In 1936 there was a further controversy at the Henley Regatta when the Australian national eight, preparing for the Berlin Olympics, was excluded from the Grand Challenge Cup because the crew was composed of policemen, deemed to be ‘manual workers’. The resulting embarrassment persuaded the Amateur Rowing Association and the Stewards of Henley Royal Regatta of the need for change to the rules. On 9 June 1937, the offending references to manual labourers, mechanics, artisans and menial duties were deleted from the ARA rules; Henley’s rules were changed the following day, coming into effect from the 1938 regatta.
In September 1997, FISA removed all references to amateurism in its rules and in December 1998 Henley followed suit. The regatta is therefore now entirely open.
For most of its history, Henley Royal Regatta has only been open to male competitors but this has changed more recently. Women coxswains of male crews were permitted from 1975 and as such the first female competitor in the regatta was Christine Paul, cox of Furnivall Sculling Club in the Thames Challenge Cup in that year.
There was much discussion about the introduction of events for women. The Stewards felt that they faced a dilemma: on the one hand it was argued that women’s rowing would never flourish whilst there were no women’s events at Britain’s premier regatta; on the other it was clear that open women’s events would be dominated by foreign competitors, whilst events closed to foreign competitors would not serve the desired purpose. Another difficulty was the length of the course. The standard distance for international women’s races was at that time 1000 m. It was clear that races over the full Henley course (2112 m) would not be appealing to women’s crews preparing for international championships.
Peter Coni, who was elected as Chairman of the regatta’s Committee of Management in 1978, was supportive of the idea of introducing women’s events. However, he had had little time to take any action when there was an attempt to force the issue. Kingston Rowing Club sent in an entry for the Double Sculls Challenge Cup in the names of A.Hohl and P.Bird. The crew was in fact Great Britain internationals Astrid Ayling and Pauline Hart, who had made the entry under their maiden names. The regatta realised the subterfuge and Coni made a statement to the press in which he said that it was 'sad that a long-established club should think it reasonable behaviour to make a deliberately false declaration'. He added that the stewards had no fear of the Sex Discrimination Act.
In 1979, the Committee announced that there would be exhibition events for women in 1981, with entries by invitation only:
The Stewards announced in December 1979 that they were considering the possibility of adding certain Events for Women to the Regatta programme. As a preliminary step two invitation events are being held this year, with racing from the Barrier start used for the Special Race for Schools. These events will enable the Stewards to assess the feasibility of including races over the shorter Course during the normal Regatta programme, and the desirability of the considerable extension to the hours of racing which any full Events for Women would necessarily involve.
In 1982, a Single Sculls Event was added and the start was moved to Fawley so that the course was closer to 1000 m. As the intermediate start installations were required for the shorter distance, the races had to take place during intervals in the normal racing programme (the lunch or tea breaks) which meant that only the dedicated stayed to watch. This was a pity, since the final of the Women’s Invitation Single was a highlight of the regatta, with Beryl Mitchell of Thames Tradesmen’s Rowing Club (World Silver medallist in 1981) beating Stephanie Foster of Waiariki Rowing Club, New Zealand (World Bronze medallist in 1982) by one length. Astrid Ayling was also able to race legimately, winning the Invitation Double Sculls event with Rosie Clugston.
The time taken to install the start equipment at Fawley combined with the relative lack of crowd interest meant that the Stewards took the decision not to repeat the experiment in 1983.