|Date(s):||1877 to 1902|
|Tag(s):||Women, College Sports, college life|
|Course:||“U.S. Women, 1790-1890,” Wheaton College|
In the early days of American women in education, there was very little room for distraction. However, little by little, collegiate women began branching out from their studies to join social groups, enjoy other skills, and venture into the world of physical fitness. Despite some aspects of women’s athletics being present since the foundation of some schools, both faculty and administration of early American colleges feared the effects of competition and aimed at still shedding women in a positive light through collegiate athletics. It has been made clear by Chris Hartman’s Health and Fun Shall Walk Hand in Hand that there was no lack of interest in sports on behalf of the female students, just hesitation from the administration to implement women’s collegiate athletics. Only in recent years have women’s athletics been able to take on an identity completely its own away from physical education and intramural sports. That identity has growth into something big and all its own in today’s world.
In the early days of women on campus, it became evident that women were “frailer both physically and mentally than their male counterparts.” The growing number of women who were leaving home and taking on a world all their own at school is a direct cause for some sort of women’s health plan. When women began being officially accepted to the University of Wisconsin in 1863, plans were made to give female students a place “in the South Building, where ladies will be trained in Lewis’ new system of gymnastics”. Twelve years later in 1874, female Wisconsin University students took initiative for their health and lobbied for the right to use the men’s gym on campus. Permission was granted for two 60-minute sessions per week. A small start, but one that would get the ball rolling in just a matter of time.
Throughout the 1870s, small adjustments were made to the physical fitness programs at American schools and by the 1880s, women were allowed to exercise in a relaxed setting. At the University of Wisconsin alone, female students were allowed to play tennis, croquet, and ride bicycles at their leisure. This is making leaps and bounds over what they could do just a matter of years prior. Around the same time, in 1881, Marion Talbot and Ellen Richards for the American Association of University Women to further higher education to other women and find wider opportunities to use their training. Three years later, the American Association of University Women admits eight colleges to be charter members. Among them are Vassar, Wellesley, Cornell, and the University of Wisconsin, which led the charge for the women’s health and athletics movement. Soon after, the first research study that surveyed women’s health and physical education received feedback from 1,290 members and institutes that “contrary to prior statements made by a prominent Boston physician, higher education does not adversely affect the health of women college graduates.
Towards the very end of the 1800s, women’s interest in physical activities increased with the number of desirable activities they were allowed to participate in. By 1892, most top end colleges had seasonal activities such as sleigh riding, skiing, and boating, as well as newly founded clubs dedicated strictly to women’s athletics such as tennis club, coed cycling, or gymnastics exhibitions.
In a photo taken in 1899 of the Wheaton College Women’s Basketball club, one can clearly see the pre-development in the game of women’s basketball. Played mostly on grass at this time, hoops only consisted of rigid netting on a tall pole. The backboard, introduced to basketball in 1891, had not yet been presented to the game of women’s basketball. Not only was equipment underdeveloped for modern play, but uniforms consisted of black dresses, tights, and large bows around the neckline. These women can be seen as the first pioneers for women’s athletics and would become a spark for change to come.
As the 1900s began, so did a new outlook on women’s health. The activities began to shift from gymnastics and callisthenic drills towards organized games and sports. The University of Wisconsin was the first to answer this call for organized stimulation with the introduction of basketball and the installation of the Women’s Athletic Association in 1902. The Women’s Athletic Association served to promote and sponsor women’s athletics and physical activity across the country and would make strong changes through collegiate athletics for the benefit of women for years to come.