Isabel Letham (1899-1995)

Written by Elizabeth Heffernan, RAHS Volunteer

To celebrate Women’s History Month in 2020, the Royal Australian Historical Society will continue our work from last year to highlight Australian women that have contributed to our history in various and meaningful ways. You can browse the women featured on our webpage, Women’s History Month.

In May 1980, Pam Burridge won the country’s inaugural women’s surfing championship at age fifteen. Among the crowd of spectators was eighty-year-old Isabel Letham. When interviewed, she remarked: “I should be home with my knitting but I’ve waited sixty-five years for this.” [1]

Sixty-five years before 1980 was 1915, a year famous in Australian history for the Anzac landings at Gallipoli. Yet for a young Isabel, herself only fifteen, 1915 was also the beginning of a stellar career in surfing and swim instruction that would span decades and take her all over the world. Today she is often regarded as the first Australian to ride a surfboard. Whether this title is true or not, her impact upon both surf culture and women’s opportunities in the sport are undeniable.

Isabel Letham
Isabel Letham at South Steyne, c. 1917 / photographer Judith Fletcher [Image courtesy Warringah Library Service via National Portrait Gallery]

Isabel grew up in Freshwater in Sydney’s northern suburbs. She took great pleasure in body surfing, stunt swimming, aquaplaning, and diving despite the legal restrictions and societal pressures placed upon women bathers at the time. When January 1915 brought world-famous surfer Duke Kahanamoku to Australian shores, Isabel added Hawaiian surfing to her repertoire.

When chosen as a volunteer to help Duke demonstrate the new surfing technique, Isabel felt “scared out of my wits”. Yet the fear would not last long. Soon, on her new redwood board made by her father, Isabel was both catching waves and making them along Sydney’s northern beaches. [2] She had become the country’s very own “Freshwater mermaid”. [3]

At eighteen, Isabel made the move to America, chasing the celebrity she had garnered in Australia all the way to Hollywood. Though a career on the silver screen never came to fruition, Isabel seized the opportunity offered by 1920s America to make a name for herself as “a young Diana of the waves”. [4]

Isabel found work as a swim instructor at the University of California in Berkeley. There, she revolutionised the way in which swimming was taught on the west coast. Her decision to introduce a club system and competition season like in Australia was particularly popular. Today America produces some of the best swimmers in the world – Isabel’s early role in this should be acknowledged. [5]

Yet even despite her incredible achievements, Isabel continued to face institutional sexism within the surfing world. Her attempt to establish Australian surf safety in California failed due to the Sydney Surf Life Saving Association’s refusal to accept female membership. [6] After an accident in 1929 forced her to return to Australia for good, Isabel became a fierce advocate for women in the masculine world of professional surfing. Despite her efforts, it was not until years after her retirement as a swim instructor in 1961 that her dream became a reality. “There’s no reason why girls should not be as good on surfboards as the boys,” Isabel said in 1963. “I’m all for them.” [7]

A talented sportswoman and fierce feminist, Isabel became a life member of the Australian Women Board Riders Association in 1978. In 1993, she was inducted into the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame. After her death in 1995, her ashes were scattered off the same Freshwater beach she had frequented all her life – a “Sydney Sea-Gull” to the end. [8]

References:

[1] Nikki Henningham, ‘Letham, Isabel’, Australian Women’s Register, last modified 16 September 2013, <http://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/AWE2231b.htm>, accessed 12 February 2020.
[2] Yves Rees, ‘Hidden women of history: Isabel Letham, daring Australian surfing pioneer’, The Conversation, 25 February 2019, <http://theconversation.com/hidden-women-of-history-isabel-letham-daring-australian-surfing-pioneer-111530>, accessed 12 February 2020; Joanna Gilmour, ‘Like wow’, National Portrait Gallery, 1 December 2009, <https://www.portrait.gov.au/magazines/34/like-wow>, accessed 12 February 2020; Clare Wright, ‘How Isabel Letham became a legend, and gave rise to women’s surfing in Australia’, ABC News,5 March 2019, <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-03-05/isabel-letham-pioneering-female-surfer/10826318>, accessed 12 February 2020.
[3] ‘A Sydney Sea-Gull: Athletic Girl Who Rides the Waves at 15 Miles an Hour’, Sunday Times, 18 August 1918, 13; Anne Rees, ‘Biography – Isabel Ramsay Letham’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2019, <http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/letham-isabel-ramsay-27062>, accessed 12 February 2020.
[4] Ed Moriarty, ‘Diana of the Waves: She Gained Fame as Surf Queen in Home of Great Swimmers’, Los Angeles Record, 14 October 1919.
[5] Henningham, ‘Letham, Isabel’.
[6] Rees, ‘Hidden women of history’.
[7] Rees, ‘Hidden women of history’.
[8] Gilmour, ‘Like wow’; ‘A Sydney Sea-Gull’.

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