By Erik N. Jensen
Let’s get one thing straight about Andy Murray’s Wimbledon singles title: It was not the first one by a Briton in 77 years, despite what the boisterous headlines might have you believe. London’s venerable Times set the tone on 8 July 2013 with its proclamation, “Murray ends 77-year wait for British win.” Not true. The Daily Mail‘s headline was longer, but not any more accurate: “Andy Murray ends 77 years of waiting for a British champion.” And The Telegraph simply heaved a sigh of relief: “After 77 years, the wait is over.” The vagueness of that statement at least grants the editors a degree of plausible deniability. If they meant that Britain had waited 77 years for one of their male players to capture the singles title, then they would at least have accuracy on their side, even if the tenor of the headline suggested a high degree of chauvinism in its willful downplaying of the four – not one, but four — Wimbledon singles titles by British women in those intervening 77 years since a British man, Fred Perry, had won a singles title in 1936.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want the British press to downplay Andy Murray’s success, but can’t they simultaneously play up the successes of their female players? Virginia Wade was, in fact, the last Briton to win a Wimbledon singles title, doing so in 1977, and three other British women have won Wimbledon since Perry’s title — Ann Haydon-Jones and Angela Mortimer, in the 1960s, and Dorothy Round Little, in 1937. As the Guardian pointed out, an acknowledgment of Little’s win would have the effect of whittling Britain’s “wait” for another singles title after Perry’s from seventy-seven years down to just one.
Jaded fans of women’s sports might simply roll their eyes at this willful oversight on the part of the British press and ask in exasperation, “What else is new?” Haven’t female athletes always competed in the shadow of their male counterparts, struggling for any scrap of attention that the sports media might throw their way?
Well, no. In fact, as a look at the German press in the years just before the Nazis came to power shows, sportswomen often garnered as much attention as the men and sometimes even a tiny bit more. The 1931 Wimbledon tournament provides a good case in point. Female players had been drawing attention to themselves throughout the two weeks of play that summer, both for their tennis and for their attire. A British player that year became the first woman to play on center court with bare legs, for example, and a Spanish player raised even more eyebrows for donning skirt that looked a lot like a pair of men’s short pants. The media devoted even more attention to that year’s final, which, for the first time ever, pitted two Germans against one another for the championship: Cilly Aussem and Hilde Krahwinkel.
Even stiffer than the competition that those two women faced from one another for the championship title, though, was the competition that they faced for the attention of the sporting public back home in Germany. After all, at the same time that Aussem and Krahwinkel were facing off in the London suburb on that July day, a traditionally much higher profile men’s sporting event was taking place in Cleveland, Ohio: the men’s world heavyweight title bout between Max Schmeling — the defending champion and first German to claim that honor — and Young Stribling, his American challenger.
As far as the athletic competitions themselves went, it was a double victory for Germany, with Aussem beating Krahwinkel and Schmeling delivering a 15th-round TKO to Stribling. But who won the competition for the hearts and souls of the German public? Cilly Aussem did, at least according to many commentators and headline writers. One arch-conservative (and unmistakably chauvinist) columnist, who wrote under the pseudonym “Rumpelstilzchen,” for instance, gave Schmeling’s success second billing, mentioning it only parenthetically and only after first trumpeting the remarkable achievements of the German women. “The Englishmen’s eyes nearly popped out of their heads,” the columnist gloated, when they realized that Germans occupied both spots in the finals match, and, Rumpelstilzchen added, the women proved that Germany’s “will to live has not been extinguished.” Their athletic achievements, and not Schmeling’s, he clearly insisted, had restored German pride.
Why did Aussem get so much attention? She was young and very pretty, for one thing, but Schmeling also enjoyed heart-throb in the Weimar Republic. Germany’s recent military defeat — and partial British occupation — also helps to explain the particular glee over an all-German final in one of the most English of all sporting events. The shifting gender constellation in interwar Germany, though, also played a role, creating an environment in which — at least for brief times and in certain contexts — women’s achievements received as much attention as men’s. The fact that contemporary sports coverage still often overlooks women’s accomplishments only shows that those changes initiated in the 1920s and early 1930s have not become permanent. In that regard, the wait is definitely not over.
Erik N. Jensen is Associate Professor of History at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. He is the author of Body by Weimar: Athletes, Gender, and German Modernity.