Iconic Iconoclasts: How Two statuesque Women shattered typecast notions of strength

Eugen Sandow

Do human males possess an inherent physical advantage over women?

Is the feminine sex inherently less capable in terms of biokinetic quantitative aspects, or to paraphrase the essence of inquiry, are women physically the weaker sex?

A prevalent understanding, definitely is, that, 'The 60-80 percentile of human males are physically more proficient than the lower 60-80 percentile of human females', in indiscriminate terms of the sheer magnitude of brute force. Parameters such as running speed, various types of maximum weight lifting potency, jumping quanta, etc. are the measures used to analyse this.

But does this Citius, Altius, Fortius! paradigm have an essentially biological, infallible basis to it?

The scientific perspective here is, the average man is taller, and more voluminous and massive than the average woman. This is the major contributive factor towards the statistical disparity of bodily strength between the average man and woman. The specimen human male and the specimen female exhibiting this trend however don't imply inherence of biology, as total strength, dependent on body size, is an extrinsic property. For a gender-wise characterization, and to inspect a governing distinction if any, we need a pound-for-pound approach to quantify per unit size strength, which would be salient of inherent biology, irrespective of bulk.

Women, possess a higher amount of visceral adipose tissue (inter-organ fat) in order to facilitate childbirth, this attribute being conducive to implantation and gestation. Men, besides possessing a naturally high muscle-to-fat ratio, possess an intrinsic edge in terms of a 40% higher upper and a 30% higher lower body strength, and although this exact number is slightly disputed, the sizeability of the difference is a subject of mutual accord.

On an average, Women tend to have higher life spans, recovery rates from injury and ailments, and fortified immunity. But in terms of physicality, the mean man is a conspicuous notch higher, with a higher potential for gain and steeper increments. But the natural injurisdiction is definitely overridable to an enormous extent, as numerous females have proved, over time. It also does well to bear in mind that the arguments and data are merely statistical trends.

Eugen Sandow, the populariser of the namesake vest, the chiselled carnal embodiment of Michaelangelo’s David, and the most suitable candidate to the moniker of “Masculinity Incarnate”, perhaps, until Arnold Schwarzenegger and He-Man, was considered the ideal Greco-Roman classical masculine specimen.

Sandow was a famed 19th century strongman who became a typecast for male aesthetic and physical ideals and was extensively idolized, both contemporarily and for decades to come. The epitome of manliness who only ever donned an fig leaf to protect his modesty, Eugen was known for his overwhelming strength and intimidating, charismatic presence. He routinely indulged in ostentatious displays of strength and muscular pomp. One such casual feat was lifting (clearing overhead and maintaining with ease) a dumbbell with openings at each end, so men and women could sit in, breaking a chain around the girth of his plentiful chest, and executing saults and flips with 35 lb weights clenched in either fist.

Akin to Sandow, Josephine Blatt was also a theatre performer, surmounting astonishing physical feats in showmen events, circuses and various contests and displays. Her performing name, that of the Roman Goddess of crafts and wisdom, Minerva was how she was popularly known. During fin de siècle, this sixteenstone sixfooter gained prominence for her strong-womanship acts at motley touring events and circuses.

Josephine Blatt

She was reputed for lifting 23 men and a platform, haul totalling at 3, 564 lbs (1617 kg), in a hip-and-harness fashion at the Bijou Theatre, N.J. This disputed claim, gained prominence when featured in the July 1937 issue of Strength & Health magazine, and was thus tabulated in the Guinness Book of World Records, for several years per se.

Some prior sources conflict this, quoting a figure of 18 men and stating the weight to be around 3000 lbs. Blatt was the first woman to ever hold a professional wrestling championship, the original Women’s World Championship, won in the 1890s. In the first place, this challenge was set to replace the issuance of a former challenge for any competitor to contest against her, which went understandably, unanswered.
Staple Vaudeville exhibits as lifting a 650 kg horse and lifting a cannon with her teeth were routine business for her, more like, daily trifles. In spite of enduring multiple teen childbirths her physique, at least in the qualitative aspects, rivalled Sandow.
As to why, this further embellishes her feats, is because, physiologically, on a near-invariable basis, men have an implicit advantage over women; The female body has a lower baseline muscle-to-fat ratio and strives to restore/maintain it, under normal levels of diet, activity, and metabolism. To simplify it, women need to exercise more in order to develop the same amount of visible muscle relative to comparable males.

