In January 2005, the University of Wisconsin-Madison honored the 30th anniversary of women’s intercollegiate athletics with a gala celebration. But women’s sports at Wisconsin enjoy a much older and richer history than this milestone suggests.
The roots of today’s vibrant program of intercollegiate and intramural sports can be traced back to the 19th Century—back to the first days of coeducation at Wisconsin.
The fact that women’s intercollegiate sports took so long to develop is no indication of a lack of interest on the part of students. Rather, it is the result of pressure from faculty and administration who feared the effects of competition and who were anxious to establish a respectable role for women in collegiate athletics.
Though it is now considered a natural component of the college experience, women’s intercollegiate competition has been the subject of intense and prolonged debate; in fact, those who should have been advocating for female athletes were often the ones fiercely battling against the “evils” of inter-institutional play.
This attitude was surely benevolent, but it had the unfortunate effects of delaying the development of women’s sports on the college level and severely limiting women’s opportunities for decades to follow.
Women’s athletics at Wisconsin sprang from the lives of early coeds and the exercise and play they participated in as a matter of course. Over the years, exercise became increasingly systematized and organized, and sports began to materialize. Only fairly recently have athletics been permitted to maintain a presence separate from that of the physical education department and intramural sports.
For much of the time, entities such as the PE department, the Women’s Athletic Association, the dance group Orchesis, and various sport-specific clubs worked together, co-sponsoring activities and competitions, sharing equipment and resources, and strategizing to meet common goals.These entities are so interrelated that the history of one is often the history of the others.
This article, therefore, focuses not only on official teams, but the groups, organizations, and administration that comprise the spectrum of experience of women’s athletics at Wisconsin.