How Women Sailors Broke The Glass Ceiling

By Troy Gilbert

From a 19th-century duel to a grudgingly approved "skipperette" in a 1937 race, Gulf Coast women gained acceptance in "the greatest sport for gentlemen".

Photo of Fairfax Moody Hamilton and her sister BettyFairfax Moody Hamilton (right) takes the tiller, while her sister, Betty Moody, mans the sails. (Photo: Houston Yacht Club Archives)

The Grand Hotel of Point Clear, Alabama, hosted sailors from New Orleans and the Mississippi Coast in 1853, for festivities to accompany the finish of the third annual running of what is today the oldest point-to-point sailboat race in the Western Hemisphere. Behind the scenes at the post-regatta formal dance on the shores of Mobile Bay, two sailors competed for the affections of the same woman. As the evening wore on and the rivalry became heated, one of the men felt the other was behaving impertinently toward the young lady. An altercation ensued. At dawn the next morning under grand oaks, the two sailors, with their seconds standing by, drew pistols, marched off 15 paces, turned, and fired. The incident ended bloodlessly, with a misfire and a nervously aimed shot, but both parties agreed that the duel had restored the honor of all involved, including the young woman, the subject of this duel, who had certainly not sailed in the regatta, then considered a gentlemen-only sport.

There are very few documented examples of women competing in regattas until the start of the 20th century, but oddly enough, several came from early America's Cup races. In 1886, an Englishwoman, Mrs. William Henn, raced aboard her husband's yacht, Galatea. It's recorded that she was below in the "pit," which was then a "plush facsimile of a Victorian drawing room complete with several dogs, a cat, and a pet monkey," and all the while served tea to the crew. However, by the 1890s there were a few women who actually crewed onboard America's Cup contenders. These were very well publicized events, and the articles depicting this female participation in a popular sport were opening eyes nationwide — little by little, the cracks in the walls were starting to appear.

While sailing was still a sport completely dominated by men, the old yacht-club salts had been grumbling for years that women were learning to sail and, worse, that they were gaining acceptance on the water. In 1904, the Southern Yacht Club in New Orleans hosted the first officially recorded "all girl" regatta held on the Gulf Coast only months after the Times-Picayune of New Orleans described sailing as "the greatest sport for gentlemen." Racing on her brother's Knockabout Class boat, aptly named Sinner, Miss Carrie Wuescher and her two-woman crew sailed the same buoy course used by the men and won against three other crews. This regatta was mostly a novelty at the time; it would take three more decades before these "skipperette" regattas percolated throughout the coastal Gulf South, and even longer for acceptance of women sailing competitively alongside or against men.

The Lady of Lipton

While the arc of societal changes may appear to take generations, there always appears a single individual who encapsulates these leaps forward, even without having an agenda to do so. In 1937, The Gulf Yachting Association (GYA) held its annual Sir Thomas Lipton Cup Championship on the waters of Mobile Bay, Alabama. Racing on Fish Class boats, the member clubs determined their finest sailors through various elimination events on their home waters to produce the best three-man teams that had earned the right to represent their clubs at this prestigious championship.

That year, the team representing and traveling to the Liptons from Houston Yacht Club brought with them a young woman in her early 20s, Miss Fairfax Moody. At the skipper's meeting the night before at the Mobile Yacht Club, the team from Houston announced not only that a young woman had earned the right to represent their club but that she'd also earned the right to skipper their Lipton Team. After moments of quiet shock, formal protests were lodged with the race committee. Forced to address this unprecedented dilemma, the flag officers of the GYA immediately convened to sort out and make a ruling on the protests. Not without some difficulty, the board resolved that because "the Houston skipperette has traveled hundreds of miles to compete ... she be allowed to sail at the present regatta." It was also announced in this same resolution that women be barred from competing or even officiating in future Lipton Cup regattas, something that had never been clearly delineated before because it was inconceivable.

After finishing 6th out of 11 boats and beating a number of protesting club teams, a newspaper reporter quoted Fairfax Moody as stating that she "only came to sail." It wasn't until after World War II that the resolution was rescinded to allow women the ability to represent their clubs and compete alongside and against men at the Lipton Cup. The first women to do so came a full decade after Moody.

Off To The Races

In 1938, a year after the Moody "incident" and with obvious influence, the GYA took notice of a small but growing invitational all-women's regatta in Pass Christian, Mississippi. Created by Commodore Bernard L. Knost of the Pass Christian Yacht Club, a major proponent of women's racing, the regatta that still bears his name morphed into an all womens' GYA interclub championship, which is held annually and is modeled after the Lipton Cup. The Commodore Bernard L. Knost Championship Regatta is still raced on the waters of the Mississippi Sound today.

And what happened to Fairfax Moody? Well, she went home, continued sailing, married another Houston Yacht Club member, and was later noted for her less controversial maritime-themed watercolors. In 1996 the Houston Yacht Club dedicated a perpetual Fairfax Moody trophy in her honor.  

Troy Gilbert is currently working on a film project, Southern Winds, from Swashbucklers to Olympians — A Documentary and Companion Book on the 500 Years of Gulf Coast History Under Sail, for Public Broadcasting System distribution.

— Published: April/May 2015

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