Gender bias in Bloemfontein

Prior to 1968, I’d passed through Bloemfontein’s railway station six times on the way to or from somewhere else.  In that year I got off the train to spend a week in South Africa’s judicial capital, on account of my inaugural appearance at senior level swimming competition.  I was entered in the 100, 200 and 400 metre freestyle events; in the two shorter distances I would run up against Karen Muir who, by now, was setting records in any stroke or distance she turned her hand to.

The venue was the recently completed Stadium Swimming Bath, built to the new metric standard.  Like its aquatic cousins in Kimberley and Newlands (in Cape Town), the Stadium pool was a typical outdoor complex of the time, with a 10-lane competition pool, a separate diving pool, and a covered grandstand flanking one side; all topped off with a generous parking lot out the front.

This pool was different from the rest in one significant respect: depth.  The first thing I noticed in the warm-up sessions was that I could stand anywhere along the pool’s length.  Shallow pools are notorious for creating turbulence and it wasn’t long before whispers started circulating that no records would be broken at this meet.

A few weeks earlier Dad had put me on a course of medication to ‘rearrange’ my menstrual cycle.  Knowing that I’d have a clear run in Bloemfontein took some of the edge off the pool depth issue.

After having taken out the 200 metre title on day one, Karen Muir withdrew injured from the rest of the tournament.  I should have taken comfort from this even though there were several others between me and a berth in the final of the 100 metre event on day four.  As it was, I fluffed the heat, my 1:11 well outside the qualifying time for the event and a whopping three seconds off my personal best.  The following day my period arrived; either Dad hadn’t calibrated the dosage correctly or the drugs had failed in their task.

Towards the end of 1972 I returned to Bloemfontein for an intervarsity competition.  The pressure to swim fast had gone and I couldn’t care less about pool depths or menstrual cycles.  I was more interested in getting the boys to notice me.  I thought I could do this through my drinking prowess, matching it with them in boat races.  I didn’t even like beer back then.

The swimming teams were billeted at the university residences.  Unlike in Durban the year before where we’d been allowed to come and go at any time, the women’s residences at the University of the Orange Free State were governed by a strict 10 pm curfew.  At that hour, one of the stern-faced matrons locked the front door and no-one could get in or out until the door was opened the following morning.  It seemed unfair that the men weren’t subject to the same restriction.

On the third night a physiotherapy student from Zimbabwe – we’ll call her Alice – decided that she’d had enough. Sliding open the window on her first-floor room, Alice dropped onto the tin roof of the lean-to below and from there to the ground.  On her return, she shinned up a drain pipe and had just enough height to lever herself through the window and into her bedroom.  Every night she repeated this manoeuvre.  The rest of us were in awe but too scared to try the same trick.  The matrons, tucked up in bed, never knew about Alice.

On the last night of competition – the penultimate of our stay in Bloemfontein – a University of Cape Town student had arranged a party at his parents’ house.  They had also organised, with the full knowledge and consent of the matrons, that those of us who wanted to party on beyond 10 pm could sleep at the house.  The taste of freedom was so delicious that we knew we could never go back to the curfew.  The only solution was to spend the last night in the men’s residence.

I don’t know how I came to be in Hugh Bradlow’s room but I remember not sleeping at all and not because of the hard floor or the risk of Hugh making a pass; I knew that he wouldn’t.  In the morning, I slunk back to the women’s residence.  I wasn’t alone.  I’ve always wondered if the matrons knew.

By the time I was finished with Bloemfontein, I’d transited through its station a few more times.  I should have paid more attention to it.


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