The 1920s was a decade made for explorers and adventurers. After the horrors of the Great War, the world needed heroes as it entered a glamorous new age – and it found them in the likes of Charles Lindbergh, Percy Fawcett, George Mallory and Amelia Earhart, whose exploits remain vivid nearly 100 years later.
But one such hero has faded from memory: Gertrude Ederle (pronounced ‘Ed-er-ly’), a shy 19-year-old New Yorker who was the most famous woman in the world in the summer of 1926. Ederle was the first woman to swim the English Channel – an achievement in itself, and one made all the more impressive by the fact that she swam it faster than any of the five men who had gone before her. Although her feat has become commonplace today, she deserves recognition for inspiring a generation of young women.
A formidable challenge
Ederle was a gifted swimmer who represented her country in the 1924 Paris Olympics. It was during this time, as the American team’s ship sailed up the channel, that Ederle had the idea to swim across it.
Swimmer Gertrude Ederle, photographed c1930, after becoming the first woman to swim across the English channel. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
The previous year Henry Sullivan had become the first American to swim the 21 miles that separated Dover from Calais, although he had actually swum more than 50 miles because of the strong currents – a factor that accounted for the 1,000 failed attempts by 200 swimmers since Matthew Webb’s historic first crossing in 1875. There were other challenges, too – such as the debilitating temperature of the water and the capricious weather – but the main problem was the fact that the tide shifted direction every six hours. This meant that anyone brave enough to take on the channel would need to swim in a zigzag fashion, changing direction with the tide.
Ederle first tried to swim the channel in 1925, but after nine hours she was pulled from the water by her support team. It had been a bitter lesson for the young American, and one from which she vowed to learn. The swim became personal, a fight between her and the channel, but at the same time Ederle was aware that it represented more than just a sporting challenge.
A symbol for a new generation
In August 1920, the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified and the vote was officially extended to women. It was a historic moment in American history, and it ushered in a vibrant generation of young women who were independent and more assertive than their forebears, taking much of their lead from the sassy women depicted in the burgeoning motion picture industry.
Ederle belonged to this generation of ‘Flappers’, whose trademark was the bobbed haircut (so much more practical for the young woman always on the go). Their photographs became a staple of the new tabloid newspapers, and when Ederle announced she was going to have another crack at the channel she was contracted to write an exclusive weekly column for the New York Daily News, for the eye-watering fee of $5,000 (with an additional $2,500 if she succeeded).
Ederle’s first ghost-written column appeared on 3 June, 24 hours after she had sailed for France. “I don’t get half-a-million dollars for my efforts,” she informed Americans. “So if I dance in the evening or pick up a ukulele for pleasure I don’t think it should be reported as a scandal… I don’t want to be nagged at my training. I want to talk about clothes and shows and the Charleston [dance].”
When swimmer Gertrude Ederle announced she was going to attempt to swim the English Channel, she was contracted to write an exclusive weekly column for the New York Daily News. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Once again, Ederle set up camp on the Calais coast. Remembering her failure the previous year, she spent several weeks training, learning about the currents and acclimatising to the cold. She was overseen by her English coach, Bill Burgess, who had become the second person to swim the channel when he crossed in 1911.
In the meantime, four other female swimmers (three American and one Englishwoman) arrived to try and beat Ederle across the channel, but none was able to tame the challenging route. Their failures only strengthened the belief in Britain that a woman was incapable of swimming a stretch of water that had defeated scores of strong men, including General Bernard Freyberg, who had a Victoria Cross to his name. If a war hero couldn’t swim the channel, then what hope had a woman?
Ederle, who labelled these chauvinists ‘Channel Croakers’, set out for England shortly after 7am on 6 August wearing a specially designed two-piece swimsuit made of silk. It was barely visible, however, under her three layers of grease: a base layer of olive oil; then lanolin, a heavy yellow-white grease; and on top of that a coat that combined lard and Vaseline. She looked more like a basted chicken than a swimmer as she dived into the channel, quickly striking up a rate of 28 strokes per minute using her powerful overarm crawl.
Ederle was covered in three layers of grease: a base layer of olive oil; then lanolin, a heavy yellow-white grease; and on top of that a coat that combined lard and Vaseline. (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
After two hours in the water, Ederle was four and a half miles north-west of her starting point and about to swing north-east on the flood tide towards the middle of the channel. On her support boat, her coach handed her a bottle of chicken broth in a children’s fishing net, while her sister, Margaret, played Ederle’s favourite records on a gramophone.
After five hours Ederle had swum 11 miles and Dover was 10 miles to the north-west. She continued to make steady progress throughout the afternoon, but then at around 5pm the weather turned on the American. Within an hour a storm had descended and waves were rocking the support boat and pummelling Ederle’s tired body.
Friends and family watch Gertrude Ederle swim the English Channel from the tugboat ‘Alsace’. (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
The deteriorating conditions forced Bill Burgess to plot a new course, heading away from Dover with the current, and going north up the Kentish coast. The next four hours pushed Ederle to the limits of her endurance, as she battled strong seas and chilly temperatures, but at 9.48pm her toes touched the pebbly beach at Kingsdown, five miles north of Dover, 14 hours and 39 minutes after she had set off from France. Ederle had not only become the first woman to cross the channel, she had smashed the existing record of 16 hours and 33 minutes, set in 1923 by the Argentine swimmer Enrique Tirabocchi. Despite the miserable weather, there were an estimated 4,000 people waiting to greet her – Britons who had been drawn to the beach in the giddy excitement of witnessing a slice of sporting history. It did not matter that Ederle was an American; the men and women who welcomed her ashore were there to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit.
When Ederle woke the next morning in a Dover hotel it was to global superstardom. Newspapers in the USA, Britain, France and across Europe hailed her feat as a historical event. Carrie Chapman Catt, leader of the American Suffragists, said it was “a far cry from swimming the channel to the days to which my memory goes back, when it was thought that women could not throw a ball or even walk very far down the street without feeling faint”. It was later reported that more than 60,000 women had gained the American Red Cross swimming certificates in the 1920s, many of whom had cited Ederle’s swim as their inspiration.
A procession on Broadway, New York, welcomes Ederle after her successful swim across the English Channel. (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)
Perhaps no one articulated the impact of Ederle’s feat better than the well-known American columnist Heywood Broun in an article for the New York World. He wrote: “When Gertrude Ederle struck out from France she left behind her a world which has believed for a great many centuries that woman is the weaker vessel. Much of government, most of law and practically all of morality is based upon this assumption. And when her toes touched the sands of England, she stepped out of the water into a brand-new world.”
Gavin Mortimer is the author of The Great Swim (Short Books, 2008).