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A period of intense debate regarding competition marked the next few decades of women’s athletics. The lightning rod for this controversy was basketball, one of the first true team sports for women and wildly popular from the beginning. The reaction of physical educators to basketball shaped not only the nation’s understanding of women’s athletic possibility, but determined the nature and tenor of college sports for decades to follow.
Just one year after basketball was invented in 1891 by James Naismith, Senda Berenson modified the rules for women and started a team at Smith College. Women’s rules divided the court into two or more zones, with two players from each team limited to each zone. Dribbling more than three times was forbidden, as was blocking, stealing the ball from another player, or holding the ball for more than three seconds.
The phenomenon caught on with astonishing rapidity. In its initial incarnation, it seemed genteel enough: with the revised rules, the game was slow-moving and more stationary, and therefore did not tax a woman’s delicate system. Neither did it offend entrenched notions of femininity—except, of course, for the bloomers and stockings, scandalous enough that male spectators were barred at Smith.
But soon enough the specter of competition raised its ugly head.
Women’s basketball was introduced to Wisconsin in 1897. The first team, coached by men and women, initially played games against Milwaukee Normal School and local high school teams.Within two years, however, what we would consider a varsity squad reverted entirely to intramural play. Although this is often attributed to a lack of student time and decent coaching, it is important to note that those in power were aligning themselves against the endeavor.
This was a common pattern across the country: women enthusiastically embraced basketball, and quickly moved to form teams and leagues which began competing against one another. But within a very short period of time, the backlash against intercollegiate competition had gained sufficient momentum to shut down most of the established lines of competition.
The opposition to competition revolved around a few axes, none of which had very much to do with the reality of women competing athletically. First and most simply, what was seen as the inherently aggressive nature of competition clashed with notions of “ladylike” behavior, as defined by the upper-middle class.
People engaged in competition often lost control in the heat of the moment, and such exertion by women was unseemly. Justifying such a position was the vague and unfounded but pervasive fear that physical activity could irreparably damage the female reproductive system.
Katherine Saunders describes the delicate balancing act that athletic women had to perform to stay under society’s radar: “They helped keep their deviations from the norm secret by devices such as insisting on proper appearance, constructing rules which minimized the risk to face and figure, avoiding the glare of publicity, and by taking inordinate care to preserve fertility and the reproductive system by prohibiting play during the menstrual cycle.“
The debate surrounding menstruation, in fact, centered less on whether women should be permitted to play sports and games during their cycle, than on how long they must abstain from such activity.
The threat to women was not only physical, however. According to Blanche Trilling, Wisconsin’s resident expert, exposure to the “evils of commercialization and exploitation of outstanding girl athletes often leads to the dander of nervous breakdowns.”
The other set of objections to competition were a reaction to the problems that plagued men’s intercollegiate sports. Initially, control over athletics was largely left to the undergraduate students, and later the alumni, without the oversight of university administration.As the popularity of sports ballooned, however, issues multiplied. Football, in particular, was widely regarded as problematic, if not downright corrupt.
Teams often (and sometimes, rightfully) accused rivals of hiring professionals to pose as student players. Gambling, cheating, and unsavory recruiting practices were common. Fans had become, literally, fanatical.
Reactions to these problems varied. President Roosevelt threatened to ban football altogether if on-field brutality was not curtailed. Frederick Jackson Turner articulated a more intellectual critique of the situation, leveling the accusation that athletics corrupted academic ideas.
Perhaps the most common reading of the situation, however, was that all the problems with athletics had one root cause: a focus on profits, in the form of gate receipts. To fill a stadium, you need a winning team, which necessitates having the best players.
The exploitation of young players, the use of professionals, and the commercialism and brutalization of the sport all stemmed from this point.The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) was formed in 1906 to address all of these problems, and out of its work sprung systems of faculty and institutional control. The organization’s control extended only to men’s athletics, however; it did not become involved in women’s athletics until 1980.
As early as the 1897-98 academic year, Wisconsin’s Board of Visitors had expressed relief that the women’s physical culture department had escaped “the disturbing element of athletics” that plagued men’s sports.
