property to list alongside her training regimen:
Ivy, the “bearcat,” has been doing spells of bag-punching, weight-lifting, and skipping. Every morning before breakfast she has been going for a little walk of ten miles or so. She does not drink nor smoke, and — she does not believe in make-up! (Aberdeen Press and Journal 1934)
The fear of the muscle
In fact, some sources (thankfully, rare, at least in my findings) would even go as far as to deny Miss Russell her muscularity in their attempts to “feminize” her. Thus, for instance, in one of the already cited news pieces about the weight-lifting contest between Miss Russell and Miss Tinmouth, we read:
Neither of the girls had knotty muscles or enormous biceps, but were of slim build. (The Sheffield Independent 1932)
Before the 1934 wrestling match between Miss Russell and Miss Parnell, the latter, unfortunately, contributed to the demonization of women’s muscularity, saying the following in an interview (and, of course, this is something that you could still very easily hear today):
Wrestling among women is very popular on the Continent, but it has not yet caught on in this country. Now and again I have had pupils who have indulged in the sport for a while, but after five or six lessons they give it up.
Probably this is because they believe wrestling creates big, bulging muscles. That is not the case. I have no big, unsightly muscles. (North-Eastern Daily Gazette 1934)
Miss Parnell’s words were cited by several newspapers, and North-Eastern Daily Gazette1934 even had a subheading saying ‘They don’t like big muscles’. Presumably, they referred to the two contestants, but, as far as I can tell, Miss Russell never expressed any disdain for women’s muscularity or downplayed hers. As pointed out in Todd 1992, Miss Russell had a physique that “would be envied by many of our modern women bodybuilders”, with an impressive amount of muscle carried on an average-sized frame and low levels of bodyfat, which, combined with her all-around athleticism, set her apart from the women strength athletes before her. And not only did Miss Russell have a physique of a bodybuilder, she also posed like one. It is quite evident from the many such photoshoots that she loved her muscles, was proud of them, and wanted to show them to the world. In other words, her muscularity was, as is so aptly put in Stark Center 2021, “unapologetic”.
“Ivy has no time for boy friends”
And then, of course, there was the topic of Miss Russell’s personal life:
Ivy does not bother with boy friends, she is too busy with her job as a domestic servant during the day and her training at night. “I do not care for men,” she told me. (The Daily Mirror 1937a)
Ivy has no time for boy friends, concentrates on increasing her strength. (Pix 1938a)
Ivy has no time for boy friends, and scorns marriage. However, in common with hundreds of other women, she professes to admire the film performances of Clark Gable… (Pix1938b)
— Hundreds? It’s 1938, Clark Gable had long been crowned “The King of Hollywood” by then. Talk about an understatement.
She’s five feet five, weighs 125, and never misses a Clark Gable movie. As for romance, she’s waiting for a cave man. (Pic 1940)
Believe it or not, these muscle-displaying figure-models belong to the fairer, weaker, gentler sex. They are Ivy Russell (left) and Nan Conquest [sic], winner and runner-up in the women’s world weight-lifting championship. (…) Both are still Miss — what are the woodheap-dodging males thinking of? (The Australian Woman’s Mirror 1946)
— A few things here. First, this is an entry from 1946, about the contest that happened in 1937 — I guess it took a while for the news to reach Australia. Second, in the accompanying picture, Miss Russell is actually on the right. Third, Miss Carquest, whose last name is misspelled in the entry, was 18 or 19 at the time of the contest, according to Belfast Telegraph 1937 and Whitley 1937, respectively (and I highly doubt The Australian Woman’s Mirror was reporting their 1946 marital status) — I understand that the pressure on women to get married was higher back then, but still.
But what did Miss Russell herself have to say about her personal life (at least publicly)? What was it about her incredibly tight schedule that was apparently incompatible with matrimony? And what’s up with this Clark Gable thing (no judgement here, though, perfectly understandable)? On October 1, 1937, ‘The Daily Mirror’ published a piece written by Miss Russell herself (Russell 1937), where she talks about why she has decided to never marry or have children (spoiler alert: it’s because of her medical history), some of her experiences with men (including fan mail and an assault attempt), and also about how “horribly normal” she is in everyday life (she doesn’t break things all the time, likes sewing and “dainty undies”, enjoys going to the movies, and even has favorite actors). Here are some highlights:
I’ve had enough proposals from admirers to have no doubts that I’m attractive.
Like any other girl I have my dreams about Love and Romance. But I shan’t marry.
I shall never bring a child into the world — except my own world of dreams.