Minerva’s first husband, Christian Wohlforth, claimed that they were married on 2 October 1881, and that they had three children together. According to the report in the New York Sun, Minerva became tired of “brooms and washboards and the earnings of her husband were meagre”. In this thwarting of dependency, we sense the early beginnings of the feminist undercurrent, that was brewing in the society, which compelled patriarchal self-favouring, self-fulfilling norms to gradually laxen. However these persisted as undertones until four decades later, when they were first practically pronounced.

Furthermore, Jan Todd, University of Texas presents concrete arguments that suggest Minerva’s date of birth and marriage were highly disputed and she might have been married at 14 and bore children soon thereafter, in turn, explaining her frustration with family and marital-domestic institution.
Embroiled in a divorce case and at least one adultery suit, with Wohlforth, who insinuated her extramarital affairs with strongman and bodybuilder Charles P. Blatt, and less well-establishedly an accountant by the name of Henry Bercaw, Minerva became frustrated with mainstream societal paradigms.

Anyhow, it so came to pass that a much-touted intergender exhibition match challenge to wrestle Minerva was issued, and after a little while, accepted by an applicant – a local strongman/wrestler.

According to the official coverage by The San Antonio Daily, Minerva had her preeminent opponent Edward Nelson into a half-Nelson (no pun intended) hold and would probably have thrown him out, a few minutes later, had the stipulated matchtime of 25 minutes not passed. Minerva had started her spell of domination and manhandling, minutes into the match.
Had any contemporary strongman engaged her in combat, he’d have likely suffered the same fate, experts and even begrudging contemporaries tend to concur.

In 1923, under progressively deteriorating health and dystrophy, she spiraled down a grueling bedridden suffering, ultimately succumbing to stomach cancer.
Many sources however put Minerva at a, relatively diminutive 5’8″ which, if anything, make her feats, put into hindsight, even more impressive.

Despite having no contact, Sandwina is often hailed as the essential successor to Minerva. This couldn’t be further from rationale. Sandwina, unlike Minerva, didn’t defy but rather derived her scope from norms, most obvious in her name, which emulated Sandow so explicitly. Sandwina’s eminence, at least in part, drew upon her incidental conformance, if not adherence, to the patriarchal self-serving female typecast.

Her feminine form was in resonance with the socioculturally appropriated stereotype. She was explicitly lauded for staying in conformance to “desirable traits” and not compromising her curvilinear features whilst being muscular and strong. To precisely state the general intent, emphasis was laid on her not looking too “manlike”, and thus losing ‘her charm’.

Women turning into an abomination, upon undergoing “excessive” training and partaking in physical pursuits was a common expression of the subverted inferiority-complex-laden male psyche and its insecurities.
An unintended manifestation of this mentality, plagued by maladies of orthodoxy, toxic envy and rivalry-denialism came in the form of capturing popular female imagination and imbibing confidence.

In the colorful circus posters advertising Sandwina’s act, gone are the stock strongman poses and strongman outfits seen in the depictions of Minerva. Instead, Sandwina appears in bucolic surroundings and resembles a cross between a pinup star and a ballerina.” (sic, excerpt from My Life at the Gym: Feminist Perspectives on Community through the Body)

Nonetheless, the subversion to patriarchy is no sanction to rebuke her, given the era, and how her achievements, literally dwarfed patriarchy, forcing it into visible subversion. Her father used to instate a 100 mark-staked open challenge to any man or woman to overcome her in a wrestling bout; By all accounts, the scant few, all contenders, lasted bare seconds and consequently, the recurrent bounty persisted unclaimed.

In fact, she found her husband in one such respondent, who, immediately after reeling back to reality, posed no recollection of the last few minutes. He could only gather as much as confidently entering the ring, and literally a fraction of a second later, watching the sky reeling and his consciousness whizzing past. A single dismissive, casual wrist flick from her, that would scarcely qualify as a blow, left the strongest and most persistent of opponents reeling. It never took her more than a few blows to knockout any human, she ever faced.

