From Culture to Education: The P.E. Department

Outdoor P.E., 1920s.
Outdoor P.E., 1920s.

Meanwhile, the physical education department had become increasingly sophisticated and was rapidly growing in popularity. Gym class was required for freshman and sophomores, and students were welcome to continue their participation after that. The department employed a physician to examine the students three times during the two years.

The primary purpose of these examinations was to weed out those with weaknesses or disorders. A medical presence certainly lent credence to the department, but it also probably helped to inoculate it in a real way from those who believed physical activity was harmful to women. If certain conditions were caught early, they could not later be blamed on gym class.

Students were assigned to regular, light, or corrective work, or rest class. Corrective work was prescribed for those with a temporary or permanent disability, ranging from cardiac conditions and chronic appendicitis to constipation and varicose veins.

Women's baseball, c. 1928.
Women’s baseball, c. 1928.

“Menstrual disorders” were a common complaint, and as a matter of course women were given at least three days off, which they spent in rest period. The rest period was described approvingly by the department as instilling the “habit of rest, and of sleeping in the day time.”

The Daily Cardinal mocked the concept, calling it “the only place in the university where for ‘not thinking’, praise is given—and credit.”

By 1914, however, Trilling claimed that “hoards no longer petition for rest gym, but, instead, a girl feels rather aggrieved when commanded to take it.” Probably not coincidentally, this change in attitude occurred as the focus of gym class shifted from wand-swinging drills to games and play.

The program for majors, one of the first of its kind in the country, was geared toward producing teachers of physical education. In 1912, there were ten majors; by 1920, there were 134 majors and 28 minors.

Women's P.E. uniforms, 1902-1918.
Women’s P.E. uniforms, 1902-1918.

The first class, three in number, graduated in 1913. The intensive program required a heavy load in the hard sciences (biology, chemistry, physiology, and anatomy), 10 hours of practice per week (uncredited until 1932), student teaching, and a week of field work, during which the students were sent into the community to live and teach.

Scholarship, teaching ability, professionalism, personality, physical appearance, and carriage were all considered when the faculty met as a group to decide which students were up to the rigors of the program and which should be encouraged to try another track.

In 1927, the first Master’s students in physical education graduated; in 1933 the first Ph.D. was granted. Graduates of the program appear to have been in high demand: a pamphlet produced by the department in the 1930s bragged that no graduate who wanted to teach was unplaced in the field.

Circle of dancers
Circle of dancers

Administrative control of Wisconsin athletics was in dispute during the 1930s. Historically, the directors of the men’s and women’s physical education departments reported to the same supervisor.

In June of 1930, the women’s department gained its independence, and the professional curriculum was folded into the school of education.