It’s an understanding I have with myself, due to my own personal history. I was born a puny babe of 2lb. 13oz., racked with lung trouble. (…)
Suppose I let myself be swept off my feet by some romantic male? (…)
Supposing my baby proved to be tubercular? I should know it had inherited the complaint from me. I should feel I had committed a crime, betrayed a trust. (…)
Heaven knows, I seem to get my fair share of romance. (…)
Over the last few years the post has brought me shoals of proposals of marriage from men I have never met or seen.
Plentiful, too, have been letters containing proposals, suggestions, offers, in which the word “marriage” is always conspicuously absent.
Gosh! My correspondence, even after it has passed through the censoring hands of Mr. Streeter, my manager, has left me no illusions about more than one brand of male. (…)
If suggestions like that constantly come my way, despite the fact that I’m obviously a pretty tough customer, what about the less robust type of girl?
Prettily lisped virginal pleadings might melt the heart of a villain in fiction, but in real life they’d probably only more inflame a sex-obsessed brute.
That’s why I’m so keen on urging all girls to learn how to defend themselves. (…)
At some time or other every girl encounters at least one nasty situation of this kind.
I did a year or two ago when taking a short cut late at night by a lonely, poorly lighted path. I noticed two loafers standing well back in the shadows. As I drew level one called out in a mocking falsetto, “Good-night.”
I’m pretty well-known in Croydon. The man might have recognized me. So I said a civil “Good-night” in return.
That settled it. He slouched over, grabbed me round the waist, and began to maul me.
The next moment the would-be Lothario went flying over my head, and landed with a thud on his back, dead to the world.
His pal gave one terrified look at me and took to his heels. (…)
Is it irony that I can toss a grown man clean over my head with little effort, and yet a sentimental film will start me desperately using a hankie? (…)
I may be the world’s Strong Girl on all other occasions, but when the lights in the cinema dim and either of my four favourite stars — Fredric March, Clark Gable, George Arliss or Wally Beery — come on the screen I go all weak!
That, if nothing else, should prove how horribly normal I am!
I would have gladly ended this section here, with no further comment, as, I believe, this piece speaks for itself. However, there was a bizarre continuation to this. Three days after Miss Russell’s article appeared in ‘The Daily Mirror’, the latter ran a story “by a special correspondent” entitled ‘World’s Strongest Girl Was Afraid to Wed, Is Engaged’ (The Daily Mirror 1937b). Apparently, a Mr. William Dalton, a 32-year-old solicitor’s clerk from Croydon, read Miss Russell’s piece and went to confront her about it:
Mr. Dalton threw down the article, put on his hat and coat and went round to see Miss Russell.
“Ivy,” he said, “is this why you have been saying ‘No’ to me all these years?”
“Supposing we could prove to you absolutely that you have no trace of tuberculosis at all? What then?”
With the help of Miss Russell’s manager, Mr. Dalton then apparently convinced Miss Russell to go to Croydon General Hospital, where a doctor examined her and concluded that she was “as sound as a bell”.
“Now Ivy,” he demanded. “What is your answer?” Her answer was “Yes.” (…)
Now Mr. Dalton has gone to the North of England to see relatives, while Miss Russell continues her training for her world title as woman weight lifting champion.
A-a-and we never hear about this engagement or Mr. Dalton ever again (at least not in the sources I had access to). Unlike the above-cited ‘Peeps Into Other People’s Diaries’ (Reynold’s Illustrated News 1934), this story doesn’t seem to be an Onion-style article (even though it does read like a poorly written real person fanfic). And yet, Miss Russell continued to be referred to as “Miss” throughout the rest of her press appearances I have seen. What happened?? Did Miss Russell have a change of heart? Did the couple have a falling out? Did Mr. Dalton tragically die on his trip to the North of England? Will we ever know?
I struggled with the conclusion for this piece quite a lot. I did consider turning it personal, explaining why I myself found Miss Russell’s life and personality so fascinating and relatable, but ultimately decided against it. Nor did I want to conclude with a mini-manifesto about womanhood and strength/muscularity (I have already conveyed my attitudes plenty throughout this piece, I believe) or with specific examples of how some of the pernicious ideas on this topic that we have seen above manifest today. As I said at the outset, this is not an academic paper, nor do I want to make it into an activist piece. So, let it be what it is: an opinionated archive dive and an act of celebration. Because boy, is Miss Ivy Russell of Croydon owed some celebration!
- The sources vary on the spelling of Miss Tinmouth’s first name; both Tillie and Tilly seem to be widely attested. I am going by the spelling used in ‘Health and Strength’.
