Skip to main content

Women Bodybuilders: The First Ms. Olympia, Rachel McLish

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

Skarlet writes about famous (and infamous) people, business development, medicine, physical education, beauty, fashion, and crafts.

Peggy Stockton

Peggy Stockton

The Beginning of Women's Bodybuilding

Peggy (Pudgy) Stockton was greatly promoted during the 1950s for the benefits of weight training for women. She graced the popular physique magazines of the time such as Muscular Development, Iron Man, and Strength and Health.

Peggy became a popular attraction on the famous "muscle beach" scene where she gave exhibitions during intermissions of male bodybuilding contests, lifting heavy objects, and doing double bicep poses or lat spreads in the same manner that male bodybuilders were well known for. She clearly worked out with weights and trained no differently than her male counterparts did; therefore, she was acknowledged as the first female to become famous as a body builder. Peggy was never a contender, but rather a pioneer.

It would not be until the late 70s before a muscular woman such as she would be seen again.

Betty Brosmer Weider

Betty Brosmer Weider

Rachel Mclish, Miss Olympia

Rachel Mclish, Miss Olympia

From Betty Weider to Rachel Mclish

The origins of female bodybuilding is not easy to pin down. It does seem that the only women one can find with barbells in hand prior to the 1950s were members of Barnum and Bailey's circus and did not generally have a bodybuilder's physique. There were some nutritionists in the first half of the 20th century who encouraged women to lift light weights in order to maintain a good female form and during the 1940s many movie stars were lifting light weights to maintain tone. Most women feared lifting moderate to heavy weights due to the belief that they would develop a masculine appearance.

There are ancient Edison films that present side show flickers of women comically lifting weights, donning 19th century strong man attire, but they obviously were simply large women who liked to eat a lot and found a way to earn some money. Most research points to Peggy 'Pudgy" Stockton as the very first woman to show off muscles and be presented as a beach glamor girl at the same time in the 1950s. Peggy was never a side show attraction, but was presented with dignity and featured alongside Steve Reeves and other popular male body builders of the time as a healthy and fit woman who could be admired for her curvy form.

Another name in early women's bodybuilding is Betty Brosmer, later to become Betty Weider after she married the bodybuilding guru, Joe Weider. Betty may have even helped encourage average women to use weights because she had the ideal female form. Her hip structure is natures perfection, with a nipped in waist and round hips, any extra muscle that Betty may have added to her extremely petite frame could not possibly make her look masculine. Women could look at Betty and say, "I would like to look like that." These two ladies were the 50s bodybuilding bombshells. The 1950s was the decade that inspired female weightlifters to embrace their femininity and use weights to enhance their curves, but the trend seemed to cool down during the 1960s, and it was not until the 70s that women's bodybuilding made a comeback when a former Mr. Universe named Reg Lewis presented an annual male bodybuilding affair that also included girls during the intermissions.

These women looked athletic and firm, but were in no way big or masculine as today's female bodybuilders are. They were all drug free and it was taken into account that they were women, and an effort to look different than the typical male bodybuilders was the goal. To the modern eye they look like fit women with a generally good form, but would never be considered bodybuilders in modern times and the extreme look and drug use that is expected.

In Britain it was another story. The Miss Britain event presented seasoned female bodybuilders who trained at least three times per week, and watched their diets. Although these girls trained with weights and dieted they also maintained typical female attributes, but posed in the same manner as male body builders do, while in America the women were posing with open hands, rather than fists, and were not doing what is considered typically male poses, but more graceful and feminine silhouettes, while wearing high heels to enhance their femininity.

There were numerous contests in the 70s, but most of them were additions to male bodybuilding contests. They were gaining interest however, and by the late 70s there was becoming a clear distinction between a glamour girl contest and a physique contest. They decided to battle it out in 1979 in what was called Best in the Word, where all the women who had been competing in glamor and physique contests would have a show down.

April Nicotra

April Nicotra

Late '70s Women's Bodybuilding Contest.

Late '70s Women's Bodybuilding Contest.

Patsy Chapman, Winner of Best in the World 1979.

Patsy Chapman, Winner of Best in the World 1979.

Best in the World—Miss Olympia

The Best In the World contest of 1979 took place with a variety of champion female physique winners, strippers who had no idea what the contest was all about and a variety of women who appeared as though they had never picked up a barbell in their lives. Many of the contestants had no idea what the judges were looking for and just went on stage to be cute. April Nicotra, was perhaps the most widely respected of the contestants due to she having won several women's physique contests since the early 70s. She was in no way bulky, had a smooth 20% fat layer to her body and graceful toned legs. Although she just looked like a very firm and trim women by today's standards, she was usually one of the more muscular looking women in the contests she entered. April was aware that contestants were becoming more and more muscular and to prepare for Best in the World, she had worked out far differently than she had in the past. Judges were shocked at the definition and low body fat that she presented in 1979. Most of the male judges were disappointed to see her usually graceful poses morphed into he man style bicep poses that Arnold Schwarzenegger was famous for. She had also done away with her heels and hit the stage bare foot.

