On February 20, 2009, in comments to a post called "Conservatives and Tradition" by Ed Feser, I wrote this:
I've always dreaded the day when the Spanish Riding School in Vienna has women riders in its regular performances. Perhaps they already do, but I think not yet. The tradition there is unique, and it is a package. It is not that women cannot be great dressage riders. They certainly can be and have been, and male teachers know this full-well. It's that the whole mystique of the Hofreitschule is a connected thing and that changing it in the name of some abstract concept of sexual equality and "justice" would be just terribly sad. In my opinion, anyway. And there must be many other examples, small and great, of similar things in the world, where no absolute natural law principle is involved but where liberal ideology goes around tearing down or would like to tear down the concrete traditions that have been built up over centuries and have become very beautiful as things in themselves. There must be a way to communicate what is wrong with that.
Later that year I posted this footage of the immortal white stallions and their riders.
Little did I know: Already, in late 2008, the Hofreitschule had admitted its first female eleves--young riders in training.
The two young women, Sojurner Morell and Hannah Zeitlhofer, are no doubt excellent horsewomen with the potential to ride dressage extremely well. (Based on the rider list, about which more below, Morell appears to be no longer with the Reitschule, while Zeitlhofer has moved up to the level of Assistant Rider.) I am not in any way questioning their ability to ride. Dressage is not by any means a male-only sport.
The issue is one of continuity and the integrity of tradition. Nor am I by any means the only one to raise such a question:
"I am not happy about this decision," Elisabeth Max-Theurer, the female president of the governing board, was quoted by the daily Wiener Zeitung as saying.
"I stress that I am not against women - I am only concerned about tradition," said Max-Theurer, a former dressage rider who won gold for Austria in the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Obviously, Elisabeth Max-Theurer knows something about women and their capability for dressage riding, but she was not happy.
So, how has this already been bad for tradition? Besides, that is, the general gleeful hooting and hollering about how wonderful it is that the oldest riding school in the world has broken from tradition in a "blow for female equality," besides the not-so-faintly patronizing references to the "Teutonic world" as "lagging behind" the rest of the Western world in this area. Let me count the more concrete ways:
1) The eleves used to live with the older riders in a barracks-like setting with a scout-to-superior relationship assigned between specific eleves and older riders. The eleves had to polish the older riders' boots, for example, and the idea was that in return they would receive advice and counsel from those more experienced. I base this on the allegedly accurate portrayal of the Spanish Riding School in Marguerite Henry's 1960's novel White Stallion of Lipizza. It's possible that this relationship, which combines male bonding, mentorship, and a semi-military relationship had already been abandoned by the time the women were admitted, though I'm rather inclined to doubt it. In any event, it is obviously not possible for that relationship to be maintained with women eleves.
2) Already the article in the Independent is talking about changing the uniform for (some of?) the performing riders to make it more...something...feminine? (Since when are female dressage uniforms feminine, anyway?)
The difficulties for women presented by the masculine uniform of frock coat and peaked cap are nothing compared to those presented by the uniform worn by its troupe of still exclusively male chief riders. Their parade dress is a coffee-coloured riding coat buttoned up to the neck, knee-high boots and an 18th-century Captain Hornblower-style bicorne hat. "There are a couple of questions about that," admitted Ms Gürtler, "But we have a few years to think about it."
I find it extremely hard to understand what special "difficulties" this ancient uniform presents for women. Ms. Gurtler, however, is the manager who originally pushed the idea of women in the Riding School, and she seems to have both the determination and (possibly) the clout to force them to modify the ancient uniform to get rid of these alleged "difficulties." Note: One of the beauties of the performance (do click on the above link and watch the quadrille) of the white stallions is the absolute uniformity, symmetry, and, in a sense, anonymity of the riders. It is completely out of line with this that there should be special uniforms for the female riders. But Ms. Gurtler is already scheming away for them. Tradition, shmadition.
