If we think women are physically weak, Haley Shapley breaks the 'rules'

We have to break down the gender norms that say sports are a male-only domain and girls are not capable of competing. In this interview Shapley tells you to look for the right signs.

Shaili Chopra
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Haley Shapley

If to be strong is not feminine, then author Haley Shapley will break some 'rules' for you. Her book Strong Like Her defies traditional thinking that physical strength is a male domain. She traces history of women athletes to their current achievements to document the first female Olympian to the “Queen of Muscle Beach” Pudgy Stockton, who dazzled crowds by holding her husband over her head. Through a celebration of Rule Breakers, History Makers, and Unstoppable Athletes, Shapley puts together an inspiring book.

  1. What was your experience in sport and did an incident prompt you to write this?

I grew up playing sports—basketball was my main one—but when I was younger, girls didn’t do much strength training. About five years ago, I started lifting weights, and quickly, my ideas about my body and what it was capable of were changing. I felt like I was seeing strong women on social media, in magazines, and on television, and yet when I signed up to compete in a bodybuilding show, I had people who warned me not to get too big or lift too heavy. I wanted to explore how we’ve gotten to a point where it’s cool for women to be muscular—at least to an extent.  

  1. What kind of discrimination did you see among women athletes?

Women athletes have faced a lot of discrimination over the years. Strong Like Her starts in ancient Greece, where women weren’t allowed to compete in the Olympic Games—in fact, they weren’t even allowed to spectate. In 1879, a woman named Ada Anderson wanted to attempt to walk 2,700 quarter miles in 2,700 quarter hours at a venue in New York, but her request was denied by the owner, William Kissam Vanderbilt. “The woman can never accomplish the feat, nor can any other woman; it is simply an impossibility,” he said. In the 1960s, women who wanted to run marathons were told that their uteruses would fall out. And today, we see that female athletes are not paid on par with men, don’t receive the same sponsorship dollars, and often don’t have adequate maternity leave policies in their contracts with sponsors. 

  1. Women are always considered weak. Even if they are considered strong, it's a mental and emotional strength at reference. But your book deals with physical strength so talk to us about that.

Yes, I really wanted to focus on physical strength for those exact reasons. Because women have been viewed as physically weak for so long, many women have just believed that was true and haven’t tried to build their own strength. When they learn that they can accomplish more than they ever imagined, it’s incredibly empowering. 


The other great thing about physical strength is that it’s interconnected with other kinds of strength, such as mental and emotional. These all feed into each other and are part of being a holistically sound, well-rounded person.

  1. Women athletes aren’t paid at par with their male counterparts. Often the popularity of male sports is given as a reason. Do you think it is a valid excuse?

The U.S. women’s soccer team has generated more revenue than the men’s team in recent years, and yet they’re still struggling to get pay and benefits that they feel are equitable. If women’s sports were invested in at a similar level as men’s, I think they would grow in popularity. By giving female athletes more access and opportunities, a higher earnings potential, and more respect, we’d see even more talent emerge. 

  1. Your book also profiles unconventional athletes such as women working in circus. What drew your attention to them?

What’s interesting about the women in the circus is that they actually played a role in helping women get the right to vote in the United States, so their stories are a wonderful example of how physical strength can lead to something like political influence. 

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There isn’t only one way to be strong, so I wanted to show a wide range of athletic disciplines. It was also important to me to highlight women in sports that people may not know as much about. Some of the modern-day athletes I profile include a fencer, an ice swimmer, a strongwoman, a freerunner, and a flat-track motorcycle racer. 

  1. Which profile in this book has influenced you on a personal level and how?

They’ve all influenced me in some way. One of the women whose story really resonated me was from Edie Edmundson. She’s just a regular woman in her 80s who started lifting weights a few years ago because she was tired of not being able to lift cat litter off the shelf in the store. Not only is her physical health great, but she’s benefited mentally and socially, too. I love that she didn’t make excuses for herself about why she was too “old” to try a new activity, particularly one like lifting weights.

  1. How has female athleticism evolved over centuries?

That’s the story that unfolds throughout the book! In general, there’s a more widespread acceptance now of strong women, although there have been exceptions along the way and that does differ across cultures. 

  1. In developing countries such as India, athletics remains a field in sports that is still deprived of the attention that it deserves. A lot of women athletes only find recognition when they earn medals at Olympics, Commonwealth Games etc. How can we change this attitude? How can more girls be encouraged to pursue athletics?

Young girls today are seeing those Olympic and Commonwealth Games athletes and finding inspiration in them—and they are more likely to then want to pursue playing sports as a result. We need to continue to celebrate these women who are in the spotlight, along with providing more opportunities for girls to be physically active and giving them the same access to quality coaching, training, and facilities that boys get. We have to break down the gender norms that say sports are a male-only domain and girls are not capable of competing. 

Women have long had to fight against the perception that to be strong is not feminine.

Parents can show their daughters examples of women who are excelling in sports and encourage them to try new things—having family support is often a big factor in the success of professional female athletes. But even if your child isn’t going to grow up to play a sport professionally, there are still so many benefits, including higher confidence, a better ability to rebound after failure, and improved health. In sports, girls learn teamwork, leadership skills, discipline, how to set and achieve goals, and so much more. It’s no wonder that a global Ernst & Young survey found that 96 percent of women at the C-suite level in major companies had played sports growing up. 

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