Believe it or not, information on the history of women in powerlifting is difficult to locate. After hours of conducting searches within several databases, the generic Google, and even old newspaper clippings, I was finally able to connect a trail of information about women in powerlifting.
Given the above note, I will acknowledge this is not all-inclusive. I have done my best to bring all of this information together, but I am sure I missed some information. I encourage any readers to pass along any additional information they may have about women in powerlifting – I will update this post as I find additional information as well. But for now, let’s get to the history.
To talk about women in powerlifting, we must talk about each of these entities separately first. While the origins of strength training in general date back to Ancient Greek and Roman times, we’re going to start our discussion in the 1800s.
As we know today, beauty trends evolve and change due to influence from politics, societal views/norms, economics, etc. – and the same idea applied in the 1800s. Within this time, women had few rights and were oftentimes confined to the home. Women were viewed as more fragile than their male counterparts and all illnesses or ailments dealt with were viewed to be connected to the presence of ovaries and a uterus.¹ Think about the classic Victorian novels – Jane Eyre, The Beautiful and The Damned, etc. – the roles women played in these novels reflect how they were viewed within society at this time.
With women being viewed as fragile, the discussion of women exercising was preposterous. Women were not encouraged to exercise as their duties required them to focus on the home and childbearing. However, there was one movement that brought about more feminine attention: gymnastics.
Books targeting women were titled “Exercises for Ladies Calculated to Preserve and Improve Beauty,” “Madame Brennar’s Gymnastics for Ladies,” and often included the words “beauty,” “gymnastics,” and “art.”² In the mid-19th century, more literature specifically targeting women were published – but it’s important to mention that these books were often published anonymously. One notable publication was that of Dr. Dio Lewis – The New Gymnastics for Men, Women, and Children (1862).¹ Within this text, there was continued warning against rigorous and strenuous training for women. As reflected by the title, women who did venture into any sort of training were often referred to as gymnasts. The discussion normally surrounded a woman’s need to remain safe. The way to do so was to use only 4-5lb weights, if weighted at all.⁵ Athleticism within females was perpetually countered by the societal expectation of stereotypical feminine views.
Around the late 19th-early 20th century, individuals were beginning to look into the use of strength training as a means of athletic improvement. One individual that helped to trailblaze this idea was Bernarr MacFadden.¹ MacFadden was the publisher of a well-known magazine, Physical Culture. MacFadden’s magazine – alongside Strength Magazine – were among the first magazines to begin to accept discussion and images of women’s slender athletic bodies. MacFadden encouraged women to use resistance equipment. There were no workout prescriptions in these magazines for women, but they both did encourage the idea of women weight training. In fact, Strength began publishing more encouraging articles about women training in the 1920s.¹
Part of this was due to the changing climate around women and the encouraged idea that women held agency over their own bodies. A large proponent of that concept was Annette Kellerman, a professional swimmer. Kellerman used physical activity to help her battle illnesses as a child. She focused on the mental aspects of training “for the nervous” versus the physical.⁶ She encouraged women to work their bodies and see themselves as physically able. Kellerman believed in developing the musculature around women’s waists and that developing them would eliminate the need for corsets.⁶ She appeared in numerous magazines and helped pave the way for strength training for women.
In the mid-1900s, a young woman from Great Britain was at the forefront of many publications alongside Kellerman. Ivy Russell gained popularity for her strength and musculature.¹ It was said that she could hold her 185lbs husband over her head in handstand fashion. Ivy was a well-rounded athlete who gave posing and weightlifting exhibitions and ultimately lead to an increase in women’s interest in competitions. She was deemed “muscular, but not manly” and thus was a new archetype for female lifters.
Magazines continued to play a prominent role in the encouragement of women’s strength with the creation of Strength & Health magazine in 1932. Bob Hoffman, a weightlifting competitor and owner of York Barbell, encouraged women to train their bodies just as men do.¹ In 1936, Hoffman attended the Berlin Olympic Games as the U.S. weightlifting coach and observed the ways in which other countries, specifically Germany, trained their athletes.¹ The athletes – including female athletes – trained with weights and took training very seriously. Upon his return, he began to encourage general strength training even more. With the overall success of Strength & Health, the advocacy that Hoffman provided only continued to encourage women lifters. His own wife appeared in the magazine highlighting the benefits of women training.*³
Throughout the next three decades, appearances and discussions of women lifting continued to grow in the magazine. In the 1950s, Abbye ‘Pudgy’ Stockton became the poster girl of women’s weight training.¹ Pudgy found herself on over 40 magazine covers, wrote a column in the magazine called “Barbelles,” and featured other women athletes within these columns.¹ Her goal was consistently to show women the benefits of muscles. She ultimately ended up running a gym in California and opened one of the first women-only gyms in Beverly Hills.⁷
We’re now up to the 1950s with the views and prominence of women in strength training. The acceptance only continued to grow with the expansion of resistance training programs in schools. In 1959, Eastern Washington University opened up its weight training classes to women, and by 1961, these classes were full.⁸
The 1960s was about the time that powerlifting began to show up on the world’s radar. The American interest in Olympic Weightlifting began to wane partially due to the political climate, and the concept of powerlifting began to grow. Previously labeled the ‘Odd Lifts,’ powerlifting grew and began to be sanctioned. In 1964, Bob Hoffman put on the first, “unofficial” powerlifting called The Powerlifting Tournament of America.² It should be noted that this meet did only include men. This was governed by the American Amateur Union (AAU) at the time.