Many concluded that women’s athletics must be spared the horrors that had befallen the men’s program, whatever the cost. Women’s athletics, therefore, were from the beginning a reactionary measure, and strictly controlled; over time, they developed into a sports program different in kindfrom the male counterpart.
At the helm of Wisconsin women’s athletics, Blanche Trilling was a proponent of girls’ rules, and fervently believed that competition was an unnecessary and exclusionary evil. Like most physical educators of her day, she saw yet another danger in the competitive environment—the neglect of the majority of students in favor of catering to a few superstars.
Wisconsin’s Athletic Director George Little, whose jurisdiction included both the men’s and the women’s departments, began the Athletics for All campaign, designed to get as many students as possible, regardless of ability, involved in sports. Likewise, Trilling was a staunch supporter of club and intramural systems, and doubtless contributed to the WAA’s great influence and longevity.
Meanwhile, Trilling began to play an increasing important role on the national stage. In 1917, in one of the first efforts to create a unified governing body for women’s college athletics, Trilling hosted a meeting of WAA students and faculty from 23 universities across the Midwest.
The following year, the meeting was national in scope, and a new regulatory agency for women’s sports was born, the Athletic Conference of American College Women (ACACW).
In accordance with Trilling’s principles, the ACACW emphasized collaboration between a university’s physical education department and the campus WAA, fostered student participation in the organization and administration of activities, and officially discouraged intercollegiate play.
In 1933, the group became the Athletic Federation of College Women (AFCW), the leading authority regarding women’s sports for the next several decades.
Trilling was a persuasive speaker, and unflinchingly rallied for her cause at every opportunity— in professional correspondence, in speeches, in the press. She was a member of the Board of Governors of the National Amateur Athletics Federation (NAAF), and sat on the executive committee for that group’s Women’s Division. The latter was convened in 1923 by Lou Henry Hoover, President of the Girl Scouts (her husband, future President Herbert Hoover, was then US Secretary of Commerce).
The NAAF committee drew up a list of recommendations that became prevailing wisdom for women’s collegiate athletics for at least the next thirty years.The report stressed enjoyment over winning, athletics for all versus training for few, and the role of educator as protector from exploitation.
They recommended female coaches and directors to serve the specific needs of female athletes, defined the proper motivation for all competition as “play for play’s sake,” and discouraged valuable prizes, emphasis on individual achievement, and, most emphatically, inter-institutional play.
The ethos of this movement is summed up tidily in the slogan: “A sport for every girl and every girl in a sport.”
From today’s vantage point, long after women’s intercollegiate sports have become an accepted fact of life, it is startling and disconcerting to encounter some of the opinions offered by Trilling on the subject.
“I am delighted to know that you have wiped out future state tournaments for girls’ basketball in your state,” she writes in a letter. “I feel that you have made a great stride forward.“
Perplexingly, she also at times claimed not to be an enemy of competition; in another letter, she claims (perhaps a trifle disingenuously), “Personally, I have found no interest displayed here in intercollegiates. There has been no formal disapproval on my part, so far as the girls are concerned and if I felt that there was strong interest, I am not at all sure but what I should have let them go ahead and try it out.“
Trilling’s judgment was certainly not flawless—she claimed that the general population was losing interest in intercollegiate sports and predicted that “colleges will, within a very short time, rue the day that they spent so much time and money on large stadia and field houses for a special group of super-athletes.”
She did have reason to be wary, however. The only extent example of an intercollegiate program was the men’s version, which had been plagued by improprieties (and downright illegalities) from the very beginning.
To those who attributed these attendant “evils” to an emphasis on winning and financial gain, the solution was simple: eliminate dramatic competition and focus on a program of inclusion, geared toward the benefit and enjoyment of the masses, without the unhealthy focus on winning or the exploitation of young players.
While their motives were understandable, and perhaps even admirable, their lack of willingness to try other approaches seems stubborn and short-sighted.
With the appropriate safeguards in place, there is no reason a democratic intramural program could not coexist alongside a more rigorous varsity program. Unfortunately, no such compromise ever seems to have been seriously considered. The option of competitive sports was merely eliminated, fostering an atmosphere of structural and institutional inequality, and virtually shackling the development of women’s athletics for decades.