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Female Bodybuilding Part One - The History

Updated on May 9, 2017

The Strong Women that were the forerunners of female bodybuilding

Female bodybuilding is of course a part of the competitive sport of bodybuilding.
Only it's for women.
Quick ain't I?
They have had physique contests for women since the 1960s, way before female bodybuilding competitions like we have today in the IFBB.
And even before that, muscular women were very popular.

But back then they were called "strongwomen" and were usually regulated to performing feats of strength in a circus, vaudeville, music halls, or other venues.
As they do today, these ladies had a special and very loyal following.
Strongwomen weren't for everyone, the typical 19th century woman was considered frail and weak, but not these amazons.

Before we get to bodybuilding today, let's take a look at some of the women that laid the foundation of the sport.

Josephine Blatt (1869-1923)
Josephine Blatt (1869-1923)

Josephine Blatt

One of the first strongwomen that really got people's attention was Josephine Blatt.
Josephine was born in 1869 and passed away on September 1,1923.
She performed under the stage name "Minerva" and for several years was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having lifted the greatest weight ever by a woman.
This was 3,564 lb in a hip-and-harness lift at the Bijou Theater in Hoboken, N.J., on April 15, 1895.
Besides that amazing feat, Minerva could do other little things like break horseshoes with her bare hands, break steel chains by expanding her chest, and play catch with a 24 pound cannon ball.
You know, everyday stuff.
Josephine married Paul Blatt (sometimes listed as Charles Blatt..the Hoboken Hercules) and together, they made tours all over Europe and the US with various circuses.
She finally retired in 1910.

Charmion (1875-1949)
Charmion (1875-1949)


Another strongwoman was Laverie Vallee also known as Charmion.
She was not only a strongwoman, but a vaudeville trapeze artist as well.
Charmion had an act that featured both her trapeze skill, and her strength.
She'd come out in full Victorian attire and mount the trapeze, then begin to remove pieces of clothing until she got down to her leotard.
Needless to say, the act raised a lot of eyebrows back then, and got her a big male fan base, one of whom was Thomas Edison.
Yes, that Thomas Edison.
He was so impressed with her, that he asked her to do one of his films, the 1901 short, "Trapeze Disrobing Act".

Vulcana (1875-1946)
Vulcana (1875-1946)


Kate Roberts was better known by her stage name, "Vulcana".
Vulcana toured as part of the Atlas and Vulcana Group of Society Athletes in Britain, Europe and Australia.
Atlas was strongman William Hedley Roberts, who Vucana had met when she was at a local women's gymnasium in 1890.
Even though she was only fifteen, it was love at first sight.
But since William had a small problem (namely a wife and kids) they decided to run away together.
Vulcana has several feats of strength credited to her such as a bent press (I don't think they do that anymore, it looks really dangerous) with 124 pounds. Though some say it was actually 145 pounds.
She is also recorded as having done an overhead lift with a 56 pound weight in each hand.
Besides being a strongwoman, Vulcana had somewhat of a reputation as being a superhero back then. (That is if they had the term superhero back then)
At the age of thirteen (in 1881), she stopped a runaway horse in Bristol.
In July of 1901, Vulcana saved two children from drowning in the River Usk in Wales.
In October of 1901, Vulcana reportedly freed a stuck wagon by lifting it up in front of witnesses.
When the Garrick Theatre in Edinburgh caught fire in 1921, Vulcana rushed into the blaze to save some horses that were part of another act. She received several commendations for that incident.

Katie Sandwina (1884-1952)
Katie Sandwina (1884-1952)

Katie Sandwina

Katie Brumbach was born in 1884 in Vienna, Austria.
She was one of fourteen (yes fourteen) children born to circus performers Philippe and Johanna Brumbach.
Katie started out doing wrestling in the sideshow and again, she was one of these women that no man could ever beat.
As a matter of fact, she met her husband Max Heymann during one of these performances. (They married and stayed together fifty two years)
As to how Katie Brumback became Katie Sandwina...ever hear of Eugen Sandow, the "Father of Modern Bodybuilding"?
Well when she was in New York, Katie ran across one of Sandow's weightlifting contests.
Katie put 300 pounds over her head, but Sandow could only get the weight up to his chest.
So Katie adopted the name, "Sandwina".
Just a side note here, Katie was just over six feet tall and weighed around 187 pounds.
Katie worked for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the US until she retired at the age of 64.
She and Max then opened a restaurant in New York.
Katie passed away on January 21, 1952.

