For almost 200 years, since its inception in 1829, the famous and quintessentially British 'Boat Race' where rowing teams from Oxford and Cambridge universities compete against each other on the River Thames has been a very male affair. Though women have been participating since 1927 their races have been held over shorter distances, in a different location and, after the advent of television, never broadcast live as the much more famous men's race has been for decades. In the beginning the two teams didn't even row together, since female rowers engaging in fierce competition was considered 'unladylike'. All this changed on 11 April 2015 when, for the first time in its 186 year history, the men's and women's boat races took place along the same stretch of the Thames, on the same day, and the women's boat race was shown on live television. Another 250,000 people lined the banks of the river to watch the competition from close quarters. The event marked a historic milestone in the women's sports event which, from 1952 until 1964, didn't take place at all due to financial issues.
Throughout its history, the women's sport had to battle against prejudice from the male dominated establishment. Before the 1927 race could take place a student was asked to simulate rowing in front of a panel of university sports staff in order to assess whether shorts or a skirt would most effectively protect the rower's modesty. Even in the 1960s a captain of one of the Cambridge colleges wrote to the university's Women's Boat Club complaining that women's rowing 'is a ghastly sight, an anatomical impossibility (if you are rowing properly, that is) and physiologically dangerous.'
The training today is gruelling, with rowers training twice a day, six days a week through autumn and winter while also having to attend lectures and tackle the heavy workloads of their elite universities. Being the underdogs in relation to the men's event many of the young female rowers also feel that they have even more to prove to expectant crowds. Until recently, rowers had to cover their own expenses, spending up to £ 2,000 to purchase kit and organise their transport to and from training sessions.
The Oxford women's team in the 2015 race benefitted from the invaluable contribution of £ 30,000 from Newton Investment Management, a financial firm run by Helena Morrissey who wanted to level the playing field between the handsomely supported men's sport and the overlooked women's efforts. The money, donated in 2011, allowed the team to employ a professional full time coach, a psychologist and physiotherapist as well as to purchase top quality equipment.
To make doubters in the sports governing body more malleable to a change in the rules it was agreed that BNY Mellon, Newton Investment Management's holding company, would take over the overall sponsorship of the event, reshaping it into the "BNY Mellon Boat Races", thus giving the men's race a big financial boost as well. Helena Morrissey hopes that the rowers' increased exposure will make more young girls take up sport.
On the day, Oxford's 'Dark Blues' as they are called after the colour of their oars, finished the 4.2 mile course 19 seconds and six and a half lengths ahead of Cambridge.