The Quiet Years: 1930s-1950s

UW Play Day, c. 1936.

UW Play Day, c. 1936.

Even though certain elements of athletics were restricted to them, the women of Wisconsin, like women all across the country, played around the rules as best they could. “Play Days,” for instance, are a perfect example of both women’s desire to compete athletically and the oddity of the system in place.

Though technically intercollegiate, the wildly popular events (participated in by 80% of schools, according to one estimate) were an acceptable form of competition because all the players from various schools were jumbled together and divided into color teams. The absence of school affiliation was thought to eliminate the emphasis on winning.

Additionally, teams were unable to train in advance and could not be accused of catering to superstar athletes. The events were, for a time, mutually satisfying: students could try their best against large numbers of competitors, and faculty could rest assured that no one would be morally deformed by an overabundance of team spirit.

Bowling at UW, c. 1940s.

Bowling at UW, c. 1940s.

There were other loopholes in the ban on intercollegiate competition. Some sports, such as archery, bowling, and swimming, conducted telegraphic meets with distant schools.

This popular technique (over half the schools polled in one study participated employed telegraphs to transmit updates and scores to the competitor.

The 1933 Badger reported that “intercollegiate competition is the chief attraction of the Archery Club.” The team competed against Smith, Sweet Briar, and Mount Holyoke, and participated in national intercollegiate tournaments. It appears that only face-to-face, team competition was the true danger.

The 1930s presented Wisconsin students with a number of coed opportunities, from mixed baseball, volleyball, tennis, and golf clubs and tournaments to the newly founded Hoofers Club. More recreational activities such as horseshoes and ping pong were instituted.

In addition, a gradual shift in participation is evident, from inter-class to intramural competition.Taken together, all of these trends point toward a less serious, less competitive attitude toward sports—an attitude which was accompanied by a decrease in the visibility of women’s athletics, as well as a dramatic drop in the number of participants.

Co-ed badminton at UW, c. 1940s.

Co-ed badminton at UW, c. 1940s.

In the 1940s, women’s athletics went underground at Wisconsin. Most written accounts of the subject skip from the 1920s or 1930s directly to the 1960s—because nearly all information, images, and reports regarding the topic disappear.

Insofar as yearbooks are a reliable indicator of student interest, it appears that women’s sports dipped in popularity from the 1930s through the 1950s.

In the 1920s, women’s athletics had commanded their own section of the Badger yearbook with narrative summaries for each sport, highlights from championship games, lists of scores, rosters for every squad, and individual treatment of stand-out athletes—up to a high of 22 pages in 1924.

By the late 1930s, women’s sports consisted of, typically, a 2-page spread (compare that to the roughly 45 pages devoted to men’s sports).Throughout the next two decades, only the WAA and the Physical Education Club were pictured, usually sharing a single page; the existence of other clubs and activities are mentioned in passing, if at all.

Tug-of-war match, c. 1958.

Tug-of-war match, c. 1958.

Vibrant images of women engaged in physical activity, so common in the 1920s yearbooks, are nowhere to be found during this time period. What coverage the WAA and its clubs received during this time period consists of group shots of formally posed women with ankles firmly crossed.

In the 1942 Badger, for example, the sum total of evidence that women engaged in physical activity consists of the following: one posed photograph of ten members of the WAA, one nervous-looking woman holding a golf bag on the steps of Langdon Hall, and the Carnival Queen on skis.

Obviously, women did not stop playing sports altogether during these decades, but it appears that their activities became more recreational and less organized. Social constraints may have again been an influence; it is true that during these decades, the Badger Beauties received far more press than women athletes.

UW cheerleaders, 1956.

UW cheerleaders, 1956.

Previously established sports continued in intramural form, but few developments arose during these decades. One of the only new sports for women developed in the 1950s was cheerleading. Previously a male-only activity, women were admitted for a three-year “trial period.” When the trial period was over in 1954, women were again banned from the sport, sparking a short-lived controversy on campus. Women rejoined the squad in 1956.