Luisita Leers
Luisita Leers

Luisita Leers

Though not a strongwoman per se, she was indeed a "strong woman".
Luisita Leers was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, on October 14, 1909 and was an aerialist.
And although trapeze and acrobatics were her forte, she could hold her own with any of the circus exhibitions of strength.
Her skill caught the attention of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, and she worked with them for five years.

Abbye "Pudgy" Stockton (1917-2006)
Abbye "Pudgy" Stockton (1917-2006)

Abbye "Pudgy" Stockton

Moving a little further up we have Abbye "Pudgy" Stockton.
Born on August 11th, 1917 in Santa Monica, California, Abbye was a professional strongwoman and a forerunner of present day female bodybuilders.
She started out lifting dumbells, moved on to calisthenics and added in some gymnastics.
Between her workouts and reading "Physical Culture" by Bernarr Macfadden (a forerunner himself of Charles Atlas and Jack Lalanne), Abbye molded herself into a phenominal physical specimen.
She became so popular that she and her husband Les Stockton put on shows at the fammed Muscle Beach in Santa Monica California during the 1940s.
Abbye appeared on the covers of over 42 magazines and posed with fitness stars like John Grimek and Steve Reeves.
She passed away in 2006, but in 2000, the IFBB inducted her into their Hall of Fame.

The Queen of the Barbells-Abbye "Pudgy" Stockton

Joan Rhodes, "The Mighty Mannequin" (1921-2010)
Joan Rhodes, "The Mighty Mannequin" (1921-2010)

Joan Rhodes, "The Mighty Mannequin"

Joan Rhodes, "The Mighty Mannequin", was born on April 13th, 1921 in London England.
Joan started out as a variety and cabaret performer in the 1950s and 1960s.
She appeared on the TV show The Toast Of The Town in 1955 and toured with another famous London native, Bob Hope in his Christmas Shows, entertaining troops for the USO.
In her act Joan bent steel bars, ripped phone books in half (and quarters) and liftef large men (400+) over her head or into her arms.
Though once on a USO show tour she did drop Bob Hope.
She did stunt work and acted in several films including The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976).
Joan passed away at the age of 89 on May 30th, 2010.

Female Bodybuilding Part One - The History

Who is your favorite female bodybuilding pioneer?

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Strongwoman Joan Rhodes bends an iron bar between her teeth
Strongwoman Joan Rhodes bends an iron bar between her teeth
Josephine Blatt (1869-1923)
Josephine Blatt (1869-1923)

Female Bodybuilding Comments

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  • profile image


    9 years ago

    boring really, i want ur opinion.

  • profile image


    10 years ago

    Charmion´s biceps are unbelievable!

  • profile image

    Michael Collins 

    10 years ago

    Sabre Blade,

    As an adolescent, I was never interested in the typical "girlie" magazines that my friends were. But, magazines like Muscle & Fitness that had features of Female Bodybuilders held my undivided attention.

    Female Bodybuilders like Clare Furr became my Ideal of Feminine Womanhood.

    Growing up in a agarian community in east Tennessee, I never really had the opportunity to meet any Real, Live Female Bodybuilders, until I went to university.

    Walking to class one morning, I saw this gorgeous, shapely woman sharing the same sidewalk as me! As she was approaching, needless to say, I was drooling like a fool and totally fixated on her shapely feminine form.

    As she came abreast of me, I stepped off the sidewalk; fell down on the grass, and my textbooks went everywhere.

    She was quite amused at my clownish behavior; LOL, and then she proceeded to help me regain a sembliance of my "dignity".

    As we talked, I had to ask her how she had developed such finely toned and shaped muscles. She replied, that she had worked out with weights with her brothers and then on to train for teenage female bodybuilding events.

    We became friends; study-buddies, and mutual support partners during our university studies. She was studying Electrical Engineering. After graduation, she went on to conduct research at a national laboratory.

    Quite an achievment for a "frail, weak" woman who in a former age, might have been regulated "to performing feats of strength in a circus, vaudeville, music halls, or other venues" I would say.

    Michael Collins


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