Women first competed in swimming at the Olympic Games in Stockholm in 1912, taking part in two events: the 100m freestyle, which was won by Australia’s Fanny Durack, and the 4x100m relay, won by Great Britain’s Belle Moore, Jennie Fletcher, Annie Speirs and Irene Steers. At Antwerp 1920, a third event was introduced onto the programme: the 300m freestyle. Ethelda Bleibtrey, aged just 18 (she was born on 27 February 1902 in Waterford, New York State), raced in, and won, all three!
Bleibtrey’s story is that of an emancipated woman who made a real difference for all female swimmers in her country. She first took up swimming in 1917 to help her recover from polio. At the time, social convention in the USA dictated that women had to cover up their legs – i.e. wear stockings – when they went swimming. In 1919, at Manhattan Beach, Bleibtrey removed her stockings before going swimming; this was considered a reprehensible act of “nudity” and Bleibtrey was arrested. Her arrest caused public outrage, however, to such an extent that not only was Bleibtrey not sanctioned, but it was also subsequently decided that women could go swimming without having to wear stockings! Bleibtrey was also one of the first women to wear a swimming cap.
— Olympics (@Olympics) April 20, 2017