Philadelphia and its Place in Women’s Rowing
photo credit: rowinghistory.net
Philadelphia, Pa., April 24, 2013 – In the mid 1970's, the Dad Vail Regatta was the first intercollegiate regatta to invite women's crews to participate during race days at the same distance, 2000 meters, as the men's teams raced.
This act of equality was just one part of a much larger story for women to become a part of the oldest intercollegiate sport in the nation. Known to many as the “Mother of Women’s Rowing,” Philadelphia’s very own Ernestine Bayer took strokes for girls everywhere.
“Rowing is the combination of water, using your body, and looking at nature,” she said in a 1993 interview with The Boston Globe. “When you see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, you see rhythm. Rowing, to me, is rhythm. I've never thought of other sports as having rhythm. But when you do it right, it's gorgeous.”
Born Ernestine Steppacher on March 25, 1909 the Philadelphian was always known to be a pioneer. A self described “tomboy” she would often take small boats to secretly go crabbing in the Delaware Bay, and ride her brothers bike without permission. At 15 she dropped out of school to become a runner, a position better known as a bank messenger.
It was in 1927 that Ernestine met a man who also worked in a bank named Ernest; the two hit it off on a date at a swimming pool. She quickly learned that he was training for the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic Games, as a member of the men’s four that went on to win a silver medal. The two secretly eloped in New York, NY on January 28 and Ernest Bayer went on to continue training on the Schuylkill during the 1930’s. It would be nine months until the press caught site of their marriage, but that wasn’t the only secret they kept.
In addition to being a member of the Pennsylvania Barge Club, Mr. Bayer was also a rowing referee and the Chief Judge for the Dad Vail Regatta for many years. Ernestine often went to watch her husband practice and participate in rowing events. Fascinated by the sport, she used to complain to her husband about how women weren’t allowed to row; this went on for a decade until Mr. Bayer finally gave in.
“Men wouldn't talk to my husband because he permitted me to row,” Mrs. Bayer said to a Boston Globe reporter in 1992. “Permitted me. Can you imagine?”
From that day forward, women’s rowing would never be the same. In 1938 Ernestine founded the Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club (PGRC), with the help of 16 friends and coworkers. The organization took over 14 Kelly Drive on Boathouse Row, originally constructed in 1861 to be the home of Philadelphia Skating Club and the Humane Society.
photo credit: Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club
The Schuylkill Navy decided to allow the first ever women’s race in July of 1939, although it was referred to as an “exhibition race” and that term would continue to exist through the 1950’s. This first ever “exhibition race” took place amongst three doubles and Ernestine won along with her partner Jeanette Waetien Hoover.
By 1967 she finagled her way into letting PGRC become the first American crew to take place in the European women’s rowing championship. Although they didn’t win, it was the beginning of American women competing in international rowing competitions.
Going forward the Bayer’s moved to Stratham, NH and founded the Alden Ocean Shell Association, as well as the rowing program at the University of New Hampshire. Ernestine went on to capture various medals in master’s races and competing through her 90’s. By 1984 she was the first woman ever elected to the National Rowing Hall of Fame, but this was just one of her many accomplishments.
At age 97 she passed away in Exeter, NH although Ernest had passed away in 1997 after 59 years of marriage. The Bayer’s are survived by solely by their daughter Tina Bayer, who is also a rower.
“I have fond memories of rowing the Head of the Charles with her in a double. Folks heading to the starting line stopped, stared and cheered. She was a ferocious competitor - even in her late 80's she wanted to win and saw no reason why we could not!” said Jeanne Friedman, the Head Rowing Coach at Mount Holyoke College.
The Dad Vail Chairman, Jack Galloway, still proudly wears Ernie Bayer's original gold Dad Vail coat at every regatta.
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Content reviewed and published: 4/26/2013 9:09:36 AM
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