Alumni News

Spotlight on female rowers

28th January 2019

In honour of the 40th year of women at Magdalen, we are spotlighting some of the wonderful women to pass through MCBC during their time here. This time, we put a few questions to Shelagh Scarth (1979) – Magdalen’s very first female rower and women’s captain.

Shelagh came to Magdalen in 1979 as a Rhodes Scholar from Manitoba, Canada. She read for a BA in Law, and then for the BCL. By the spring of 1980, she was bow seat in the OUWBC Blue Boat, beating Cambridge by 2 ¼ lengths. That year, she also represented Oxford in a women’s pair with Caz Sayers at the UK National Rowing Championships. In 1981, she represented MCBC in the Men’s First Eight for Summer Eights (more on that below)!

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Today, Shelagh lives in Vancouver, where she is a chambers judge at the Supreme Court of British Columbia. She doesn’t row anymore, but runs and takes advantage of Vancouver’s world-class skiing offerings. Sports excellence runs in the family: Shelagh is married to Mark Andrews (Magdalen 1979, OUBC Blue Boat 1980 and 1981, British Men’s Eight, World Championships, 1981). They met at Magdalen where they had rowing (and reading law) in common. Shelagh and Mark have 4 children (and one grandchild) — the youngest of whom just got his Blue playing ice hockey with the OUIHC!

Where did you learn to row?

Before I came up to Magdalen I attended Trent University in Ontario. I started rowing there, competing in the OUAA regattas with the Trent women’s eight for three years. The season was intense but short, ending when the canal froze over in November. In 1977, the Queen attended one of our regattas as part of her Silver Jubilee visit to Canada. She presented our crew with medals for winning the sprint. Practices in Ontario were at 6:00 am. I was delighted to find that rowing practices at Oxford were generally at 1 p.m. – a much more civilized time.

When you were rowing, what was the biggest barrier to women’s achievement in sport?

I think the biggest barrier that women faced in my time rowing was that we were not taken seriously. Equal treatment for women’s sport was some time off in the 1980’s. We worked hard, had some great coaches and were given fairly decent equipment, but we had little recognition and certainly none of the sponsorship enjoyed by the men’s crew. Things have changed, with the women’s race now set in London.

Why is women’s rowing important to you?

Sport is important to everyone, but for women at Magdalen in 1979, it was important to participate in college life to the fullest. The College boat clubs provided an opportunity to do that. We quickly put a Magdalen women’s crew together – there were lots of willing participants – with the coaching help of a number of the men’s crew. For me, rowing also provided an an opportunity to challenge gender barriers. In 1981, the men’s captain of boats was Charles Cozens, a very forward-thinking individual. He offered me the bow seat in the men’s boat when the previous occupant did not meet his expectations. There was even a bit of media interest in the first woman to row in a college men’s boat! [note: see a photo of Shelagh in the 1981 men’s Eights Week crew below!]

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