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40 Years of Women in Surf Life Saving

By Nicola Smith on December 7, 2020 in News

Hear them roar. Photo: Tim Read

Bondi Surf Club is celebrating 40 years of women being part of surf life saving this year.
The club welcomed four female bronze medallionists to its ranks in 1980 and celebrated the milestone on October 19 with a women’s champagne breakfast.
One of the original four bronze medallionists, Susan Murray, remembers women being pushed to the side in their first season.
“I was 17 turning 18 at the time, and we just weren’t seen to have the skills to save people, so we were mostly kept up in the radio tower when we were on patrol,” she explained to The Beast.
Another bronze medallionist, Sue McIlvray, remembers the women having to fight to prove themselves to the male club members.
“We had to go out into seas where you thought, ‘I’m going to die’, but the guys would be standing on the beach saying, ‘You girls can’t do it’, so out we went,” Ms McIlvray said.
As with many moments of change, some club members weren’t pleased with what was let go to welcome women into the club.
“The guys had to give up a bit of their space so we had somewhere to get changed, and the old boys weren’t happy about that,” Ms Murray told The Beast.
Plans to create equally sized change rooms for men and women at the clubhouse in the next renovation show just how far the club has come in accommodating women since the original four trained.
The club now consists of 40 per cent women and has female patrol vice captains and inflatable rescue boat captains, as well as a female director of education and director of surf sports.
Catherine Rich, a current patrol vice captain at Bondi who participated through nippers, feels that women have come into their own in the club and believes that having a strong presence of women helps the club to function better as it serves the community.
“On Bondi in summer, you have so many lost children, for example, who are more likely to talk to and feel safer with a female lifesaver. It’s just about having a diverse range of options to serve the dynamic range of people who come to Bondi Beach,” she explained.
Today, the women in the club are a world away from being stuck in the radio room, with six of the twelve major awards won by the club in 2020 going to women and two out of three gold medallions awarded going to women.
Club President Brent Jackson, who joined the club in the early nineties, said he realises now how hard the first wave of women worked.
“I came at a time when women were first getting a foothold in the club, and we didn’t think about it this way as guys, but they really were pioneers who had to work very hard and were quite isolated and alone,” he said.
While most of the original four girls didn’t stay with the club longer than the first season, Ms Murray said that she now sees how their efforts paved the way for the thousands of women who joined surf lifesaving after them.
“I’m a shy person, I’m not out there campaigning for women’s rights, but just by doing the bronze medallion, it definitely started something,” Ms Murray said.

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