Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Talia Schaffer

Committee Members

Matthew K. Gold

Anne Humpherys

Caroline Reitz

Subject Categories

Digital Humanities | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Literature in English, British Isles | Sports Studies | Visual Studies | Women's Studies


Sportswoman, somatic, fitness, physicality, genre studies, visual culture


“Muscling Through” reconstructs an overlooked history of strong female bodies in the nineteenth century. It argues that popular representations of athletic women introduced a new category of identity that was distinct from women’s traditional relational and social roles. The project’s central figure is the hyper-able “Sportswoman,” who bridges the gap between two familiar versions of the Victorian woman’s body: the mid-century ideal of docile, domesticated femininity and the sturdy, capable women who enter universities, professions, and public spaces en masse just before the turn of the century. Representationally, the Sportswoman figures a range of attitudes, from anxious to aspirational, toward the unruly forms of embodiment that were newly public in England during this period.

The richness of athleticism as a representational site is reflected in the broad scope of the project: its claims extend from the past to the present; its critical reach encompasses depictions in popular literary works as well as imagery from mainstream visual culture, analyzed in analog and digital ways, using formal as well as experimental methods. “Muscling Through” enacts a practice for somatic reading that is akin to “surface reading” in seeing descriptions of the muscular body and its power as a meaningfully evident feature of the text. Reading somatically in Sportswoman narratives reveals a constellation of affects, sensations, desires, ambitions, and responses to conspicuous physicality that don’t track back to sex, conform to binary logic, or center a masculinist standpoint.

Although she has been overlooked previously, many well-studied nineteenth-century genres contain a version of the Sportswoman; chapters on sensation and realist novels, New Woman literature, and finally Decadent and modernist fiction bring her back into view. Tracing athleticism’s representational arc across the period sheds new light on conventional themes of marriage, reproduction, and femininity, and turns our attention to other themes that have been under-discussed in relation to women, such as self-oriented development, marital competition, and vocational desire. Visual Vixens, the dissertation’s companion website, adds an essential element of experiential exploration to the project. This digital component translates the Sportswoman themes of embodiment, fitness, and activity into a playful, interactive tool that trains people to build visual literacy by decoding the representational conventions in images of female bodies. A brief epilogue on contemporary culture shows that the issues that the Sportswoman raises are confoundingly and harmfully still with us.

In the end, “Muscling Through” is both a historicist account of the muscular body’s power in the nineteenth-century cultural imagination and a presentist interrogation of how the representation and policing of current athletes is informed by an earlier Victorian model of the Sportswoman.

visual-vixens-20230503175349.warc (56064 kB)
Final Project Website: Visual Vixens (archived version)

visualizing-the-victorian-sportswoman-20230501211358.warc (47237 kB)
Project Development Website: Visualizing the Victorian Sportswoman (archived version)

victorian-sportswoman-visual-archive-20230501211240.warc (15695 kB)
Digital Image Archive: The Victorian Sportswoman Visual Archive (archived version)