In December, 1902, an announcement appeared in the Daily Cardinal calling on interested students to attend a meeting to create an athletic association for women.
The association would be modeled upon the men’s association and would govern all athletic activity. The idea was obviously a popular one: at that first meeting, officers were elected for six different sports (basketball, bowling, hockey, tennis, golf, and rowing).
Shortly thereafter, in the Christmas edition of the Daily Cardinal, Abby Mayhew articulated the purposes such an organization would serve and the reasons behind its creation. She complained that Wisconsin was lagging behind other schools in this respect, and that the Women’s Athletic Association was necessary in the face of a significant increase in “athletic spirit.” Besides, the WAA would usher in a “better era for women, when health and fun shall walk hand in hand.”
It would be difficult to overstate the influence of the WAA on women’s athletics at Wisconsin. Over the course of more than half a century, it served as an umbrella organization, promoting and sponsoring women’s athletics and physical activity across the board. Its scope extended beyond the realm of regulating sports, however.
In addition to organizing competitions, the group hosted weekly teas and other social functions, orchestrated entertainment for the general student population, and was a very successful fund raising machine—using profits to fund its own operation, as well as the scholarships that it distributed. Although the WAA was influential, it was certainly not autonomous.
By design, and in a very real way, the WAA and the physical education department were partners. The WAA student-run board was supervised by physical education faculty and the two entities collaborated so often that it is difficult to draw clean lines between them.
Even the Physical Education Club, a WAA club for majors and faculty, “at all times…co-operates with the Physical Education department, and endeavors to be of service to the department and all its members.”
The WAA was originally conceived of as a “secretive” honorary group with elected members. It was reorganized on a more inclusive basis in 1913, with membership hinging on participation and interest, rather than on a private vote.
A point system was instituted, in which points were earned by participating in sports, playing for a team in a final tournament, taking an elective third year in gym, or receiving honors in a particular event.
Pins, a “W” emblem, and a “W” sweater were the rewards for earning points. A final emblem, available for seniors, was awarded not for a point total but for “the broader basis of womanliness and service to athletics at Wisconsin.”
A piece in the Badger spoofed this much-touted notion of womanliness, as well as the enthusiasm displayed by the women of the WAA. The article claimed the group was founded “with the idea of instilling a more womanly womanliness in the women of Wisconsin. The general idea appears to be that if a woman runs three miles, hikes five, swims ten, and tennises fifteen in an afternoon she is a womanly woman, which is nothing if not an interesting theory.”
Over the years the WAA sponsored many clubs, including the Physical Education Club, for majors and faculty; the Dolphin Club, for swimming and diving; the Outing Club, a precursor to today’s Hoofers; and Orchesis, the student dance group.
The WAA controlled more than the rules of competition. In 1913, training rules were instituted, which outlawed pastry, tea, coffee, candy, or hot breads. Fruit was the only acceptable between-meal snack. Athletes were required to sleep at least 8 hours per night (except for one weekend night), and retire by 10:30 p.m.
Perhaps the biggest WAA event of the year was the May Fete. It began in 1903, when a lawn fete was held to raise money to construct a women’s building.
The event proved so popular that it was repeatedly annually, and the entirety of spring physical education classes were dedicated to its preparation.
It showcased many of the talents of the Wisconsin women, originally including everything from dances and club swinging to singing and readings. In later years, the program was focused on a series of dances, often international in scope, with elaborate costumes for each dance number.
Although the events changed from year to year, the May Pole Dance was the cornerstone of the May Fete and was typically performed by the freshmen. In the established tradition of maypole dances, a tree or pole is decorated with flowers and long ribbons, which the dancers hold. Through the intricacies of their dance, the ribbons are woven around the pole. The pole itself, a tree salvaged from the clearing for Lathrop Hall, was used year after year.
Upon the conclusion of the first May Pole Dance, the crowd pounced upon the pole and stripped it of its decorations. The following year, the women had a plan: they surrounded the pole and sang Varsity while police carried off the pole’s decorations. As a countermeasure, the crowd threw the pole in Lake Mendota, where it was retrieved the next day by a brave coed.
The last Fete was held in 1917. In the face of World War I, the event’s elaborate costumes and decorations seemed rather indulgent.
The WAA also sponsored the popular Field Day events. Began in the late 1910s as an interclass track and field meet, Field Day soon became the championship forum for all interclass and intramural outdoor sports, including archery, tennis, and baseball.
No admission was charged, and no bleachers were erected for the event, ensuring that participants and observers would co-mingle on the field. Dance Drama, which grew out of the May Fete, was another feature of Field Days; it was so popular that it later gained its own theater venue.
In the mid-1920s, Field Day became part of the Mother’s (later Parent’s) Weekend.The WAA was an active fundraiser for its many clubs and activities. The first County Fair was held in 1912, in which the gymnasium was transformed via saw dust, booths, and tents into a fairground. Wiskits (originally Wisconsin Skits), a popular talent competition open to all university women, also had its start as a WAA fundraiser.
In one of its largest fundraising drives, the group raised $3,500 and secured a 99-year lease from the Board of Regents to build a cottage on Lake Mendota on the Eagle Heights tract. It opened in 1925 and was a popular destination for many year-round outdoor activities and overnight ventures.
Unfortunately, the cottage was used for less than fifteen years before falling prey to increasing vandalism and decreasing interest. It became the property of the Union and Black Hawk Lodge, as it was then known, became a “drop-in” shelter for all students engaging in outdoor activities. It eventually closed for good in 1948.
Not coincidentally, the WAA came into its own after the university hired Blanche Trilling to head the physical education department. Trilling, who had been the Director of Physical Education at Chicago Normal School (later Chicago Teacher’s College), arrived at Wisconsin in 1912. She left an indelible mark on the school and on the direction and organization of women’s sports nationwide.
A colleague once remarked of Trilling that a list of her accomplishments “would mean enumeration of almost every important advance in Physical Education.”
Under her care, the department expanded, the fledgling professional course matured, and the number of activities multiplied. Trilling’s position on fitness and sports was expansively optimistic, braided through with notions of morality, good citizenship, and inclusiveness:
“A sound constitution, a good understanding, a benevolent heart, an honest and upright personality, these are the characteristics which physical education, if wisely administered, may develop in an individual…may we never fail to maintain them, while working always for an increased and more efficient activity which, if it come to perfection, can never perish, but will instead go on upbuilding the physical and moral fiber of a great people!”
This enthusiastic attitude was the foundation for women’s athletics at Wisconsin for the next four decades.