She publicly surpassed the famous Eugen Sandow in a strength test – her idol and image-in-emulation. She cleared a 300 kg weight well above her, while her male counterpart faltered to elevate it beyond his chest. Upon this performance, she immediately christened herself “Sandwina”, the female derivative of her idol’s name. This in itself is testimony to the lack of distinction women could earn, by virtue of their gender identity.

Katie Sandwina

Though critics chide her for conformance, contemporary rebuke underwhelms, if not disregards the plain awesomeness of the fact that her vital statistics were quoted as “44 turn cm of biceps; 20 turn cm of wrists and 67 turn cm of thigh”, besides, her intimidating 184 cm of height and 85 kg weight. Notice, how, she severely underweighs a vertically diminutive Minerva; This sub-male proportions are precisely why Minerva came to be regarded and stylised as an oddity, and explicitly labelled a “circus freak” while the latter wasn’t objectified as a bizarre specimen. She was iconographed with an ulterior moniker, that of the emerging and sadly, enduring, ‘muscle babe’.
The stocky, sturdy, thickset Minerva had a rectilinear blocklike physique, which limited her exposure to media showcasing aesthetics and fitness. However there’s no scope to cast the slightest of doubt on the similarity of the athletic prodigy of either Amazon, each of whom traced their roots back to Bavarian/Prussian (just like Sandow) performing troupes.

On behalf of the critic and on part of the adjudgemental reader, it shall be grossly unfair to label these historical pioneers as conformists, after their biosketches already endured mistreatment and name-calling at hands of their erstwhile contemporaries. Their biographies, especially personal life aspects are likely distorted and influenced by cultural innuendoes. Even the accounts of their milestone public achievements are rendered ambiguous.

While many could argue that Minerva, by stylising herself as the typical strongman, right down to her choice of donned apparel: a characterstic leopardskin or similar, troglodytic leotard, succumbed to patriarchal stereotypes, rather than resist them; Both Minerva and Sandwina in their superficially contrary ways helped bolster feminist reform.

Above all, with pioneering determination etched into their sculpted contours and definition, the Superwomen bowed patriarchy into subservience, and rather chagrin-free acceptance. Patriarchy was both appealed to by these women, as well as averted – they were attracted to an esoteric charm and tempt held by these women, whilst being subconsciously discomforted and unable to acknowledge and digest them. Both used their might to carve out distinct niches for themselves, help debunk the rigid notion of gender dimorphism, and wrest free a certain iota of control from the exploitative clutches of the masculine social order.

Whether or not was she conducive to the feminist cause in general, remains hotly debated; One cannot debate the consequences of her contribution to popularisation and mainstreaming of strongwomen. She normalised and popularised strongwomen, bringing them from fringe oddities and peculiarities to being models, with significant aesthetic acceptance. Labelling her a betrayer to the cause, by yielding to patriarchy, would be naively superficial on the part of the critic.

Although frequently disapproved of, by contemporary critics, and adulated by erstwhile contemporaries, it does well to bear in mind that Sandwina, like everyone else, was a product of her era, and objectification was the norm, the occupational hazard, of her occupational niche. Mind that muscle-women back then were invariably reduced to being treated as either circus oddities or risqué stripteasers, often catering to esoteric patronage of fetishists with their provocative strip, pose and flex routines.

It’s ironic how dominatrices in patriarchy were, in fact ideologically bent into subservience. From that perspective, the quantum of admiration, freedom and above all the hard-earned dignity of her labour, traversed by Sandwina make her neither sacrosanct and beyond the scope of criticism nor one to blame. If the wave of gradual feminist progressive amongst her kind, was an evolutionary lineage, she was an intermediary, compromising and regressing in certain aspects, but advancing in leaps and bounds on other fronts.

Postscript: The author highly recommends reading pages 81 to 85 “My Life at the Gym: Feminist Perspectives on Community through the Body” by Jo Malin, a free limited preview of which might be found at Google Books.

  • Written byPitamber Kaushik

    The author is a freelance journalist and amateur researcher in philosophy and minority studies, having previously written for The Telegraph, The New Delhi Times, The Gulf News, The Sunday Independent, Rising Kashmir, The Quint, Intersectional Feminism India, Sudharma, and The MilliGazette.


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