Writing women back into the history of the Paralympics
The London Summer Olympics of 1948 marked the event’s return after a 12-year hiatus. As the city celebrated the opening ceremony, another historic sporting event was taking place just 35 miles north in the town of Aylesbury. It was an archery tournament for paralyzed veterans; competitors included eight men from the Star and Garter Home as well as six men and two women from the Stoke Mandeville spinal unit. The event was so well received that it became an annual competition called the Stoke Mandeville Games, which eventually developed into the contemporary Paralympics.
Histories of the Paralympics have largely focused on the rehabilitation of male veterans while overlooking the experiences of women at Stoke Mandeville’s spinal unit. In overlooking these women’s stories, we have an incomplete picture of the Paralympics’ development, and we have cut short the imagined possibilities for disability sport and athletic performance. To look closely at the experiences, struggles, and accomplishments of disabled women is to overturn common myths about masculinity and sports, forcing us to reconsider what constitutes an athletic body.
Stoke Mandeville’s spinal unit, consisting of one ward with just over 20 beds, opened in February 1944. During World War II, spinal cord injuries (SCIs) became a great concern, and as the British prepared for the Normandy landings and the opening of the Second Front, medical and military officials anticipated that more soldiers would suffer SCIs. Most of these officials considered Stoke Mandeville a hopeless endeavor—nothing more than a place to offer meager comfort to soldiers as they succumbed to their wounds. However, the unit’s director, a neurosurgeon and German-Jewish refugee named Dr. Ludwig Guttman, identified that the primary complications SCI patients developed were from urinary tract infections and pressure wounds. By monitoring patients’ bladders, turning patients every two hours, and relying on advances in antibiotic treatments, Guttmann and his staff worked to mitigate these complications, and mortality rates at the spinal unit dropped from 80 to approximately seven percent in Stoke Mandeville’s first 10 years. Death for SCI patients was no longer inevitable.
As more and more patients survived SCIs, rehabilitation for life after injury became a priority. Histories of rehabilitation and disability sports have maintained a focus on injured male veterans; developments in these fields are inextricably linked to the rehabilitation of “masculinity,” defined as full-time employment and normative fulfillment of social roles as husband and father. Yet, while war-time rehabilitation developed primarily in response to injured male bodies, its practices had to shift to encompass the reality of women’s role in the war effort. In 1941, Britain introduced conscription for women ages 20-30, and by 1943, nearly 90 percent of single women and 80 percent of married women were employed in essential war work. Women, previously excluded from rehabilitation programs, were now entitled to these services.
Women and their experiences navigating occupational therapy and physical rehabilitation should be centered in the stories we tell about the War, disability, and sport. The records they left behind provide a deeper, a more nuanced understanding of the physical culture they actively shaped. The physical culture included not only strength and exercise routines but also beliefs, knowledge, and a wide range of individual and social practices related to health and physicality. Seen through the experiences of women, Stoke Mandeville’s physical culture is transformed into more than a return to “masculinity;” it was a series of practices that emphasized self-determination, joy through physical expression, and the importance of shared community.
Elisabeth Sheppard-Jones, an officer in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, was injured during the V1 attack on the Guards’ Chapel in 1944. After she was pulled from the rubble, she was taken to the Lindo Wing at St. Mary’s in London. In her autobiography, “I Walk on Wheels,” Sheppard-Jones described her early struggle with depression amid questions about her future. In the fall of 1945, she arranged to transfer to Stoke Mandeville, where she was one of the first female military patients.
In her first meeting with Guttmann, she recalled him saying, “We can do a lot for you here, but you’ll have to work. We can do nothing of course, about the paralysis, but we can do a lot to enable you to live as normal a life as possible in the circumstances.” At St. Mary’s, Sheppard-Jones found that her life was bound by the expectation that she was permanently enfeebled, dependent, and confined to bed. The prospect presented at Stoke Mandeville of a future with greater autonomy lifted her spirits.
