Charlotte Epstein was a U.S. swimmer and champion of U.S. women’s participation in the Olympic Games; known as the “Mother of Women’s Swimming in America.”
The daughter of Moritz H. and Sara Epstein, Charlotte was born in New York City on September 17, 1884, and educated at the Ethical Culture School.
Epstein was a legal secretary for many years and, in 1927, became a court reporter. Although never an outstanding swimmer herself, her principal life’s focus was women’s swimming.
In 1914, Epstein founded the National Women’s Life Saving League, offering a place for women to swim and take lessons. That same year, she convinced the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) to permit women to register with their organization for the first time and to sponsor meets. Until then, the president of the AAU had opposed women participating in competitive sports.
In October 1917, Epstein founded the New York City Women’s Swimming Association (WSA), a nonprofit club, to advance the sport of women’s swimming. “Eppie,” as she was known, launched the swimming careers of many American and Olympic swimming champions when she became team manager of WSA, chairman of its Sports Committee and, in 1929, president.
She successfully battled the U.S. Olympic Committee to enable American female swimmers and divers to compete for the first time in the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. Events were open to women in 1912, but Americans did not participate “due to the long skirt rule in the 1910s which required women to wear full length skirts and show no leg.”
As U.S. Olympic Women’s Swimming Team Manager in 1920, 1924, and 1932, Epstein’s WSA members won Olympic championships and set numerous world records. WSA put together 30 national champion relay teams during Eppy’s 22 year career. Only WSA won the women’s national long distance team title for the first 13 years of the competition.
Epstein also served as chair of the national AAU women’s swimming committee.
Eppie worked with Jewish organizations with suitable swimming pools. The WSA team of Olympians swam at the Young Women’s Hebrew Association of New York for national championship meets in the 1920s.
In 1935, Epstein served as chair of the Swimming Committee of the Second Maccabiah Games where WSA swimmer Janice Lifson triumphed.
In 1936, Epstein refused to attend the Berlin Olympic Games and withdrew from the American Olympic Committee in protest at U.S. participation in the “Nazi Olympics.”
She battled for women’s suffrage, staging “suffrage swim races” with her teammates, and fought for bathing suit reform, distance swims, and other competitive events for women. “By motivating young women to follow their passions in a sport that did not yet fully accept them, Epstein truly changed the way women thought about swimming,” according to Women in Swimming. “And her impact did not end in the pool; once women gained freedom over their bodies in sports, they were better able to achieve liberation in other facets of society.”
According to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, “Her success as an administrator was her ability to bring so many champions together and keep them swimming.”
Epstein’s major influence on swimming continued until her death on August 26, 1938. She was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame and the International Jewish Sport Hall of Fame.
L.J. Borish, “‘The Cradle of American Champions, Women Champions … Swim Champions’: Charlotte Epstein, Gender and Jewish Identity, and the Physical Emancipation of Women in Aquatic Sports,” in: The International Journal of the History of Sport, 21 (March 2004), 197–235; idem, “Epstein, Charlotte,” in: P.E. Hyman and D. Dash Moore, Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, vol. 1 (1997), 380–82.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Mckenna Ehrmantraut, “The Evolution of Women’s Swimming: From Then to Now,” Swimming World, (January 9, 2019).
Linda J. Borish, “Charlotte Epstein,” Jewish Women’s Archive.
“Charlotte Epstein,” International Swimming Hall of Fame.
“Epstein, Charlotte,” Encyclopedia.com.
“Charlotte Epstein And The Swimming Suffragettes, Women in Swimming, (October 25, 2018).
“Charlotte Epstein,” New York Historical Society Museum & Library.