The contestants who resorted to jiggling, bumping and grinding were quickly eliminated and the most muscular remained to the end, with the champion being announced as Patsy Chapman, a beautiful and muscular woman with grace and charisma. Serious women's bodybuilding was now on its way and the very next big female bodybuilders contest would be called Miss Olympia to represent the female counterpart of Mr. Olympia. All contestants understood what the requirements would be for the next big female show down.

The Miss Olympia contest would be just as a male bodybuilding contest. The basic same set of standard poses in which muscular development in each muscle group would be analyzed, and a set of free poses with routine would be performed during the show, and the women were barefoot.

It is not difficult to see why Rachel McLish easily won, and won again. She had beautiful muscular development and was a disciplined sportswoman. Her free routine was exotic, feminine and strong. She became the top female bodybuilder in the world, and is responsible for bringing weightlifting to the average woman as we know it today.

Somehow shortly after women's bodybuilding gained some respect, it went in the exact same extreme direction that male bodybuilding was quickly going. The title of Miss was quickly changed to Ms. and it was decided that if a woman had too feminine a shape, due to bone structure, she was not bodybuilding material.

Steroids were used to achieve the massive gains that their male counterparts had, and the "difference" was no more. Female bodybuilding contests soon became nothing more than male bodybuilding contests with breast implants and a bikini top. This led to fitness contests sprouting up.

For a few years women who had a feminine, shapely, muscular body would compete in physique contests in which the winner was named Miss Fitness. It was a pageant/sports contest in which the women wore heels and evening gowns as well as a bikini. The fitness contests are still around but they have also evolved into a more masculine, male body builder appearance. Too bad they can't leave well enough alone.

Women's Bodybuilding Contests

Female bodybuilding contests still exist but it never reached mainstream popularity. The promise that it held in its infancy was one of proving the world the virtues of lifting weights and the female physique. Lifting weights gained popularity among women in the 1990s and it has gradually slipped away.

The modern women's bodybuilding contests are largely responsible for turning people off of female bodybuilding. Women are afraid that they are going to turn into hideous monsters if they pump iron. The fear that the Weider brothers had back in the 70s and early 80s was that the sport would evolve into an extreme freak show that would give bodybuilding a bad name, and their earliest prediction has come true.

Hopefully a movement will eventually pick up where women's bodybuilding left off in the 1970s, and lead women to a stronger, healthier, and more beautiful physique that pumping iron provides.

Line up of Women Bodybuilders

Line up of Women Bodybuilders

Rachel Mclish & Carla Dunlap

Rachel Mclish & Carla Dunlap

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Charles Dawson from Bartow, FL on November 04, 2012:

Another great article, Skarlet! I truly love reading these. Oh, and spending some extra time admiring the pictures. =)

bodybuilding365 on August 20, 2012:

Pure beauty, thanks!

Dianna Mendez on August 14, 2012:

Brosmer had a good head start on the women of today in body building. I think that they are to be commended for their efforts and dedication in building muscles and strength. However, I think some men do not really like a woman who has bigger muscles than they do. Great read and enjoyable.

Skarlet (author) from California on August 14, 2012:

Hehe. I am surprised that I am not being bashed here for thinking that there should be a difference between the way a woman bodybuilder looks and the typical male bodybuilder.

I admire the "Rachel" look, but think that when she is not in competition she looks best. Toned down.

@fpherj48- I hate women's boxing, and think that is really silly. I guess we can all be considered sexist, but the fact is there is a difference, and all the pretending in the world will not change that. Thanks for the comments!

Lynn S. Murphy on August 14, 2012:

I'm torn as well. However, I enjoyed your hub and kudos for the women making it in a male dominated field by working hard.

Angela Blair from Central Texas on August 14, 2012:

Very informative Hub and I enjoyed it but like fpherj48 and minababe I just can't get into even watching the sport. I know I'm definitely too "old school" -- but here's to 'em! Best/Sis

minababe on August 14, 2012:

This is a fascinating hub-- thanks for posting. Love the pics!

As a sidenote, I'm surprised female bodybuilding took off at all, being that for so long it was seen as the ultimate "macho" sport. I don't know why any woman would want to become a bodybuilder but to each his (or her) own, I guess!

Suzie from Carson City on August 14, 2012:

Skarlet.......Because my eldest son began bodybuilding at age 16 and went on to compete in local and State competitions, I got rather interested in this (sport?).......He had subscriptions to a couple of mags and I remember Rachel McLish so well. She was on every cover and her story was everywhere.

Personally? I can't really make up my mind on how I feel about "women" doing in boxing.......I'm going to take a beating for this, but it's SO UN-feminine.....? Anti-Fairer-Sex...........My son says I'm a "sexist" and too old school. That's probably true.

But ask him if he ever dated a female body builder......and he'll say, "Just once and realized he couldn't date a woman with broader shoulders than his own!!!!" LOL................UP++