cover image Swimming Pretty: The Untold Story of Women in Water

Swimming Pretty: The Untold Story of Women in Water

Vicki Valosik. Liveright, $28.99 (368p) ISBN 978-1-324-09304-6

“Women swimmers have navigated tensions between athletics and performance, sport and spectacle, for generations,” according to this comprehensive debut history. Valosik, a synchronized swimmer and Georgetown University writing instructor, traces how women’s involvement in aquatic activities has evolved alongside societal attitudes since the 18th century, when norms around female modesty required that women wear long, bulky swimming gowns that “made even the simple acts of moving or floating in the water impossible.” Increased demand for entertainment at the end of the 19th century presented an opening for some women to become “ornamental swimmers” who performed in glass tanks for paying audiences. This combination of art and exercise eventually transformed into synchronized swimming, whose evolution Valosik charts from its origins in water pageants developed by the Red Cross to promote swimming skills to the sport’s debut at the 1984 Olympic games. Profiles of notable swimmers highlight how women’s sports intersected with larger societal currents, as when Valosik suggests that 19-year-old Gertrude Ederle’s 1926 swim across the English Channel, during which she beat the fastest man’s record by over two hours, helped make the figure of the female swimmer a symbol of women’s burgeoning political freedom. An incisive marriage of sports and cultural history, this is well worth diving into. Photos. Agent: Esmond Harmsworth, Aevitas Creative Management. (June)