SW and Women’s History Month Presents “The General Slocum Disaster & the Right to Swim for Women”


05 March 2018, 04:00am

Tragedy to Triumph: The Story of the General Slocum Disaster and the Right to Swim for Women

The General Slocum disaster in 1904 was the greatest single catastrophe in New York City’s history until 9/11. More than a thousand passengers — mostly women and children — who tried to escape the fire aboard the excursion steamboat by jumping into the water, had drowned. Bodies of mothers, grandmothers, and girls washed up on the shorelines for days.

The catastrophe was the most impactful event in the history of swimming in America. Immediately, politicians and school administrators recognized swimming as an art essential to self-preservation and advocated teaching all children to swim. Despite the known benefits of learning to swim, it was an era where strenuous exercise was seen as harmful for girls’ health and, also, there was the issue of “modesty.”

As America sought to resolve these issues, schools began to teach girls how to swim without them having to learn in the water.

Change would not begin to take rise be until 1907 and the arrival of Australian Annette Kellerman. Once in America, Kellerman was appalled by the swimsuits that women were required to wear and staged a one-woman protest on Revere Beach near Boston, where she was arrested for “public nudity” while wearing a man’s suit. In court, she defended herself by famously stating,

“Don’t women have the right to save themselves from drowning when men aren’t around to protect them? Then how can we learn to swim wearing more material than you hang on a clothes line?”

Kellerman quickly became a symbol of hope and change for women in swimming and helped pave the way for the right to swim.

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