Strong Like Her by Haley Shapley. Simon and Schuster, 2020. 272 pages.
“Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man” is a phrase that has become increasingly popular within the Etsy cross-stitch community, and possibly more surprisingly, perfectly embodies Haley Shapley’s new book, Strong Like Her. This celebration of female athleticism and insightful look into what it means to be a physically strong woman trades anger for calm, and incredulity for hope, but leaves room for Shapley’s sense of humor, countering pain with laughter in the only way millennials know how.
If ever a book was a dichotomy, this one is. Structured as a series of historical anecdotes, the pleasures of how far women have come are constantly tempered by the ever-present disappointment of how far we have left to go. The narrative ties past to present, drawing inspirational, and sometimes disheartening, parallels concerning women’s bodies and how they have been controlled throughout history. Shapley’s genuine optimism buoys what could have become a depressing tirade, as she allows history to help her debunk the unfortunate relationship between womanhood and weakness.
Starting with Atalanta, the sole female member of the Ancient Greek Argonauts and first female Olympian, Shapley traces the history of strong women to the modern day. Pedestrianism, the sport of competitive walking, features heavily in the story as it was for a long time the only sport women could participate in. The laughable full-length wool swimming skirt also makes an appearance, but, like many of the anecdotes, the humor subsides into disillusionment as the consequences unfurl. In 1904, nearly a thousand women and children drowned in shallow water when a steamboat caught fire. Swimming, at the time, was considered a masculine sport. Most stayed on the boat until the last possible moments, rather than risk the water. While the event spurred many cities to start “Learn to Swim” campaigns for women, many continued to drown due to the heavy and restrictive fabrics of their swimsuits.
Circus strongwoman and accomplished wrestler Katie Sandwina, born in the late 19th century, was portrayed by the media as curvy, ladylike, and the ideal, doting wife. Her accomplishments were never mentioned without talk of her lack of visible muscles, her beauty, or her husband. Fifty years later, Pudgy Stockton, the “Queen of Muscle Beach,” faced similar treatment as she failed to play into female stereotypes, enduring snide remarks about her “masculine” muscles and a fascination with her home life. And this isn’t uncommon. Almost all the athletes featured in the book were, or are, faulted for looking too masculine, criticized for being stronger than their husbands, or feared for having no interest in husbands at all, as in the case of Babe Didrikson, one of America’s greatest multi-sport athletes. However, Shapley doesn’t let the cult of domesticity cloud the enduring contributions these women made to society.
Physically strong women led the way in the suffrage movement and helped the country through World War II. Today they make their voices heard in the fight for choice and stand at the forefront of progress wherever it needs to be made. Shapley drives home the point that for women to reclaim the narrative of their strength is an inherently political act. For centuries, women’s supposed fragility—doctors were long concerned that the uterus might fall out due to physical activity—was inextricably linked to their inability to vote. Those first women who chose to jump on the bike, or dive into the pool, possessed rare emotional strength and confidence long before they gained an ounce of muscle. A collection of 23 unforgettable photographs are interspersed throughout the text, celebrating modern women—from fencers, to dancers, to bodybuilders—who continue to reclaim this strength and to appreciate their muscular bodies.
As a big proponent of the ‘stay at home and read’ lifestyle, to say Strong Like Her inspired me to exercise is to say it accomplished an impressive feat. I was left with a renewed appreciation for athleticism and an intention to hit the gym. However, never one to stray too far from my literary roots, what I still found myself thinking about days after finishing the book was Shapley’s writing style. The experience reminded me what an absolute delight it can be to read the prose of an accomplished journalist. The text flows quickly and easily and gets straight to the point. Shapley’s sense of humor comes through strong and unabashedly, as does her frustration with sexist and dehumanizing stereotypes. She embeds herself so genuinely into the text that I felt as though I were talking to her face to face (or maybe bicep to bicep). Even if her next book discusses the intricacies of angler fishing, I’ll look forward to the effortless prose.
Sam Steele is a Seattle-based student and editor trying her hand at writing. She cares extensively about black tea, old books, and The New Yorker. Her work can be found in Seattle Magazine and her editing in The Daily at the University of Washington.