- Todd (1992) writes, “Russell was eventually successful in her campaign for equality and she defeated Tillie Tinmouth in B.A.W.L.A’s first sanctioned women’s competition for the “Nine Stone Ladies Champion of Great Britain” title”. But, as we can see from Lowry 1932a,b; The Daily Mirror 1932b, a.o., that match was not, in fact, sanctioned by the B.A.W.L.A., unless they recognized it retroactively.
- While he wasn’t explicitly identified as such in any of the articles I have seen, Advertiser and Echo 1939d calls him Mr. Edwin Arthur Streeter, which is consistent with the initials of Miss Russell’s coach as reported in most sources, and the couple lived in Croydon, at the same address as Miss Russell, so it’s a safe assumption.
Aberdeen Press and Journal (Sept. 19, 1934). “Tigress” and “Bearcat”. In: Aberdeen Press and Journal, p. 4. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000577/19340919/028/0004
Advertiser and Echo (Nov. 14, 1939a). Fatal Collision. In: Advertiser and Echo, p. 3. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0001698/19391114/051/0003
— (Sept. 22, 1939b). Grave Error of Judgement. In: Advertiser and Echo, p. 1. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0001698/19390922/007/0001
— (Aug. 4, 1939c). Woman Killed in Cross Roads Smash. In: Advertiser and Echo, p. 1. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0001698/19390804/007/0001
— (Aug. 8, 1939d). Woman Killed in Cross Roads Smash. In: Advertiser and Echo, p. 5. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0001698/19390808/096/0005
Belfast Telegraph (Aug. 25, 1934). Women Wrestlers to Meet. In: Belfast Telegraph, p. 4. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0002318/19340825/082/0004
— (Oct. 21, 1937). Woman Lifts 508 lbs. Beats Irish Competitor. In: Belfast Telegraph, p. 8. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0002318/19371021/214/0008.30
Birmingham Gazette (Aug. 4, 1939). Woman Weight-Lifter in Fatal Crash. In: Birmingham Gazette, p. 1. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000669/19390804/010/0001
Chicago Daily Tribune (Oct. 30, 1937). Women’s Weight Lifting Champion Retains Her World Title. In: Chicago Daily Tribune, p. 32. https://www.newspapers.com/image/372134507/
Daily Herald (Apr. 14, 1932). Woman Picks Up 300lb. Weight. In: Daily Herald, p. 1. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000681/19320414/009/0001
— (Sept. 20, 1934). Bearcat Beats Blonde Tigress. In: Daily Herald, p. 11. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000681/19340920/189/0011
Lowry, W.J. (Apr. 30, 1932a). What I Thought of the Lady Lifters. In: Health and Strength, p. 518.
— (Apr. 9, 1932b). What The Lady Lifters Are Doing and Full Association Notes. In: Health and Strength, p. 442.
North-Eastern Daily Gazette (Aug. 24, 1934). Wrestling Women. In: North-Eastern Daily Gazette, p. 10. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000159/19340824/304/0010
Pic (Apr. 2, 1940). Meet Miss Hercules. In: Pic, pp. 36–37.
Pix (Apr. 16, 1938a). The World’s Strongest Woman. In: Pix 1.12, pp. 36–37. https://trove.nla.gov.au/work/232833599
— (Nov. 26, 1938b). World’s Strongest Woman? In: Pix 2.22, pp. 16–17. https://trove.nla.gov.au/work/232834888
— (June 3, 1939). Women Are Such Ladies!.. They Fight, Wrestle, Play Football. In: Pix 3.22, pp. 22–23. https://trove.nla.gov.au/work/232835993
Pritchard, Hayden (2020). Are Ammonia Inhalants Effective? In: Stronger By Science. https://www.strongerbyscience.com/ammonia-inhalants/ (visited on 05/29/2021)
Reynold’s Illustrated News (Sept. 2, 1934). Peeps Into Other People’s Diaries. In: Reynold’s Illustrated News, p. 6. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0001034/19340902/079/0006
Robertson, Kenneth (Nov. 27, 1953). Wifebeaters, Step Forward, Please! In: Edinburgh Pictorial.
Russell, Ivy (May 28, 1932). Give Us a Chance, Mr. Lowry! In: Health and Strength, p. 631.