3) Hannah and Sojurner admit that their physical capabilities are not strictly identical to those of their male colleagues:
Their main difficulty is trying to mount a horse when its stirrups are set high. Both say their upper arms have not yet developed sufficient muscle to enable them to always complete the process alone. "We sometimes have to ask our male colleagues for a lift up," says Ms Zeitlhofer, "That can be pretty annoying, because then everyone looks at you."
Hmm, well, yes. In White Stallion of Lipizza there is a fictional but not terribly implausible scene in which the protagonist Hans is asked to fill in for a rider in the Sunday performance of the quadrille. He is distracted for a moment, and his horse dumps him off. The horse, beautifully trained, continues in the quadrille, and Hans has to run, catch up, and jump back into the saddle so that the performance is interrupted as little as possible. One wonders what the young women would do in such a situation.
Oh, well, this is just an aberration, right? Most women have just as much upper arm strength as men of the same age and level of athletic training. Oh, wait, guess not.
4) What is a tad odd about the list of current eleves on this page?
Agnes St. George
Three and a half years after the first female admissions, we find that the eleves are apparently now almost all female--four out of five. However slowly the process may move, eleves are the future of the Riding School. Why are four out of five of them now female?
If you believe that this disparity is correctly and entirely explained by the supposition that (presumably discounting upper arm and body strength) the female applicants to the school have just out-shone the male applicants by a ratio of 4 to 1, I have a bridge to sell you.
Besides affirmative action (the obvious hypothesis), there may also be some of what we might call Girl Acolyte Syndrome: I've heard traditional Catholics say that when girls became "altar servers," the number of boys wanting to do so fell off. The male mystique was gone, the distinctive male bonding was gone, the culture of the activity was changed, and fewer boys were motivated to be involved. That may be at work here too.
Whatever the cause, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it will be a major blow to the school's tradition if, over the years, the Spanish Riding School comes to be dominated by female riders. (Especially if they get special girly uniforms.)
And if, as the suspiciously high number of girls suggests, affirmative action as regards ability is also at work here, then the very quality of the riding itself will be damaged, which would be a grave, grave loss.
Now, here I'm going to allow some of my commentators (you know who you are) a pot-shot at me. I've predicted to myself for a long time that this would happen. I consider feminism to be a kind of plague sweeping the world, and it seemed to me almost inconceivable that even so venerable and self-consciously traditional an institution as the Spanish Riding School could escape contagion forever, especially located in liberal modern Europe. But I thought that the mechanism whereby this came about would be EU government force. I'm pretty certain there is some kind of EU ban on gender discrimination in hiring, and it seemed like just a matter of time before a suit was brought against the Riding School for its fairly overt (though I gather not strictly official) previous discrimination against women riders.
I was wrong about the mechanism. Here is what happened instead:
Early last year Elisabeth Gürtler, a Viennese society hostess and owner of the Sacher hotel next door, was appointed general director. An experienced businesswoman, she took over when the school was facing bankruptcy. Last January it had to cancel a tour to the US to cut spending. Part of Ms Gürtler's remit has been to modernise the school and "make it more open". She sees the decision to admit women as an entirely natural process.
So a businesswoman thought this would be a way to make the Riding School (which has been struggling financially for a while) more profitable--by changing its image, "modernizing" it, and making it "more open."
My own inclination is to think that she is wrong about this and that admitting women won't make the school another net penny. The school's great fans (like myself) have always loved it precisely for its traditionalism, for the sense that "I'm seeing something the way that it has been for hundreds of years."
I'm quite willing to believe, though, that Gurtler isn't just a feminist ideologue (though she is no doubt that as well) but actually thinks that admitting women riders was a good business decision for the school.
So here we do have one bona fide case in which at least the beliefs of a person trying to make money favor tearing down tradition for the the sake of tearing down tradition. More's the pity.
Is there any chance that Gurtler will eventually be ousted and that the ban on (new) female eleves will be reinstated? Precious little, I'd guess. And after all, if it comes to that, once the majority of the riders are women, how will the clock ever be turned back? But perhaps we could get another Elisabeth to try it: Elisabeth Max-Theurer, that is.