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Victorian women were often assumed to be in poor health—frailer both physically and mentally than their male counterparts. In the late 1800s, the increasing presence of women on college campuses raised particular concerns about the effect such a new environment would have on women’s health.
Women who left the protective sphere of home to earn an education were thought to be particularly susceptible to the dangers of overexertion and strain.
Women had been officially admitted to the University of Wisconsin in 1863 (though relegated to the periphery of the Normal School), and immediately the issue of their physical health was addressed by the Board of Regents. In their report for that year, they declared, “A gymnasium will be fitted up in the South Building, where ladies will be trained in Lewis’ new system of gymnastics.” In their 1872 report, the Regents mentioned establishing a room in Ladies’ Hall, for the practice of gymnastics accompanied by music. There is no evidence that either of these suggestions was ever acted upon.
The newly accepted coeds, for their part, very quickly indicated an Women standing in a crew boat, c. 1902 interest in physical fitness. In 1874, the first year women were admitted to the university proper, they petitioned the faculty for use of the men’s gymnasium; permission was granted, for two 60-minute sessions per week. University Press applauded the women for taking the initiative: “we glory in the heroism and pluck of our sister students and assure them that if they will persevere in spite of such trifles as broken ribs and smashed noses there is no reason why they cannot become celebrated athletes.“
By 1875, the Board of Visitors recommended daily use of the new “Health Lift,” an exercise machine in Ladies’ Hall. They must not have felt their recommendation was taken seriously, Female archers in 1915 however, for the following year their report on the women’s health was ominous indeed. Women suffered from a double burden, the Visitors explained—an inherently weaker constitution, coupled with terrible strain induced by working extra hard to keep up with the male students academically. These strains culminated in “bloodlessness, followed by a train of evils which it is not necessary here to enumerate.”
President John Bascom, longtime advocate for women’s education, came to the defense of Wisconsin’s coeds, noting his frustration at the Visitors’ un-progressive stance so soon after the debate had presumably been settled:
“We regret these opinions because they tend to open a controversy just closed, and to compel us to travel a second time over ground already painfully trodden…To be pushed back into the water, when we have just reached shore, is trying…Contrary to the opinions of the visitors, the young women do their work with less rather than with greater labor than the young men.”
Bascom goes on to describe an informal survey he conducted regarding absence from class due to illness. In an 8-week period, he noted 155 absences for men, and only 18 for women, who at that time comprised just over 25% of the student body.
The Visitors remained concerned for the health of the fairer sex, however, and continued to call for exercise accommodations throughout the 1870s. In particular, they recommended boats and a gymnasium. By this time, there were some “appliances” in Ladies’ Hall, but no dedicated or extensive facilities.
During the early 1880s, women were involved in a number of activities that were loosely organized, if at all. President Bascom was suspicious of very strenuous physical activity but approved of low-key recreation, so during his tenure physical activity remained largely informal.
In their spare time, women played croquet, tennis, and catch, took walks around Lake Mendota, and rode bicycles. By 1886, the Board of Visitors had changed their tune, praising the Wisconsin women for their good health.