Powerlifting today is fractured in several ways, but in the 60s, powerlifting federations were in an uproar when the Olympic Committee voted to have the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) control powerlifting. The ADFPA (what is today the USAPL) was anti-drug and protesting, the APF was anti-testing, and the USPF was somewhere in-between.² Eventually, the IWF did release the rights to control powerlifting and in subsequent years, the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) was formed in 1972. After its formation, the first World Championship took place in 1973, and 7 years later, the first Women’s Powerlifting World Championship was in Lowell, Massachusetts.¹² Ironically, this was prior to the first Women’s Weightlifting World Championship, which took place in 1987. Women were allowed to compete in weightlifting earlier, but only against men. In 2000, a women’s Weightlifting category was added to the Olympic Games.²
It’s interesting that once we get to the 2000s, the documentation is rather cloudy. It’s clear that powerlifting has grown immensely since 2000, and with that, the number of female powerlifters has also increased. In 2004, USAPL implemented the Women’s Hall of Fame.¹³ The first women to be inducted were Jan Todd (who actually wrote several of the articles I found historical information from), Ruth Welding, Mabel Rader, and Judy Gedney. Each year after, one to two individuals were inducted – some notable names being: 2011, Priscilla Ribic and Sioux-z Hartwig-Gary; 2013, Jennifer Thompson; 2021, Jennifer Rey Gaudreau.
The age of social media has significantly impacted the growth of powerlifting – with many of my own female peers hearing about powerlifting for the first time from Megan Gallagher, or better known as ‘MegSquats’ on Youtube. On an anecdotal level, I personally found out about powerlifting through Instagram in 2014, which today is the platform you often see lifters of all genders highlighting their accomplishments and sharing their goals.
Even with the various divisions in federations (particularly in the USA), there are so many notable female lifters from nearly every federation. I was going to list them, but honestly, I feel like I’d be going on forever. These lifters may not all compete against each other, they may not all be in drug-tested federations, and they’re certainly not all exclusive in their achievements – but they all do have one thing in common: they have helped support the sport of powerlifting for the better for female lifters.
From 2012 to 2016, there were 6,038 individual women and 15,856 individual men who competed in the USAPL.¹¹ That’s 27%. Year after year, this percentage has oscillated around 30%, with a high of 36% in 2019. As powerlifting grows, more women share their experiences with the sport, not only on the competition side, but their roles as coaches, volunteers, meet directors, etc. The number of male powerlifting coaches far outweighs the number of female powerlifting coaches. Of the 64 USAPL state chairs, only 18 of them are female. My guess is the trend is similar for female referees.
While so much growth has already occurred, it’s important to note that this growth of an empowering and supporting community is never over. It’s important to work towards creating a more inclusive and welcoming environment for all women who are interested in powerlifting – including but not limited to women of color, women with disabilities, and women of all religions. We must advocate for inclusivity and work towards breaking down barriers that may prevent women from feeling welcome in the sport.
If you’re a supporter of female powerlifters or are a female powerlifter yourself, I encourage you to share this history with others. Acknowledge the women prior who broke barriers to get where they did. Keep pushing to break more.
Happy Women’s History Month.
*Note that there is concern with regard to the exploitation that Bob Hoffman had with many girls.
- Todd, J. (1992). The origins of weight training for female athletes in North America. Iron Game History, 2 (2), 4-14.
- Warpeha, J. (2015). A History of Powerlifting in the United States: 50 Years after York. USA Powerlifting Minnesota.
- Fair, J D. (n.d.). Fitness innovation or sexual exploitation? Bob Hoffman and the women weightlifters of Muscletown USA. Sport history review. United States.
- Todd, J. (1995). From Milo to Milo: A history of barbells, dumbells, and Indian clubs. Iron Game History, 3(6), 4-16.
- Todd, J. (1993). Strength Is Health: George Barker Windship and the First American Weight-Training Boom. Iron Game History, 3(1), 5-6.
- Osmer, L., & Todd, J. (2020). “It Is Now Within Your Reach”: Annette Kellerman and Feminine Agency in Physical Culture.
- McCracken, E. (2006). Pudgy Stockton: The Belle of the Barbell. Iron Game History, 10(1), 1-3.
- Todd, T. (1994). The expansion of resistance training in US higher education through the Mid-1960’s. Iron Game History, 3(4), 11-16.
- Latham, D. (2019). A short history of women in competitive strength sports. Medium. https://medium.com/@Laynadatham/a-short-history-of-women-in-competitive-strength-sports-b788c65c4bc1
- Huebner, M., Meltzer, D. E., & Perperoglou, A. (2021). Strength in numbers Women in Olympic‐style weightlifting. Significance , 18 (2), 20-25.
- Ball, R., & Weidman, D. (2018). Analysis of USA powerlifting federation data from January 1, 2012–June 11, 2016. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 32(7), 1843-1851.
- History – international powerlifting federation IPF. IPF – International Powerlifting Federation. (n.d.). Retrieved February 25, 2023, from https://www.powerlifting.sport/federation/history
- USA Powerlifting Women’s Hall of Fame. USA Powerlifting. (2021, June 28). Retrieved February 25, 2023, from https://www.usapowerlifting.com/womens-hall-of-fame/