Drowning in Culture: Gender, Swimming & Stereotypes

According to the CDC in 2016, drowning ranks fifth among leading causes of unintentional injury death for Americans. For those under age 29, it ranks within the top three. At the end of the 20th century, reports show that men drowned more frequently than women. In the early 1900s, however, the reverse held true.

Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. "Steamer ‘Gen. Slocum’ June 15, 1904 [above]; North Brothers Island, East River, N.Y. [below]."
Pages from scrapbook showing bodies washed ashore after the General Slocum sank. Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. “Steamer ‘Gen. Slocum’ June 15, 1904 [above]; North Brothers Island, East River, N.Y. [below].” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1855.
In 1904, when a fire broke out on the steamboat General Slocum and the boat began to sink, witnesses watched women remain aboard the burning wreckage. Hundreds of women, fearing they would drown if they jumped overboard, “waited until the flames were upon them, until they felt their flesh blister, before they took the alternative of the river.”

Their fears proved valid. Nearly all of an estimated 978 women and children who boarded the cruise died. Most drowned just a few feet from shore in relatively shallow waters.

The New York Times opined, “one of the lessons which the General Slocum horror should bring home to every woman and girl in New York City is the desirability of knowing how to swim.” While catastrophes like this commanded national attention, thousands of accidental drowning deaths–mostly women and children– occurred in the US annually.

Why could so few women swim in the early 20th century?

Some physicians and conservatives concluded that women were biologically inferior or incapable of swimming. Common cultural stereotypes about masculinity and popular philosophies like Muscular Christianity  held that men were innately predisposed to athleticism. Many saw swimming–particularly open water swimming in cold rough waters–as a masculine sport, far too challenging for women. Gender stereotypes stressed that extreme physical exertion–like open water swimming–would permanently damage women’s constitutions, damage the uterus, and cause women to become “un-sexed.”

Frederick J. Garbit, M.D., “The Woman’s Medical Companion and Guide To Health.” The Josephine Long Wishart Collection: Mother, Home, and Heaven, Courtesy the College of Wooster Special Collections.
Frederick J. Garbit, M.D., “The Woman’s Medical Companion and Guide To Health.” The Josephine Long Wishart Collection: Mother, Home, and Heaven, Courtesy the College of Wooster Special Collections.

Others realized that women’s aversion to water and unfortunate tendency to drown had less to do with biological deficiency than it did with cultural customs. In the early 1900s, cultural beliefs required modesty of women. As a result, women’s swimsuits consisted of multiple layers: dark wool tights, knee-length bloomers, a blouse with balloon sleeves, a belt or sash, and full, voluminous skirt.

Louisa Dresel and two women in bathing suits at Mingo's Beach, Beverly, Mass., 1900. Image courtesy of Schlesinger Library.
Louisa Dresel and two women in bathing suits at Mingo’s Beach, Beverly, Mass., 1900. Image courtesy of Schlesinger Library.

The average woman’s swimsuit used seven to ten yards of thick fabric. Ironically, the fear of drowning in the swimsuit that etiquette demanded them to wear caused many women to avoid learning to swim. But women ventured to bath houses located along river banks and ocean beaches to cool themselves and allow their children to play in the water.

Margaret Wessell Piersol learning to swim, 1896, Courtesy Radcliffe College Archives, Schlesinger Library
Margaret Wessell Piersol, age five, learning to swim presumably with her mother, 1896, Courtesy Radcliffe College Archives, Schlesinger Library.

The swimsuits, though heavy and awkward when wet, permitted women to frolic in the surf. But if the tide came in quickly or current was strong, the full skirt often tangled around a woman’s legs, immobilizing her in the water.

Even if a woman knew how to swim, the weighted fabric often dragged her down. In summer, newspaper headlines recounted numerous deaths–mostly women–from drowning at beaches and lakes. Often women drowned while trying to save a child.

The deaths of nearly 1000 women in the General Slocum incident called attention to drowning as a public safety issue. Confronted with this threat, municipalities initiated “Learn to Swim” campaigns targeting women. Postcards, posters, and newspaper articles encouraged and warned women to learn to swim as a life-saving measure for themselves and–more importantly–for the nation’s children.

Postcard promoting swimming for girls and women, circa 1905. Personal collection.
Postcard promoting swimming for girls and women, circa 1905. Personal collection.

As cities began offering swimming instruction to women, individuals advocating for swimsuit reform–like Lucille Eaton Hill, Edwyn Sandys and Annette Kellerman–began finding audiences receptive.

Campaigns about public safety worked together with advertisements glamorizing swimming for women. They began to dismantle the stereotype that swimming was a masculine sport unsuitable for women.

Public safety advertisements successfully persuaded the general public that men and women could (and should) swim together on beaches because men could both safeguard women and teach them basic elements of swimming.

Such interaction of the sexes in a sport designated as masculine, like swimming, contradicted custom. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries middle-class propriety carefully delineated appropriate interactions between the sexes in most social settings–especially recreational sports. As historian Jeff Wiltse has shown, swimming pools were often segregated by gender and race, but open water swimming differed. The danger of drowning in the surf made mixed-gender swimming socially acceptable in the open water, despite the fact that swimming exposed more of the body than other sports.

Mixed-gender swim group in New York, August, 1906. By G. C. Hovey, Mid Manhattan Picture Collection, Library of Congress.

The early 20th-century “Learn to Swim” campaign succeeded. Mixed-gender amateur swim groups formed in most major US cities. Soon women began competing against men in open water marathons in the US and overseas. Women’s success contradicted cultural beliefs about women’s physical frailty.

But the early “Learn to Swim” campaigns that targeted women may have inadvertently contributed to another cultural stereotype–the belief that swimming constitutes a “white” activity.

Today, drowning captures media attention again. Now, the victims are predominantly nonwhites, not women. In 2008, the New York Times reported that nearly 6 out of 10 African-American and Hispanic children don’t know how to swim. In 2016, the CDC reported that African American children, aged 5 to 19, drown at rates 5.5 times higher than those of whites. Men now have higher drowning rates than women, perhaps due to cultural stereotypes of masculinity. Research links men’s more frequent drowning to an overestimation of skill and intoxication while swimming.

Reporting on the disproportionate drowning rates of blacks, the BBC asked: “Why don’t black Americans swim?” The question reinforces contemporary racial stereotypes about sports. Just as women’s higher rate of drowning in the early 20th century hinged on gendered beliefs, not biology, nonwhites drown at a higher rate today because of complicated social factors. These include lack of access to instruction, segregation that occurred at swimming pools post-WWII, racial stereotypes, and social expectation. As African American athletes gained media coverage for excelling in basketball and track in the mid-20th century, swimming grew less important in black recreational culture. However, we must remember, as Kevin Dawson’s research illustrates, people of African descent have historically displayed swimming skills superior to those whites.

Our cultural beliefs not only limit potential, defining what activities one should and should not pursue, they may be killing us. Examining the history of open water swimming, swimsuits, and advertising provides one way to reexamine our cultural myths and to debunk stereotypes we hold about gender and race.