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Women’s athletics had its biggest boost to date when Clara E.S. Ballard arrived from the Boston’s Allen School of Gymnastics in 1889. She convinced the Board of Regents to allow her space in Ladies’ Hall to conduct voluntary classes in physical culture, as it was then called. Because she was not affiliated with the university, Ballard was required to provide all of her own equipment and received no salary, but she did charge students a fee to participate.
Physical education at the time was synonymous with gymnastics and calisthenics; classes consisted of drills and exercises using equipment such as dumb-bells, Indian clubs (objects resembling bowling pins), wands, and various arrangements of bars, usually performed to live piano accompaniment.
The setup in Ladies’ Hall was less than desirable: the room was shared with music classes, so equipment and furniture had to be moved at the beginning and end of each session. Dressing rooms consisted of a curtained 4’x6′ space with a basin for sponge baths.
Ballard’s classes were popular enough that the next year the university purchased her equipment and hired her on at a salary of $250. Gym class became a requirement for freshmen and the following year her salary doubled.
Interest in activities outside the gymnasium increased with the creation of a pedestrian club in 1892 and the popularity of seasonal activities such as sleigh riding and boating; female students also joined together to build a lawn tennis court.
There were coed cycling and tennis clubs, and from 1896 to 1900, men and women presented a joint gymnastics exhibition.By the end of the century, men’s intercollegiate athletics were well established, in no small part due to the support of President Adams, as well as the increasing popularity of football, which Merle Curti and Vernon Carstensen dubbed the “common denominator of student interest.” They were also becoming more organized, as evidenced by the formation of the precursor to the Big Ten Conference. Women, on the other hand, were still fighting for the physical space needed to perform their exercises.
For several years the Board of Visitors agitated for a women’s gymnasium, particularly after the Armory (Red Gym) opened for the use of male students in 1894. Finally, Ladies’ Hall was remodeled in 1895. The new arrangement included two floors dedicated to the physical culture department, complete with dressing rooms and bathing facilities.
Interest in the physical culture class seems to have dipped slightly during the short-lived tenures of the next two instructors. Then Abby S. Mayhew (sometimes spelled Abbie) from the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics was hired. She served as instructor in physical culture and as mistress of Ladies’ Hall. The program grew rapidly under her tutelage and eventually she received permission to drop her duties as mistress in order to focus full-time on the rapidly expanding department.
The birth of women’s athletics at Wisconsin is typically hailed as 1895, when Andrew O’Dea, the men’s crew coach, agreed to coach the ladies as well. Seven years later, however, Abby Mayhew lamented that “crew rowing has not been developed at all, for two important reasons, the girls do not know how to swim and have no way of learning, and we have no boats at our disposal.“
A women’s crew team is first depicted in the 1903 Badger yearbook, but equipment seems to have remained a problem; the department’s 1916 biennial report suggests that the recent completion of a bath house might facilitate the purchase of boats “in order that the water activities for the women may be organized.“
At the turn of the century, the focus of coursework began to shift away from gymnastic drills toward games and sports. By 1902, Abby Mayhew was arguing in the Daily Cardinal for a program consisting only of sports, which “best draws out the body, and produces health and happiness.“
Around this time, two events occurred which altered the course, pace, and nature of women’s athletics at Wisconsin and across the nation: the introduction of basketball, and the creation of the Women’s Athletic Association (WAA).