Epstein, Charlotte (1884–1938)

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Epstein, Charlotte (1884–1938)

American swimmer, founder of the Women's Swimming Association (WSA), who was largely responsible for gathering the first team of American women swimmers to participate in the Antwerp Olympic Games in 1920. Name variations: Eppy Epstein. Born in New York City in September 1884; died on August 27, 1938.

At the beginning of the 20th century, social custom was biased against female participation in sports. Swimming was a particularly difficult milieu for women mainly due to the costumes they were required to wear. In 1903, a male swimming instructor donned a woman's swimsuit in order to determine its liabilities:

Just to satisfy myself upon this point of costume, I once wore a close imitation of the usual suit for women. Not until then did I rightly understand what a serious matter a few feet of superfluous cloth might become in water. The suit was amply large, yet pounds of apparently dead weight seemed to be pulling at me in every direction. In that gear a swim of one hundred yards was as serious a task as a mile in my own suit. After that experience I no longer wondered why so few women swim really well, but rather that they are able to swim at all.

Although Charlotte Epstein was not a particularly talented athlete, she believed that athletic competition was as important for women as for men. She became especially interested in equal participation after women's swimming was introduced in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics (Fanny Durack of Australia won the gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle). In 1914, Epstein founded the National Women's Life Saving League, offering a place for women to swim as well as take lessons. That same year, giving up on the programs of the colleges and universities, she convinced the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) to permit women to register with their organization for the first time and to sponsor meets. Until then, the president of the AAU had been James Sullivan, who was adamantly opposed to women participating in competitive sports.

In 1919, with the help of a tiny group of businesswomen, Epstein founded the New York Women's Swimming Association (WSA). While working on the national front, she also pushed on an international level to have women's swimming included in the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. American women had participated as archers and golfers in previous Olympics, but the permanent inclusion of women's swimming was an important step because the International Olympic Committee considered swimming a major sport rather than a minor one like golf and archery.

Epstein's WSA played a crucial role in the development of women's swimming as a competitive sport. American domination of swimming in the 1920 Antwerp Olympics was such that Americans took the gold in all three events to which women were limited: the 100-meter freestyle, the 300-meter freestyle, and the 4×100-meter freestyle relay. Ethelda Bleibtrey , Margaret Woodbridge , and Frances Schroth took the gold, silver, and bronze, respectively, in the 300-meter freestyle. Bleibtrey, Irene Guest , and Schroth won the gold, silver, and bronze, respectively, in the 100-meter freestyle, and Woodbridge, Bleibtrey, Schroth, and Guest won the gold in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay. Some of these athletes were Epstein's swimmers.

Though Epstein was an administrator rather than a coach, her efforts made competitive swimming possible for countless women. In 1924, 1928, and 1932, American women continued to dominate Olympic swimming. Among Epstein's protégés were Eleanor Holm , Aileen Riggin , and Gertrude Ederle , "who might have disappeared into anonymity," writes Allen Guttmann, "but for the intervention of Charlotte Epstein.…Epstein was a remarkable woman." Charlotte Epstein worked as a legal secretary and court stenographer while she promoted women's competitive swimming. During Epstein's 22 years with the Women's Swimming Association, her swimmers held 51 world records and put together 30 national-champion relay teams.


Guttmann, Allen. Women's Sports: A History. NY: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Howell, Reet, ed. Her Story in Sport: A Historical Anthology of Women in Sports. West Point, NY: Leisure Press, 1982.

Slater, Robert. Great Jews in Sports. Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David Publishers, 1983.

Wallechinsky, David. The Complete Book of the Olympics. NY: Viking, 1988.

Karin Loewen Haag , Athens, Georgia