Penn’s long history of competitive rowing started in the 1850s when the University’s freshman, sophomore, junior and senior classes competed against each other. Nearly 20 years later, with the development of intercollegiate rowing, Penn students founded the College Boat Club. The rowers, all men, began participating in competitive intercollegiate rowing in 1872, one year after Amherst, Brown, Bowdoin and Harvard formed the Rowing Association of American Colleges.
In the early days of Penn, women students participated in sports, but only informally. That all changed in 1935, when the University offered a rowing class for women for the first time. This photo shows 16 Penn women who were the first to row on the Schuylkill River.
The event on the Schuyklill was so momentous it was even chronicled in an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Rusty Callow, Penn’s veteran men’s rowing coach, and also the instructor/coach of the women rowers, was quoted in the article saying: “The girls show lots of zest. And row better than boys when they begin.”
The idea of women rowing was so unusual for that era that the Inquirer article, published in May of 1935, declared: “You may think it’s a joke. You may even call it one, but this business of co-eds going in for the manly sport of rowing is serious business for them and Callow.”
The University’s decision to allow women to participate in rowing was a turning point for women’s sports at Penn. The University’s medical director of physical education for women announced the following year that women would be permitted to compete against nearby colleges in field hockey and basketball. Before then, Penn women had only played intramural games.
Since that time, some Penn women rowers have gone on to achieve great success, with nearly a dozen having competed in the Olympics over the years. Last summer, Penn seniors and twins, Rebecca and Elizabeth Donald, won bronze medals at the Under-23 World Championships in Brest, Belarus.
For more information on this and other historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives at www.archives.upenn.edu.
Originally published on March 3, 2011