Lifting up women: Life and press appearances of Ivy Russell

Intro

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.

Black-and-white photo of Ivy Russell standing outside and facing the camera. She is holding a loaded barbell on her right shoulder, and her left arm is stretched out. She is wearing a dark swimsuit-like training costume and white shoes. She has short dark hair and is smiling.
Miss Ivy Russell holding a barbell on her right shoulder. Image via Stark Center 2021.

Early years

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).

Clipping from a newspaper featuring a photo of a reverse human pyramid consisting of 7 people. Ivy Russell is at the bottom and has another woman sitting on her shoulders and 2 children standing on her thighs. That other woman has a child sitting on her shoulders and 2 children standing on her thighs. Caption: “”THE WEAK SEX.” Miss Ivy Russell, of Croydon, who was recently declared the British woman weight-lifting champion, carrying a heavy load with ease. She now has boxing ambitions.”
The Daily Mirror 1932a: Miss Russell at the bottom of a reverse human pyramid (and a spoiler for the next section). Image via The British Newspaper Archive.

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.

The Daily Mirror 1932b: An article on the upcoming championship between Miss Russell and Miss Tinmouth and a photo of Miss Russell lifting two boys on a bar. Images via The British Newspaper Archive.
Clipping from a newspaper featuring an article with a heading “126 Pound Girl Lifts 300 Pounds” and a subheading “Prodigious Feats of Slim Amazons”.
The Sheffield Independent 1932: An example of British press coverage of the weight-lifting contest between Miss Russell and Miss Tinmouth. Image via The British Newspaper Archive. Re “…neither girl fainted or required smelling salts”: not sure if the unnamed author was being ignorantly sexist here or, conversely, extraordinarily well-informed (jk, I am fairly sure). Because you can, in fact, faint on a particularly strenuous deadlift, and also, many lifters today do use smelling salts, a.k.a. ammonia inhalants, before heavy lifts, because they believe ammonia can improve their performance, although the latter conjecture is not currently supported by scientific evidence (see, e.g., Pritchard 2020 for an overview of existing research on the use and effectiveness of smelling salts). Not that Miss Russell was at any risk of fainting. The 300lb. she pulled was quite lower than her previously established lifts (e.g., The Daily Mirror 1932b); she simply decided to stop after her second attempt (out of five permissible), since she had already won by a substantial margin by then (Lowry 1932a).
Clipping from a newspaper featuring an article entitled “British Domestic Wins Weight-Lifting Contest’”.
The Binghamton Press 1932: An example of US press coverage of the weight-lifting contest between Miss Russell and Miss Tinmouth. Image via Newspapers.com. “Ivy explained that she lifted the weight in what is called a “dead lift””, known in American English as a “dead elevator”. In other translation news, the original quote from Miss Russell, as reported in British newspapers, said, “I weigh only 9st.”
Page from a magazine featuring an article entitled “Give Us a Chance, Mr. Lowry!” and a subheading “Miss Ivy Russell, in this Letter to the Editor, Appeals to the Governing Body to Give Lady Lifters a Hearing”. The article is accompanied by a photo of Ivy Russell holding a barbell in the top position of the deadlift. There is a trophy cup on a pedestal behind her. The caption below the photo reads, “MISS IVY RUSSELL, who, in the article on this page, pleads the cause of lady lifters.”
Russell 1932: Miss Russell’s letter to the editor of ‘Health and Strength’, in which she “pleads the cause of lady lifters”. Full typed-up text here.
Black-and-white photo of two women, Ivy Russell (right) and Tillie Tinmouth (left), sitting on the shoulders of two standing men and surrounded by nine more standing men. The women are shaking hands. Ivy Russell is holding a trophy cup.
Miss Tillie Tinmouth and Miss Ivy Russell (right) shaking hands after the 1932 9st. Amateur Lady Weight-Lifting Championship of Great Britain. Image via Stark Center 2021.

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.

