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Overcoming Adversity: Violet Cambridge and the Women’s Amateur Athletics Association in Inter-War Britain.

Day, David (2019) Overcoming Adversity: Violet Cambridge and the Women’s Amateur Athletics Association in Inter-War Britain. In: 23rd international CESH congress, 12 September 2019 - 14 September 2019, Lausanne, Switzerland.

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Abstract

The 1920s witnessed the emergence of track and field athletics as an acceptable sporting activity for young women, culminating in the sport being included at the 1928 Olympics, although British women boycotted the event because they were restricted to five events. While female participants invariably adopted the amateur codes of their male counterparts, there were always tensions between these women athletes and the artificial gender boundaries that had constrained female participation, leading to friction and confrontation. Several strong female advocates negotiated these tensions, notably Frenchwoman Alice Milliat, many of whom were active within their own national boundaries and most of whom have been overlooked in the historiography. In England, Sophie Eliott-Lynn, holder of the world record for the high jump, was instrumental in forming a national Women’s Amateur Athletic Association (WAAA) in 1922 and by 1930 the association had 150 affiliated clubs, which embraced all classes, from university clubs to factory clubs. In October 1923, the WAAA hon. Secretary, John Thomson met with an accident and Violet Cambridge, then a member of the Executive Committee, was appointed in his place. Violet was prominent in the development of the WAAA in the 1920s and this paper adopts a biographical approach to illustrate the attitudes she adopted and understand the difficulties she faced. Using a range of archival sources, including criminal records and divorce papers, Violet’s life course is situated within the social mores of the period and demonstrates how she overcame the adversities of her early life to achieve a degree of social mobility that was, at least partially, facilitated by her involvement as a sports administrator. Violet was born in 1892 to an unmarried mother and she had an unsettled childhood with her mother’s partner being accused of adultery and cruelty by his legal wife and being taken to court for embezzlement. Violet married Daniel Cambridge in 1913 and, after her daughter died in 1916 she was convicted of infanticide, although she was not considered ‘responsible’, puerperal insanity being recognised as a condition that could turn mothers into dangerous women. In 1928, she divorced Daniel and she married Leslie Wall in 1929. Despite these social setbacks, Violet established herself as an influential public figure and sporting administrator. A keen sportswoman, Violet enjoyed skiing and canoeing, as well as athletics, and she wrote many articles on alpine sports. Violet mixed socially with all the leading officials from the British Olympic Association (BOA), the Amateur Athletic Association, and other National Governing Bodies. In 1926, she was the editor of the British Olympic Journal, she designed the female uniform for 1928 Olympic Games, and by 1929, she was a member of the BOA Council and of the National Playing Field Association. During the 1930s, her influence spread beyond sport through her interest in health and beauty, at a time when models of exercise that encouraged the development of healthy, graceful and beautiful bodies were popular. She was also involved in efforts to increase the opportunities for women’s employment as managers in business and industry. The presentation also explores the activities of Middlesex Ladies Athletic Club (MLAC), to demonstrate the way in which youthful members of women’s athletics clubs replicated in many respects the amateur attitudes of the middle-class initiators of men’s athletics. As president of the MLAC, Violet regularly attended club events such as the cross country runs and dances as well as presiding over the annual dinner. In 1927 she opened a new club headquarters and mention was made of the ‘splendid’ way Violet had assisted the club on numerous occasions, the club being ‘fortunate in having such a hard-working president’. By the time of Violet’s death in London as a result of a flying during the Second World War, women had claimed a niche position in British athletics, one that they never subsequently relinquished, even though male administrators continued to find ways of marginalizing and controlling female participation after 1945. Keywords: Women: Athletics: Britain: Violet Cambridge: Middlesex Ladies AC Bibliography Eliott-Lynn, Sophie C, Athletics for Women and Girls: How to be an Athlete and Why. London: Robert Scott, 1925. Leigh, Mary H. and Bonin, Thérèse M, ‘The Pioneering Role of Madame Alice Milliat and the FSFI in Establishing International Track and Field Competition for Women’, Journal of Sport History 4 no. 1 1977 72-83. Marland, Hilary, Dangerous Motherhood: Insanity and Childbirth in Victorian Britain. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Moon, Gregory Paul, ‘”A New Dawn Rising”: An Empirical and Social Study Concerning the Emergence and Development of English Women’s Athletics Until 1980’. (PhD Thesis, Roehampton Institute London for the University of Surrey, 1997). Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Ina, Managing the Body: Beauty, Health, and Fitness in Britain, 1880-1939. Oxford University Press Oxford, 2010.

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