The next day, Sheppard-Jones made her first visit to the physiotherapy department. Stoke Mandeville’s regular use of physiotherapy was one of the major changes in rehabilitation for the paralyzed. The aim was to develop strength in compensatory muscles—the arms, back, shoulders, and the abdominals. On her first day, physiotherapists slung her up in a Guthrie Smith apparatus and tasked her with swinging the lower part of her body as far out as she could, first to the left and to the right. She wrote that the experience, “got the better of me,” and she found herself quickly exhausted. But within a few weeks, her proficiency grew and when “orders were given to ‘hold it’ as I swung to one side … the amount of muscular strength needed to do this for even a moment made me proud.”
While Guttmann exercised significant control over the rehabilitation program, patients contested and reshaped his priorities. Patients pushed back against Guttmann’s focus on developing their strength in order to maintain an “upright” position on crutches, arguing that using a wheelchair was not “a defeat.” A wheelchair “affords greater freedom of movement, leads to a fuller life and ensures a greater measure of independence,” Sheppard-Jones wrote, “it doesn’t worry me that I have to be sitting all the time.”
Another way in which patients influenced Guttmann was the introduction of sport. One day, Guttmann observed a group of men who had turned their crutches upside down to hit a ball back and forth from their chairs. Guttmann quickly introduced adapted sports to the patients’ routine. First was wheelchair polo, then wheelchair netball and badminton. But for Sheppard-Jones and many others, archery was the sport of preference.
At Stoke Mandeville, disability undercut rigid assumptions about gender and gender roles. Women were not simply interlopers in a predominantly male space; expectations of the women closely mirrored that of the men. When government officials visited the hospital, Guttmann routinely pointed out the women’s incredible upper body strength. Through daily physiotherapy and exercise regimens, women reimagined and reasserted their physicality, eschewing cultural norms for women’s bodies and the expectation that they be smaller than men—less muscular and more child-like. In addition to the rigorous morning physiotherapy, men and women participated in afternoon and evening occupational therapy, which included training in carpentry, metal work, and textiles. For example, Joan “Bunty” Noon, injured in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, became skilled with the lathe machine and used it to craft a device that served as both a cigarette holder and ashtray for a fellow patient and friend, Pat Theobald, whose paralysis left her with limited use of her hands. This device allowed Theobald to smoke without the ash burning holes in the hospital linens.
The tight-knit communities patients formed offered support and a means to find joy amidst the grueling physical exertion. This connection continued even after they left the hospital and was especially important for female patients as they navigated the world outside the hospital. After Sheppard-Jones returned to her parents’ home, she remained in touch with her friends at Stoke Mandeville and frequently wrote for the patient newsletter, The Cord. Outside the hospital, women found that they were “stared at and conjectured upon,” and they wrote to one another to offer advice. They discussed the attitudes of able-bodied people around them, housing, employment, love, childbirth, and social life. Many traveled around the world, and some joined their local sport clubs.
Sports both reaffirm and challenge societal ideas and beliefs, and histories of the Paralympics that exclude women produce and perpetuate conventional narratives that disability sports center masculinity. Sport is an embodied practice, and paralyzed women as well as men used it to renegotiate physical movement and celebrate their physicality and bodily autonomy in a time that attributed passivity and social isolation to disabled people.
The rapid growth of disability sport was a testament to its appeal. By 1952, the Stoke Mandeville Games had five sports and 130 competitors. In 1960, the International Stoke Mandeville Games were held abroad for the first time, in Rome, where the Olympic Games had taken place earlier in the year. It was in Rome that the participants began to call the event the “Paralympics,” which became the official name in 1988. Failing to recognize the place of women in this development is a failure to grasp key dimensions about disability sport. In recovering women’s early role, we can disrupt a tendency to ascribe an inherent masculinity to sports and rehabilitation, and through fuller and more inclusive accounts, we expand our understanding of sport’s emancipatory potential.
This article is republished from Lady Science under a creative commons license.