Early women’s fitness was a far cry from what it is today. Women were encouraged to use 2 or 4-pound weights in fear that lifting anything heavier would be too strenuous. As far as I know, most children weigh more than 4 pounds, so this was obviously a flawed “work out” premise, and a far cry from the strong female bodies of today. Now, you can walk into any gym and you will see women bench pressing, squatting, and curling their way to a stronger body.
What has changed? Why are so many women more comfortable developing their physiques and being physically strong now? We owe a lot to the brave, proud, strongwomen of history who showed us what we’re really made of. They celebrated their strength and size. With few opportunities to use their power, many earned their living as stage performers. They proved that women can accomplish extraordinary feats of strength, and that there is beauty in strength.
Here are nine women whose physiques inspire me in my own bodybuilding pursuits. I think they will inspire you, too.
Josephine Blatt (Minerva) 1869-1923
Weighing between 185-203 pounds with 17 ½-inch biceps, a 44-inch bustline and 33-inch waist, Minerva must have been a sight to see in her day. Not only was she imposing, she could lift 3,564 pounds using a hip harness – that’s about the weight of 3 horses! Minerva considered eating a crucial part of her regimen. In an interview by the San Antonio Dairy Light, August 15, 1892, Minerva explained her diet: “Eating is about the principal part of my existence, and I always have the best I can possibly procure. For breakfast I generally have beef, cooked rare; oatmeal, French-fry potatoes, sliced tomatoes with onions and two cups of coffee. At dinner I have French soup, plenty of vegetables, squabs and game… When supper comes, I am always ready for it, and I then have soup, porterhouse steak, three fried eggs, two different kinds of salads and tea.” Someone call Michael Phelps, I found him the perfect dinner date!
Laverie Vallee (Charmion) 1875-1949
Laverie Vallee, was a trapeze artist from Sacramento, California with incredible physical strength. She went by the stage name Charmion. Her act attracted the attention of the inventor Thomas Edison, who captured her famous “Trapeze Disrobing Act” on film in 1901, and helped earn her a devoted following. Although we would consider it pretty tame, in her day the routine was rather risqué. Is it possible that Charmion was the inspiration Edison needed to bring the motion picture camera to life?
Miss Apollina 1875-Unknown
Born in Belgium, Elise Gillaine Herbigneaux’s early admiration of strongwomen led her to Paris where she trained with notable weight lifters to develop her strength. She stood 5’4” with biceps measuring 15.5 inches. She developed a stage act featuring strength stunts, including a 105-pound one-handed snatch (that’s lifting a barbell from the ground above her head in one smooth motion). Her claim to fame was wrestling – and defeating – male opponents. While touring with her act, she adopted a 3-year-old boy, becoming a working mother. Brad and Angelina move over, meet Miss Apollina.
Katie Sandwina 1884-1952
Katie Brumbach, born in Vienna, Austria, earned her stage name, Sandwina, after publicly defeating the number-one body builder of the time, Eugene Sandow, in an impromptu barbell lift. She was known to juggle cannonballs and balance a 1200-pound cannon on her shoulders! Sandwina, described as strong, charming, and feminine, was also a working mother. She was asked by reporters to share her secrets for raising children, because her own son weighed an impressive 50 pounds by age two. One of her most popular displays of strength involved lifting her 165-pound husband over her head with one arm. They remained married for 52 years, maybe she was onto something.
Kate Williams (Vulcana) 1875-1946
Kate Williams (Roberts) , better known by her stage name Vulcana, was a Welsch stongwoman who was the first to perform the “Tomb of Hercules” stunt. She would go into a back bend, then a heavy platform was placed on her midsection and two horses were led up onto the platform. Vulcana’s feats of strength earned her over 100 medals and the cover of La Santé par les Sports. Some of her specialties included a one-hand bent press of 125 pounds, and an overhead lift with a 56-pound weight in each hand. It is said that, in London, she once freed a stranded wagon by lifting it out of the mud in front of amazed bystanders. Go girl power!
Maria Loorberg (Marina Lurs) 1881-1922
Maria Loorberg (Marina Lurs) grew up in Estonia and earned the title of strongwoman by juggling 70-pound weights, and supporting 13 people weighing a combined 1940 pounds with her legs – that’s nearly a ton! She wrestled all over Czarist Russia and was named the best female athlete of the Russian Empire. Her signature act was creating a “live carousel” in which she would which lift a yoke onto her shoulders and spin volunteers attached to ropes. Think of Marina the next time to go to a fair and hop on a carousel.
Anette Busch 1882-1969
Also from Estonia and a friend of Marina Lurs, Anette Busch was a strongwoman famous for wrestling live bulls. She famously could get into bridge position and have a 10-person orchestra stand on a board on her body while playing their instruments. To escape the Russian Revolution, Bush moved to China and then Japan, where she studied Japanese and started sumo wrestling. She fought only men, who were amazed by her solid frame, and was regarded as a demigod.
Mildred Burke 1915-1989
From the moment Mildred Burke saw her first wrestling match at fifteen, she was hooked. She excelled as a wrestler with a championship reign that lasted more than three decades. Wrestling was a male-dominated sport, and women were banned from the National Wrestling Aliance conferences. Burke dedicated her life to the recognition of women’s wrestling, and thanks to her efforts the World Women’s Wrestling Association (WWWA) was founded in 1950. It takes a very strong woman to pave the way, and pave the way she did. She was inducted posthumously into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2002.
Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton 1917-2006
Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton, also referred to as “the First Lady of Iron,” “America’s Barbelle,” and “the Queen of Muscle Beach” was a professional strongwoman who led the way for modern day female bodybuilders. Pudgy stood a slight 5’ tall and weighed 115 lbs, but she could benchpress 100 pounds, snatch 105 pounds and clean and jerk 135 pounds. Throughout her career, Stockton was featured on over forty two magazine covers, had a column in Strength and Health magazine, and helped organize the first sanctioned weightlifting contest for women. Her appeal came from her strength as well as her beauty. She showed women that they can be strong and still be feminine – even with a nickname like “Pudgy.”
These strongwomen who were also strong women, showed us ladies that it’s okay to curl more than 4 pounds. In fact, we can develop our bodies and be proud of our biceps. They showed us that we can be mothers and mentors and at the same time. They challenged stereotypes and didn’t submit to the expectations of society, and they understood that a strong body is as important as a strong mind. These women are honored, celebrated and seen as role models, even today.
I may not be juggling 70 pound cannon balls or making a human carousel anytime soon, but I will keep lifting weights and, in turn, lifting my body, mind, and spirit. To all the strongwomen out there, keep up-lifting!