Sports and physical culture

Why were “physical culture” and organized sports important to the transformation of the 1890s?

To understand the major role played by organized physical education and exercise in the students’ lives, we must recall the influential argument against women’s higher education made by Dr. Edward Clarke in his 1873 book, Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for Girls. He had claimed to have medical evidence that energy expended in the brain depleted women’s fertility and nurturing capacities, resulting in stunted, sterile females prone to nervous disorders. Although immediately discredited by proponents of women’s college education, his argument lingered in the public imagination and proved difficult to dispel. Both women’s and coeducational colleges found themselves on the defensive, needing to prove that their female students were not being physically harmed by their studies. At the same time, those institutions were the very places where Dr. Clarke’s theories could be tested and permanently disproved (Rosenberg, 1-27). At many institutions, students were weighed, measured, and given health assessments regularly, in an attempt to find objective “anthropometric” indicators of growth and shrinkage. And one of the first projects of the Association of College Alumnae was to survey 1,290 women graduates about any changes in the state of their overall health during their college years (Atkinson, 41-55).

But amassing evidence to prove that higher education was physically harmless to women was not enough. Many colleges and universities also tried to improve their students by reversing what they saw as the real threats to young women’s health and strength: ignorance of their own anatomies, enforced “ladylike” physical inactivity, unhealthy diet, and restrictive clothing. Schooling for adolescent girls and young women was relatively new at the time, so forms of appropriate collective physical activity needed to be invented. Training in “physical culture”, which included hygiene, exercise, and team sports, became a required part of the curriculum in girl’s schools and colleges. Educational institutions serving girls and women recognized that their continued growth and acceptance depended on their ability to develop strong minds in strong and healthy bodies. Whether they were promising to turn out vigorous future wives and mothers or women who would, even temporarily, go into the labor force, they needed to inculcate habits of physical self-discipline, self-reliance, and healthful living. 

It was in this national context that Berkeley women students asked in 1891 for the appointment of a woman physician who might teach them physical culture, and they requested the use of the university gymnasium for a few afternoons a week. In the early 1890s, they also began forming clubs for playing what were seen as appropriately genteel sports: the young ladies’ tennis club, the boating club, and the archery club. As the decade progressed, though, the most popular team sport among college women was the newly invented game of basketball. It was only a year old when the physical culture instructor Walter Magee taught a modified version of the sport to UC’s women, and they played their first extramural game against Miss Head’s high school in 1892. In 1896, they made history by engaging the Stanford women in the very first intercollegiate women’s basketball game ever played (Park, 1998, 23-4).

Several things about the way that particular game was conducted are clues to the role of women’s sports at the time. The teams met indoors at the San Francisco Armory, so that neither team had to travel a great distance. The court and stands were closed off by heavy curtains, preventing the players from making a spectacle of themselves to casual observers. There were 500 spectators inside the curtained area, but all of them were female. No men were allowed to view the game. The sequestered situation of the game was supposed to protect the players from accusations of indecently displaying themselves to a mixed audience, but the prohibition can also be seen as a limitation on the women’s ability to behave freely in a public space. The rules they played by are also indicative of those limitations. They were designed to encourage coordination and teamwork while discouraging aggressive behavior: no snatching the ball. The players were confined to particular sections of the court, so that individuals couldn’t run very far, establish much dominance on the court, or stand out as stars. In other words, although the teams were competing against each other, their internal relations were cooperative and polite.

Nevertheless, the event was a turning-point in the history of women’s sports, and the vigor and spirit with which the students played was a revelation. Mabel Craft, Berkeley alumna (1892) and reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, insisted that there was nothing “effeminate” about the focus, concentration, and stamina of the players. Craft had a keen sense of the importance of the event not only for women’s sports but also for their general social status. A relentless campaigner for women’s rights, as a graduating senior Craft had publically challenged the university administration’s decision to give the University Medal (the highest academic honor) to a man rather than to her, pointing out that she had the highest GPA. She would have been the first woman to receive the medal, and the incident was widely reported and interpreted as a sign of young women’s refusal to accept their marginalization (“What Miss Craft Says”). Craft’s reporting of the 1896 basketball game celebrated it as yet another sign of the new self-confidence that college women had achieved. She was especially careful to clarify the event’s implicit refutation of Dr. Clarke’s 1873 polemic against women’s higher education: “It is a game that would send the physician who thinks the feminine organization ‘so delicate’ into the hysterics he tries so hard to perpetuate” (quoted in Grundy and Shackleford, 19-20). It was the beginning of a slow process, but coeducation was gradually transforming both the image and reality of women’s physical and social experience.

Like other new activities for women students in the 1890s, physical culture no doubt improved their lives. And yet sequestering physical performance inside the restrictions of sexual separation, which required that even women’s tennis courts be surrounded by high hedges, must also have made them feel that their activities were not entirely normal, that they could not yet withstand the glare of public scrutiny. Thus even as we celebrate the women students’ accomplishments in making spaces for themselves on campus, and recognize the generosity of Phoebe Hearst in giving them gym facilities of their own, we should also recognize that their separatism was in part an accommodation to the persistence of their inferior status in the putatively coeducational academy.