So says, more or less, this article from a San Francisco area newspaper, dated November of 1934:
The woman to beware of is, as mentioned, the great Helene Mayer. To say that her competitive record is impressive is an understatement. Olympic Gold Medal at the age of 17 in 1928. Silver in 1936. Three-time World Champion. Nine-time US National Champion. She never lost a bout in a US competition.
There has long been a local legend of Helene Mayer getting banned from competition against her male foilist counterparts. I had believed it to be one of those ephemeral tales told of fencers and fencing from long ago, with little or no basis in fact.
Little did I know of the unbridled fear of the female foilist that lurked in the hearts of male fencers from the 1930’s. Read on!
The above, from November of 1934, confirms Helene’s participation in an event as the “only woman” to fence at a UC Berkeley competition. Below is an excerpt from an editorial piece dated December of the same year about fencing in general, and about Helene specifically.
If you wonder what the “Patri games” are, I can fill you in, as I just ran across an outline of the rules for this mid-30’s local-to-SF fencing team challenge. The short description is this: teams of 3 or 5 plus Captain, regular fencing begins until 1st touch. At this point, a 2nd member of the touched fencer’s team takes over at that ground. Once one team has scored 3 hits, the fencer last touched is “captured”. Capture all the other teams’ fencers and you win! There’s more to it than that – there is a long sheet, single-spaced, of rules. That you can jump in to take over for a threatened teammate during an action (and some other wackinesses) fully exemplify the San Francisco roots of the game.
In reviewing the articles that I have come across referencing Helene’s participation in both women’s and men’s events, the dates of the articles indicate that she was participating in local and regional competitions for almost a year, albeit there were very few events to participate in. Here’s another notice from January of 1935:
Fortunately, the newspapers of the time did not shy away from the results of these encounters, as seen below in an article dating from January 25, 1935:
Here is a longer article, discussing – I believe – the same victory. This one is dated February 1st.
“Bow down”. I bet.
Interestingly, the above states that this tourney is the “first time in the history of the United States that a woman has entered” an Open competition against male opponents. Without my running across a schedule of events for the Northern California division for 1934-1935, it’s hard to know exactly what her opportunities for tournaments actually were. I mean, sure, like I’d have THAT in my collection. As if. Riiiight.
As it happens, I only have the schedule beginning in January of 1935. So, alas, I do not know what was in the offing for the end of the year, 1934.
One of the intriguing bits is the part referring to the difference in target area between the men and women being somehow significant in the defeat of the men. (At this point in time, the foil target area for the women was from the waist up, sort of like the sabre target, but not including arms or mask.) Sadly, the men were, according to this article, reluctant to attack poor, defenseless Helene Mayer, winner of the Olympic Gold Medal, for fear of perhaps striking her with a resounding THUNK! In defense of the writer (and, one presumes, the male competitors,) it is stated that the difference in target had little practical impact due to Helene’s clear superiority, and the reluctance to attack on the part of the men was likely due more to not finding an opening in Miss Mayer’s defense in which to make any such offensive attempt.
Based on the schedule I have from 1935, it does not appear that there was another Open Men’s event for her to participate in prior to the Pacific Coast Championships, held in the first week of April. There was a qualifying event for the women:
Thirty-Five women entered, and Helene is hit exactly twice. All day. That’s qualifies as a ‘trounce’, I would say.
It would seem that was enough to qualify her. But only for the Women’s event. Someone, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it was one (or more) of the men running the Nor Cal division, took it upon themselves to appeal to the arbiters of all things fencing – in New York City – for a ruling on whether or not to allow Miss Mayer to compete in the Men’s events at the PCC’s.
Can you guess what their response was?
“The Men Won’t Let Her Play”
Because they’re, you know, afraid of hurting her. All five foot ten of her. I particularly like that some of the men want her IN the competition to dis-prove the notion that she’s better than they are. Good for them. Prove it on the strip, says I. The line that really sticks out is that her inclusion would be “degrading to the sport”. Praise to the local males, as the article goes on to mention the fencers wished they’d been given a better excuse to keep her out. What passes for their own reasoning is hardly more believable however, for all that it isn’t as stark. Fear of hurting her, target area… blah, blah, blah. I’ve got no sympathy. Freakin’ gold medalist. Take your best shot!
Whether Helene did or did not care, it’s certainly true that tournaments only relatively recently became integrated on a regular basis at the local and regional level. So the ruling from NYC is not terribly surprising. Men and Women continue to compete in separate events at the National and International level in just about every sport I can think of. For myself, I would just like to know the reality of how Helene would have faired against the menfolk at these PCCs. The earlier noted victory against Ferard Leicester is somewhat telling, in that he was a past PCC foil champ. He was able to score 3 touches against Helene in their match. So perhaps the bouts may have been fairly evenly matched. We’ll never know. Alas, Edith Jane, defending Women’s 1934 PCC Champion, fared not so well:
Below is a description of how the event went. Helene was hit more than twice this time.
…but not a lot more. A +30 indicator in a pool of 8? That’s not so bad. However, in the hope, one assumes, of making history that much more difficult to parse for later generations (I mean me, of course), here is a clipping from a different write-up about the same competition:
What? Sabre championships? What the what? Not foil? Ok, it actually IS foil, since at this point in time women were barred from competing – locally and otherwise – in both sabre and epee. (See above about not wanting to hurt the girls.) Not long after this victory, Helene once again defeated all comers in the US Nationals in New York, taking just 8 touches in the final of 6 fencers.
After the 1936 Olympics, Helene returned to her teaching position at Mills College in Oakland.
The good news is that the local press hadn’t forgotten the seeming slight of excluding the powerful champion, even two years later. The above article dates from 1937, and while there is some incorrect information about the number of Olympic wins she collected (won 1928, runner-up 1936, 5th 1932) they do sneak in a reference to her being barred from the 1935 PCCs. All that, plus allowing her statuesque self to be a ‘manikin for a day’ for fashion and tea! What could be better?
Equality in sports has always been an intriguing topic for me. I trained during college in a program that featured some of the strongest women fencers in the nation. I learned first hand that you carried on with the notion of women fencers being unsuited for aggressive ‘male’ fencing actions at your own risk. Fortunately, due to experiences in my very first fencing class, it wasn’t a notion I had ever considered. I took enough lumps from the women I learned side by side with. They weren’t about to shy away from skewering me through the liver, nor did they invite any part of the notion that I ought to ‘go easy’ on them. The very suggestion of the idea would have made of me a laughingstock – or a target subject to annihilation. So thankfully, due to my early training, it never occurred to me to go easy.
All that to say, I truly wish there were more documented examples of Helene Mayer competing against the men of her time. The whole notion seems to have been shut down before she could be faced with some of the stronger competitors in the region. How would she have fared against Ralph Faulkner in foil, who won so many LA local competitions and was twice chosen for Olympic teams in sabre? Or Duris de Jong, then of the LAAC, two-time Olympian from Holland? Even better, my fantasy match-up, would be Helene against 1932 Olympic Silver Medalist Joe Levis, the great American foilist. Two terrific fencers in their prime. Prior to the electric scoring machine, men and women, based on what I’ve seen of the very little filmed reference available, appear to have a very similar game*. I’ll have to live with wondering what the outcome may have been from such a match.
Apocryphal story level unlocked!
*Except for Giulio Gaudini, the 6’7” Italian foil and sabre behemoth. I think he’d have been a monster in the modern game.