— (Sept. 15, 1934). Why Shouldn’t a Woman Wrestle! In: John Bull, p. 30. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0003234/19340915/214/0030
— (Oct. 1, 1937). I’ll Never Have a Baby! In: The Daily Mirror, p. 12. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000560/19371001/117/0012
Stark Center (2021). Feature: Ivy Russell. The Strongman Project–Stark Center. https://strongmanproject.com/features/13 (visited on 05/29/2021)
Sunday Pictorial (Mar. 25, 1951). Lady With a Lift. In: Sunday Pictorial, p. 12. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000844/19510325/090/0012
The Australian Woman’s Mirror (Aug. 28, 1946). Between Ourselves. In: The Australian Woman’s Mirror 22.41, p. 10. https://trove.nla.gov.au/work/233203394
The Binghamton Press (May 5, 1932). British Domestic Wins Weight-Lifting Contest. In: The Binghamton Press, p. 21. https://www.newspapers.com/image/253696942/
The Courier and Advertiser (Sept. 20, 1934). Women Wrestlers’ Bout. In: The Courier and Advertiser, p. 6. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000564/19340920/104/0006
The Daily Mail (Mar. 25, 1933). Churchmen’s Condemnation of Women’s Wrestling. In: The Daily Mail, p. 1. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000324/19330325/001/0001
— (Sept. 20, 1934). Women Wrestlers. In: The Daily Mail, p. 5. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000324/19340920/039/0005
The Daily Mirror (Apr. 27, 1932a). “The Weak Sex”. In: The Daily Mirror, p. 12. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000560/19320427/154/0012
— (Mar. 28, 1932b). Strong-Man Stuff — By Girl. In: The Daily Mirror, pp. 4, 20. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000560/19320328/047/0004
— (Aug. 27, 1937a). And They Call Her’s the Weaker Sex! In: The Daily Mirror, p. 2. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000560/19370828/008/0002
— (Oct. 4, 1937b). World’s Strongest Girl Was Afraid to Wed, Is Engaged. In: The Daily Mirror, p. 2. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000560/19371004/015/0002
— (Aug. 4, 1939). Tore Clothes for Bandages. In: The Daily Mirror, p. 32. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000560/19390804/299/0032
The Dover Express and East Kent News (July 12, 1935). Dover Unemployed’s Fete. In: The Dover Express and East Kent News, p. 5. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000330/19350712/015/0005
The East Kent Times (Nov. 11, 1939a). Fatal Crash Echo. In: The East Kent Times, p. 6. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0003350/19391111/095/0006
— (Aug. 5, 1939b). One Killed — Three Injured. In: The East Kent Times, p. 7. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0003350/19390805/089/0007
— (Aug. 9, 1939c). One Killed — Three Injured. In: The East Kent Times, p. 7. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0003350/19390809/110/0007
The Express (July 27, 1935). Woman Wrestler Injured. In: The Express, p. 8. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0002970/19350727/092/0008
The Guardian (Dec. 13, 1935). Aberavon Athlete’s Demonstration. In: The Guardian, p. 8. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0003431/19351213/071/0008
The Leader Post (Oct. 13, 1934). Girls Wrestle But Crowd Boos. In: The Leader Post, p. 13. https://www.newspapers.com/image/493222987/
The Leeds Mercury (Mar. 29, 1933). Women Wrestlers. In: The Leeds Mercury, p. 5. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000748/19330329/126/0005
The News (June 12, 1925). Dancing. In: The News, p. 7. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0002308/19250612/102/0007
The San Francisco Examiner (Nov. 25, 1934). From a 3-Pound Infant to All-Around Woman Athlete. In: The San Francisco Examiner, p. 4. https://www.newspapers.com/image/457500961/
The Sheffield Independent (Apr. 14, 1932). 126 Pound Girl Lifts 300 Pounds. In: The Sheffield Independent, p. 1. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0001464/19320414/003/0001
The Western Morning News and Daily Gazette (Sept. 20, 1934a). Women Wrestlers in The Ring. In: The Western Morning News and Daily Gazette, p. 7. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000329/19340920/063/0007
— (Sept. 20, 1934b). Women’s Games Allegation. In: The Western Morning News and Daily Gazette, p. 7. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000329/19340920/064/0007
The Yorkshire Evening Post (Sept. 20, 1934). Wrestling Women. In: The Yorkshire Evening Post, p. 8. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000273/19340920/079/0008
Todd, Jan (1992). The Origins of Weight Training for Female Athletes in North America. In: Iron Game History: The Journal of Physical Culture 2.2, pp. 4–14.
Van Cleef, Ray (Apr. 1938). A Miracle of Strength. In: Strength and Health, pp. 36, 40.
Whitley (Oct. 24, 1937). Whitley’s Pages. In: Sunday Pictorial, p. 11. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000844/19371024/087/0011