The author wishes to express his special thanks to Rachel Mc Namara and Elisa Gallina for the linguistic review, and Lisa Taylor for a general review about rowing history

In a recent article published by Olimpia (the only Italian academic journal about Women’s Sports History), our author Marco Giani mentions women’s rowing in 1930’s Fascist Italy. Following the publication of that article, he decided not only to translate it into English for Playing Pasts’ readers, but also to extend it.

  • 1. As evidenced in a letter sent to the Roman sports newspaper Il Littoriale (Rome), in autumn 1933 some girls were seen rowing, in Italy. It’s about time academics study the phenomenon of Italian female rowing during the Fascist Ventennio (1922/1943). An excellent starting point would be articles and above all images (pictures, and cartoons too) published by national press from that period. It’s not the aim of this Playing Pasts’ article to provide an in-depth study, but rather it is an invitation to rowing scholars to look further into this interesting topic in women’s sports history.


  • 2. What was happening with women’s canottaggio ‘rowing’ in Italy, in mid 1930s’? Unlike football and boxing, this female sport seemed to have an unusual status. It was not forbidden by the Fascist regime: for example, none wrote to the newspapers editors denouncing it and requesting that it be banned, as happened with football. At the same time, it was not promoted by the Fascist authorities, which were more interested in promoting athletics and swimming in order to gain as many medals as possible in the forthcoming 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Furthermore, rowing seemed to be practised by a very small number of Italian girls (such as Milanese aviator Gaby Angelini). Probably, this latter fact worked in their favour, since it acted as a sort of camouflage: if no one spoke about canottaggio femminile, then female rowers were free to quietly practice their beloved sport. Fortunately, we have been granted some glimpses of these young women in action, as evidenced by the historical sources used for this article.


  • 3.1. Before talking about the active side of rowing (that is, its practice), let’s talk briefly about the passive one     (that is, its representation). In fact, broadly speaking, during the 1930s Italian newspapers and magazines had    a positive view of women’s rowing, sharing it with their audience. Further evidence is seen in the fact that            pictures of the sport coming from abroad (above all the US, the UK, Germany; and also France and Japan,          too) were regularly published.


Sometimes it happened as result of magazines’ policy to publish all types of pictures depicting Hollywood stars, including images of them practising sports (rowing being one of them).


Furthermore, in November 1933 Il Canottaggio (the official monthly magazine of FIC = Federazione Italiana Canottaggio ‘Italian Rowing Federal Association’), in an attempt to encourage a wider practise of the sport in Italy, published Il canottaggio femminile germanico, a 3-page translation of a French article about the German women’s rowing movement. The message was clear: Italian girls (and their male patrons in the rowing clubs) should not just look at these photos, but they should commit to do the same! For the same propaganda reason, Il Canottaggio not only published images of static pictures of rowers, but also: images of rowers in training, pictures of the international stars of women’s rowing; women’s rowing from “exotic” countries (from a 1930s’ Italian point of view, of course) such as Japan. Again: what were Italian girls waiting for?



In particular, the Berlin women’s school appears to charm Il Canottaggio editors: the existence of a specific school dedicated to women’s rowing, where students could improve their sports skills in an institutional environment, seemed an utopia in 1930s’ Fascist Italy, where the few female rowers had to wait for some selfless male rower to teach them …


A video by Istituto Luce (regime’s propaganda institute) about the Berlin women’s rowing school, entitled «Teaching rowing to women» (1936).


  • 3.2. In addition, the Italian press gave great reviews for the German film Acht Mädels im Boot (1932), directed by Erich Waschneck. Otto ragazze in barca / Il club delle ondine (there were two Italian translations of the German title) was praised both for its enchanting setting, where the story of Christa and her rowing mates took place, and its ethereal representation of the rowing girls, which was markedly different from the sexualized representation seen in Hollywood women. A comparative study would be useful in order to understand whether or not Acht Mädels im Boot had an impact on the construction of a positive image of women’s rowing in Western culture in the Interwar period: it was translated into French also, and two years later Hollywood made a remake, entitled Eight girls in a boat (USA, 1934), directed by Richard Wallace.






  • 3.3. Another clue to the growing interest of Italian newspapers in women’s rowing was the appearance of rower models in female fashion magazines: in fact, the publishing itself means that there were already some Italian women keen to practice rowing …


  • 3.4. A further clue was to this growing interest in women’s rowing can be see in the project plan designed for a new rowing club in Venice by Antonio Marchi (1935). The building plan specifically designated spogliatoio donne and docce donne, that is a changing room and shower room for women rowers. In the description the architect talks about «a separated female section for 50 women in a 45 meters squared area». Interestingly, if we compare the space assigned to women with that assigned to men (140 meters squared for 330 men), we can say that the space for women was in fact quite generous.


  • 3.5. One final clue can be seen in what Italian sports physicians and journalists wrote about female rowing from a medical perspective (which, in Fascist Italy, was a fundamental reason for female sports, due to the regime’ eugenic policy). Francesco Valagussa, in Maternità e Infanzia (March 1934), blamed mountain-climbing and skiing as over strenuous activities for women, praising instead tennis and rowing as sports that could promote general physical development and improve their respiratory system. Luigi Ferrario, one of the most important sport journalists  at that time, praised rowing as a «very useful» female sport in an article published by La Domenica Sportiva (December 1932).

Article © Marco Giani 


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