Better known by her second married name, Lady Mary Heath, Sophie rose to fame as Ireland’s Amelia Earhart when she completed the first flight from Cape Town to London in her small open-cockpit plane. The journey was a harrowing one that took her five months to complete. Yet this was not Sophie’s first taste of fame.
As a young child, Sophie experienced a great tragedy when her mother was brutally murdered by her father. She was sent to live with her grandfather and aunts in west Limerick. In her youth, Sophie showed a talent for sport, but this was greatly discouraged by her family. It was not until she was in her 20’s that her skills were truly allowed to shine.
In the early 1920s. Sophie was living in London. By now she was an accomplished athlete. Her particular talent was for the high jump where she was ranked second across Britain and Ireland. Two years later she would become a world record holder in this event. Not content with simply being the best, Sophie also campaigned tirelessly for gender equality in international sports. In 1922 she founded the British Women’s Amateur Athletic Association, becoming President in 1924. Her goal was to convince the Olympic Committee that women should be permitted full equality in competing at the prestigious games, rather than the exclusionary system which was in place at the time. She wrote a number of books and articles on the matter and delivered an address to the 8th Olympic Congress where she advocated for the equality of women in sport.
Another woman with Olympic dreams was swimmer Fanny Durack. Born in Sydney Australia to Irish parents, Fanny showed a great aptitude for swimming from a young age. By the time she was 17 she already had a state title under her belt. Her star continued to rise as she racked up 56 medals and 100 trophies before deciding that she was bound for Olympic glory.
The 1912 Olympic games were held in Stockholm. This was the first year that women were permitted to compete in the swimming and diving events. Fanny’s accomplishments singled her out for certain victory, but it was her own sport’s governing body that held her back. The New South Wales Ladies Swimming Association refused to permit their athletes to compete at the games. Fanny and her fellow swimmers did not take the affront lying down. They rallied the people to their cause and with the backing of the Australian population who wanted to see Fanny bring home a medal, they were able to convince the powers that be to concede defeat. However, the NSWLSA may have given them permission to attend the games, but they would not be providing financial support. Fanny and her teammates began a fundraising campaign and with the generous donations of their fellow Australians, they were able to attend the games where further controversy was caused when Fanny refused to wear the usual wool swimsuit. She scandalised the press as she donned a close-fitting suit to better aid her movement in the water. Her intuition clearly paid off as Fanny brought home the gold in the 100m freestyle.
Lastly, we come to Lena Rice. Tipperary native Lena spent her childhood playing tennis at her large family home. She and her sister joined the Cahir Lawn Tennis Club where she honed her skills by playing against the steady flow of new competitors supplied by a nearby army camp. As her skills and confidence grew, Lena sought to compete beyond the borders of Tipp. In 1889 she ventured to the nation’s capital to take part in the Irish Championships. Although she was defeated in the singles competition, she won the mixed doubles title with her partner Willoughby Hamilton.
That same year Lena set her sights on Wimbledon. Although nowadays this is a world-famous event watched by millions all over the globe, in 1889 it was a much smaller affair with only 6 competitors in the ladies singles event. Lena made it to the finals but here she was met by Blanche Bingley Hillyard, the same woman who had kept her from victory in Dublin. She was defeated once more but not disheartened.
Lena returned to Ireland and ramped up her training. Sports commentators at the time critiqued her poor backhand and warned that it would keep her from ever achieving greatness. In 1890 Lena returned to Wimbledon, more determined than ever. This time Hillyard did not compete as she was expecting her first child. With her nemesis out of the way, Lena reached the final with ease and won the title match, making her the first Irish woman to ever win at the prestigious event. Not only did she win this title and the trophy, but she is also credited with inventing a new move, the ‘overhead smash’, with which she secured her victory. That same year her doubles partner from Dublin became the first Irish man ever to win at Wimbledon. A great year in our nation’s sporting history.
Women in Sport Today
Although we have come a long way since the days of our female sporting pioneers, there is still a lot of work to be done if we are to close the equality gap in the field of sport. The difference in attendance and funding is still significant, though campaigns are in place to ensure that girls, particularly from a young age, are included and encouraged in sporting endeavors.
Click on the images to learn more about the women that inspired this Chronicles Insight.
Sophie Peirce Evans
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