Elsa Roth (left) with her family skiing in Mürren in February 1929. Source: Bildarchiv Bundesamt für Sport

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«Elsa Roth played a decisive role in shaping Swiss skiing in the 20th century»

«Elsa Roth played a decisive role in shaping Swiss skiing in the 20th century»

In spring 2023, the Uri Institute "Cultures of the Alps" awarded a one-year start-up grant for the first time thanks to generous contributions from the Dätwyler Foundation. The aim was to make substantial progress on a dissertation project. The grant was awarded to the Basel historian Nils Widmer and his project "Elsa Roth (1906-2000). Biographical approaches to class, gender and nation in Swiss skiing in the 20th century".

In conversation with Nils Widmer, we learn more about Elsa Roth's interesting life, Swiss skiing and the historian's time at the Uri Institute.

Nils, your project focuses on Elsa Roth, a central figure in Swiss skiing. Who was this woman, who is hardly known to anyone today?
Elsa Roth was born in the city of Bern in 1906, the youngest of five siblings. Her father ran a restaurant, while her mother was a privatière. After her father's death, her mother married Hans Dinkelmann, a politician and influential railroad engineer. Elsa first came into contact with skiing at the beginning of the 1920s in Mürren. Back then, the Bernese mountain village was even more of a stronghold of winter sports than it is today, making it one of the central locations for the development of alpine skiing disciplines. It was also a formative place for Elsa Roth's career.

In what way?
In Mürren, middle and upper class women like Elsa Roth skied - initially as a leisure activity, later also competitively. According to her own story, Elsa met women who belonged to the British Ladies' Ski Club in Mürren at the end of the 1920s. They challenged Swiss racers to a duel. After two defeats, the Swiss women - led by Elsa Roth - decided to found the Swiss Ladies' Ski Club (SDS) in 1929. Shortly after its foundation, the SDS was accepted into the national ski association. In addition to the SDS, Elsa Roth was also involved in the Swiss Ski Association. In 1934, she was elected as the first female member of the board, and in 1939 she took on the role of central secretary. She worked in the association's management until 1973. For her life's work, she was even awarded the "Sportswoman of the Year" award in 1976.

Can you tell us more about the role of the Swiss Women's Ski Club in promoting women in skiing?
At the end of the 1920s, the promotion of women was not a top priority in the national ski association, probably not least due to the strong military influence of skiing. For this reason, the founding of the SDS was central, as it specifically advocated the institutionalization and unification of women in Swiss skiing as well as better training for young female skiers. Thanks to the social status and good networking of the founders, they not only succeeded in quickly incorporating the association into the federation, but also gained important personalities in skiing as ski instructors and trainers. At the same time, they made sure that women's races were also held at the national championships and, together with the Grindelwald spa management, launched international women's races in 1932.
Despite these successes and the acceptance of women in skiing, it must be noted that equality between the sexes did not exist on many levels for a long time. At the beginning of the 1930s, for example, the SDS paid the travel expenses of female racers, while those of men were covered by the association. There were also gender-specific regulations in the competition rules, for example regarding the difficulty of the downhill runs. For women, these should be less long or less steep.

In the title of your dissertation, you write about "Swiss skiing". So far, we've mainly talked about alpine skiing. Are you investigating other ski disciplines?
My focus is clearly on the alpine skiing disciplines and on Elsa Roth. Although I am not writing a classic biography, it has turned out that many social and gender-historical developments can be shown through the various areas of Elsa Roth's life and activities. However, I will also examine other skiing disciplines such as cross-country skiing, which was only considered suitable for women much later than the alpine disciplines. Elsa Roth was also institutionally active in this discipline and was a co-organizer of early cross-country skiing competitions for women in Switzerland at the end of the 1940s.

Dear Nils, in spring 2023 you received the first start-up grant from the Uri Institute "Cultures of the Alps". What will you remember in particular, and can you already tell us what the future of your dissertation project will look like?
This year I was able to do a lot of research into sources and develop the concept for my project. Now it's mainly about bringing the individual pieces of the puzzle together to form a work, i.e. a book.
I really appreciated the Institute's network in Uri and the Alpine region. Contact with various institutions such as the Uri State Archives was already established and I was able to make use of these synergies. In addition, the fact that the institute is still in the start-up phase was extremely interesting for me. This gave me a lot of creative freedom and I was also able to get involved in other projects. Finally, I would like to express my thanks to the Institute and the Dätwyler Foundation. A scholarship like this, which allows me to devote 100% of my time to research, is certainly a luxury.

Published on 14. February 2024

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