Miss Russell putting an opponent in a wrestling hold and the description on the back of the photo. Images via Stark Center 2021. To fellow linguists: “Submission & Dislocation” would be a great name for another BDSM-themed generative syntax theory, like Government and Binding. Please take note.
Clipping from a newspaper featuring an article entitled “Why shouldn’t a Woman Wrestle!” and a subheading “by Ivy Russell, who next week is wrestling for the women’s championship”. The article is accompanied by a very poor quality photo of Ivy Russell wrestling with another person. The caption below the photo reads, “Ivy Russell (upright) demonstrates a hold.”
Russell 1934: Miss Russell’s piece in ‘John Bull’, advocating for women’s wrestling. Image via The British Newspaper Archive. Full typed-up text here.
A page of a magazine featuring four photos with captions, two of them relevant. The top photo shows Ivy Russell and Peggy Parnell wrestling on the floor, and a man standing next to them. The left bottom photo shows Ivy Russell, standing, holding a kneeling woman in a wrestling hold.
Pix 1939: The 1934 wrestling contest between Miss Russell and Miss Parnell featured in an article on women’s sports in the Australian magazine ‘Pix’. Image via Trove.

Later appearances

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.

Chicago Daily Tribune 1937: The 1937 weight-lifting contest between Miss Russell and Miss Carquest as covered by ‘Chicago Daily Tribune’. Image via Newspapers.com.
The Daily Mirror 1939: A report of the car accident involving Miss Russell, including the picture of the crash site. Image via The British Newspaper Archive.
2 pages from a magazine, featuring an article entitled “WORLD’S STRONGEST WOMAN?” The left page has 2 photos with text. Top: Russell performing a bent press with a barbell. Bottom right: Russell from the chest up in an evening attire. The right page has 4 photos with text. Top left: Russell doing a stomach vacuum. Top right: Russell having her coach in a wrestling hold. Bottom left: Russell holding a woman on outstretched arms. Bottom right: Russell holding a woman overhead on her right arm.
Pix 1938b: A feature article on Miss Russell in the Australian magazine ‘Pix’. Image via Trove.

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.

Blatant misogyny

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.

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.

2 pages from a magazine featuring an article entitled “The WORLD’S STRONGEST WOMAN”. The left page has 3 photos with text. Top photo: Russell in a three quarter back double bicep pose. Below it: Russell at the top position of the deadlift. Bottom left: Russell in a back pose with both arms stretched above her head. The right page has 2 relevant photos with text. Top left: Russell in a three quarter back single bicep pose. Top right: Russell wearing a house dress and lifting one side of a piano.
Pix 1938a: Another feature article on Miss Russell in the Australian magazine ‘Pix’. Image via Trove. “Muscles and close-cropped hair make her appear like a man” — this author calls it as they see it. Also, what changed between Pix 1938a (April) and Pix 1938b (November) that made them add a question mark to “world’s strongest woman”? Also also, pianos will make another appearance later, so stay tuned

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:

Miss Russell doing physique poses. Images via Stark Center 2021. Miss Russell: no muscles to see here, move along.

“Ivy has no time for boy friends”

And then, of course, there was the topic of Miss Russell’s personal life:

Clipping from a newspaper featuring two pictures, one of Ivy Russell from the waist up in back double bicep pose and the other of her face, and an article. The heading above the pictures reads, “AND THEY CALL HER’S THE WEAKER SEX!” The article is preceded by the headings “Strongest Woman. IVY HAS NO TIME FOR BOY FRIENDS. By a special correspondent.”
The Daily Mirror 1937b: An article on Miss Russell in anticipation of her weight-lifting contest against Miss Carquest. Image via The British Newspaper Archive. Miss Russell: I do not care for men. Journalist: IVY HAS NO TIME FOR BOY FRIENDS.
Clipping from a newspaper of an article entitled, “The world’s strongest woman says I’ll never have a baby!” The article is accompanied by two photos, one of Ivy Russell in a crouch start position and the other of her holding another woman on outstretched arms. The latter has a caption saying, “She carries another girl with the greatest of ease!” There is also a cartoon depiction of a man’s head with a speech bubble that reads, “What’s all this I hear about women being the weaker sex?”
Russell 1937: An article by Miss Russell on her personal life. Image via The British Newspaper Archive. Full typed-up text here. “Perhaps I’m quietly nursing someone’s baby when an SOS arrives from a few doors up the street: “Please can Ivy come and move our piano, as mother wants to dust behind it.” The pianos I’ve shifted!” — From now on, I intend to use ‘The pianos I’ve shifted!’ as my go-to example of English nominal exclamatives in all my work.

Outro

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!

Ivy Russell, lifting up women since the 1920s. Images via Stark Center 2021.

Endnotes

  1. 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’.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

References

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

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linguist at UniKn (she or they)

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