150th Women’s History at RRC

**photo** Women’s Eight, 2013

As was common at the time, Richmond was formed as a club for “Gentlemen”. The role of women was probably just as supporters at regattas. Indeed, newspaper descriptions and pictures from the early years show women enthusiastically supporting their clubs at regattas.

**photo** 1928 RRC Annual Ball at Prahran Town Hall

Ladies Committee

In the 1927-1928 season “A very efficient Ladies’ Committee was formed, and is functioning in a manner that is calculated to be of very material assistance to the club.” The role of women was formalised. Mrs. Geo. M. Hutton (wife of the Club Captain) was Chairwoman of the committee.

At its height in 1931 the Ladies’ Committee presented Richmond with a “best and best eight-oared racing boat”. Throughout the 1930s the committee raised significant funds to support Richmond. The committee ceased to function during the war years but reformed post war.

By 1949 the Ladies’ and Social Committees were amalgamated and women continued to contribute to the social and fundraising aspects of Richmond.

Women become members

The decision as to whether to accept women members was a divisive issue in the 1970s. Richmond had its new boathouse and was starting to recover from the three years without a home. But it was still not doing well.

The committee membership was now a mix of long-standing, older members (the Old Guard) and younger members (the Young Turks), keen to do whatever it might take to revitalise Richmond.

It appears tha a woman changing upstairs at the boathouse was the start of committee discussions on whether women should be allowed to become members. It was a discussion that would take two years and a change of leadership to resolve.

By February 1976, division in committee views was starting to appear. John Sawyer stated his disillusionment with how Richmond was being run and its future prospects if the committee continued as it was. A subcommittee was formed to evaluate whether to have women members in April 1976. But at a General Meeting in August 1976, the members accepted a change to the constitution to define members as men only.

This move to specifically exclude women was to become the downfall of the Old Guard’s strategy. Richmod received correspondence from the Anti-Discrimination Bureau with a request that Richmond advise of its attitude to Women’s Rowing.

In May 1977, a report was submitted ot the committee by Don Dudgeon as chair of a sub-committee investigating why Richmond could not hold on to younger members. This report would change the future of Richmond. Specifically the report recommended that women be allowed as members.

By the committee meeting in June 1977, the skittles had fallen and the “Young Turks” had won. The committee agreed to a notice of motion for the AGM to delete the clause that had been added to the constitution so controversially a year ago. Mr. Ron March, the President, announced that he would not be standing for election the following year. It was now up to the younger members to build up the club.

Richmond affiliated with the Victorian Ladies Rowing Association and hoped to enter ladies crews in regattas the following season. In fact, Richmond had to wait until season 1981-1982 to boat a competing women’s crew. That was also the first season that a woman won a club award: Sue Lee was awarded the Don Edwards trophy for coxing.

The next season, Richmond commenced an internal club competition for women. The John Sawyer trophy was established to be the women’s equivalent of the men’s Mal Scott Memorial. Women’s competition for the range of club races was also created in season 1982-1983 with a requirement for crew membership to be at least 50% women to qualify as a women’s crew. These might not have been what we would class women’s races today, but it was a way to open the competition to women when the number of active women rowers was still small. This arrangement continued until 1990.

**photo** Jennifer Campbell

Since the decision to include women members, the Richmond Committee had continued to include only men. That was to change in season 1983-1984 when Sue Lee joined the Committee as a Vice Captain and Caroline Burge joined as an Elected Committee member.

It was not until the 1990s that women’s rowing and committee representation at Richmond equalled, and occasionally surpassed, the men’s. In July 1994, Richmond elected its first woman President, Jennifer Campbell. Jennifer had held various roles over the last few years, Vice Captain, Selection Committee member and Victorian Amateur Sculling Association office holder. She was an active rower, being part of the first women’s eight.

There have been four women Presidents since Jennifer: Helen Hovenga (1996-1999), Julia Avis (2006-2007) Emma Catford (2008-2013) and Karen Doggett, the current President.

**photo** Winning Women’s eight, Edward Trickett Regatta, Penrith Lakes, NSW 2012

Success on the water

It took a while for Richmond women to make any impact in racing. Sue Lee and Caroline Burge were both significant individual successes. Sue Lee was selected to represent Australia as coxswain of the Ladies Lightweight Four at the Los Angeles Olymic Games in August 1984. Sue’s crew were successful in winning a bronze medal at the Olympics, a high achievement indeed. In 1985 Caroline Burge won the women’s Senior B (under 23) lightweight championship of Australia.

In 1990, Richmond boated its first women’s eight, competing at regattas and in particular the prestigious Head of the Yarra.

In season 1991-1992, the women’s crews dominated the regatta wins for the year with 16 out of 27 winning crews. The women’s crews have continued to perform well. In 2003, the Richmond women’s Novice Eight won the clubs’ first State Championship title in about 20 years (the Men’s Novice eight also took out the State Championship title that season, but raced after the women’s crew!).

Women’s rowing at Richmond has continued to go from strength to strength. Crews have won State Championship titles, State and National Masters titles and numerous regattas over the seasons. It is now difficult to tell that women as rowers have only been part of Richmond for a fraction of its history.

The Magical Eight

When I joined Richmond Rowing Club in 1989 there weren’t very many women rowers in the club. We struggled to crew a pair. Lucky for me, the number of women rowers steadily grew. Richmond entered a four in the local regattas, then two fours, and then someone had the brilliant idea that Richmond should enter a women’s eight in the Head of the Yarra! This was my rowing dream come true!

Excited and enthusiastic, we started training. But conflicting schedules kept us from putting more than a four in the water and we never, not once, rowed the marathon distance required for the Head of the Yarra. But why let details ruin the beauty of the thing. We signed up to enter Richmond’s first ever women’s eight in the Head of the Yarra, Australia’s rowing classic, and we were determined to row the distance.

Race Day dawned bright and sunny and beautiful, a perfect day for the regatta. More than seventy eights were on the river, everyone bedecked in their club colours. Spectators lined the river banks and the atmosphere was heady. We were so excited to be rowing … but only seven women showed up at the club. Frantic phone calls were made as our state time approached and still we only had seven women in the black and gold.

We thought we would have to scratch when Don Dugeon came to save the day. Don drafted one of the men to sit in the eighth seat (I wish I remembered his name) and Don himself took the coxswain’s seat. Technically we weren’t legal but we were on the river and we were going to row. With Don as our cox something magical happened. This mismatched crew who had never rowed together in an eight rose to the occasion.

Our oars struck the water in unison. We made the eight run! We made the eight fly! And it felt good! We rowed the distance and as we neared the last bridge before the finish, Don’s knowledge of the river and his faith in us let him steer to the inside lane. We overtook and passed another eight. We passed them!

Richmond’s first ‘women’s’ eight finished the Head of the Yarra in style. And lest you think this was just my imagination, but club has photographic evidence. My husband rode his bike along the river taking photos from the bridge. When we developed the film, the proof was there. We looked good! Eight oars striking the water in perfect unison! Everyone at the club got copies of those photos … the day Richmond rowed a ‘women’s’ eight at the Head of the Yarra … that magical eight … the best row of my life!

Karen Azinger

**photo** First Women’s Eight, YWCA Regatta 1990