WMU News

New film presents history of Jewish women in American sport

Feb. 18, 2004

KALAMAZOO--A Western Michigan University historian has partnered with a well-known Israeli filmmaker to develop and produce a documentary on the history of American Jewish women in sport.

Dr. Linda J. Borish, associate professor of history, and filmmaker Shuli Eshel will use archival research, news footage, still images, and interviews to trace the early years of prominent American Jewish female athletes and sports administrators, culminating with the induction of the first class of women into the 2003 Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

The film, titled "Settlement Houses to Olympic Stadiums: Jewish Women in American Sport," will examine figures like Charlotte Epstein, recognized as the mother of women's competitive swimming, and Senda Berenson, who studied the teachings of Dr. John Naismith in the 1890s to develop the first rules for women's basketball. Current athletes will also be highlighted, including LPGA professional Amy Alcott, Olympic gold medal skating champion Sarah Hughes, and ESPN sportscaster Linda Cohen.

"The film is really about providing a historical reality of women's participation in sports over time," says Borish. "It's not only a historical inquiry about the athletes, but also about the administrators, coaches and promoters who helped provide these opportunities."

Epstein, known as "Eppie" to her team, was the founder of the Women's Swimming Association in 1917, and provided the first competitive female swim club the United States. It is stories like Epstein's that Borish feels are the missing pieces for not only women's sport history, but also for American sport history.

"The club provided the training for girls who had the skills at a time when there were questions about how much physical damage competitive sports could do to women," says Borish. "Epstein battled U.S. Olympic officials to allow her girls to swim in the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. By gaining entrance into the games, it was the first time U.S. females ever competed for Olympic medals," says Borish.

And compete they did, establishing the foundation for a long history of domination in United States Olympic medals for female swimmers. Epstein's club produced gold medalists at the 1920, 1924, 1928 and 1932 Games. They included champions like Aileen Riggin, who became the youngest Olympic gold medalist in history, at 14 1/2 years old, in both diving and swimming. Also included was a little-known swimmer named Gertrude Ederle who competed in the 1924 games in Paris. Ederle went on to swim the English Channel in 1926, the first woman to do so, in a time that ended up beating the best men's attempt by more than two and a half hours.

"Ederle first learned to swim at Epstein's W.S.A. and gained national fame for this feat. She told reporters that it took a Yankee with a 'hearty stock' to complete the swim," says Borish. "She was then known as 'Queen of the Waves.'"

Borish will use the material for the film from her research done at numerous organizations, including the archives of the Maccabiah Games, commonly known as "the Jewish Olympics." Started in Israel in 1932, the Maccabiah Games featured world-class athletes like Lilian Copeland, who established a world record in the javelin and was a 1932 gold medalist at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles but chose to withdraw from the 1936 "Nazi Olympics" in Berlin. Instead she went on to compete at Maccabiah

"The reason athletes like Copeland have never been recognized is because they've never been researched, like their Jewish male athletes counterparts have," says Borish.

Another part of the film will look at the beginnings of the Young Men's-Young Women's Hebrew Association. The associations, known today as Jewish Community Centers, were the first to provide athletic facilities that often weren't accessible to Jews.

"There was the challenge of finding facilities for sports like tennis and golf, where ethnic minorities were often excluded," says Borish. "With the change of an increase of facilities, we saw more Jewish golf and tennis champions."

It is this kind of "cause-and-effect" for not just Jewish women athletes, but all female athletes that Borish feels will be a theme communicated throughout the film. "Gladys Heldman founded the Virginia Slims, the first organized women's professional tennis tour. Without her, you wouldn't have had Chris Evert, or athletes like Serena and Venus Williams," says Borish. "We see how the popularity of the women's NCAA basketball tournament has increased. We wouldn't be where we are now without Senda Berenson's development of the first rules for women's basketball."

Though the film is still in pre-production stages, funding for the film was helped by a grant recently awarded to Borish by the Southern Jewish Historical Society to be used for still images and archival footage in the film. Release is planned for sometime in 2004-05 in conjunction with the 350th anniversary of the first Jewish settlement in America.

"I think more than anything the film will challenge some commonly held stereotypes regarding Jewish women's contribution to the history of American sport," says Borish.

Media contact: Matt Gerard, 269 387-8400, matthew.gerard@wmich.edu

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