The Athletic Girl in 1907

Athletic Girl!

As we saw in my last post, this term well described the girls of the Norwalk High School Class of 1907. Sports was as important for them during their senior year as it was for the boys of the class. They had participated in gym classes for years, and competed in intramural and extramural sports. Norwalk High School had fielded a girls’ basketball team as early as December 1904, the class of 1907s sophomore year.

What did “Athletic Girl” mean in 1907? Where did the girls of Norwalk High School get the idea that sports were an appropriate feminine pursuit? Let’s take a look.

The “Athletic Girl” of the first decade of the twentieth century was an offshoot of the “New Woman” movement, which flourished the last half of the previous century. It promoted the idea that women, at least in the upper and middle classes, had a place in public life. The “New Woman” was in turn a result of the women’s rights movement that sprang from the antebellum abolitionist and temperance movements. [1]

As they would do in every major war that followed, many women in the North during the Civil War, especially those in the more affluent classes, moved into professions previously reserved for men, such as nursing, and continued to be active in the Abolitionist movement. At the end of that conflict, many men assumed these women would return to domestic pursuits. In reaction, a “New Woman” movement surfaced at Wellesley, Vassar, Smith and other women’s colleges in the east. A component of this movement was the introduction of women’s sports, which grew slowly at first, then exploded during the period 1890 to 1910. [2]

Before the Civil War and immediately afterwards, recreation for women was limited to horseback riding, walking and other non-competitive activities. Around 1870, other sports such as lawn tennis, bicycling, bathing, sleighing, skating and archery were introduced in women’s colleges. Even boxing became a women’s sport, the first match being held in 1876. [3]

In the 1880s, women educators began to be trained in physical education at institutions such as the Sargent School and the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics. Graduates of these schools went on to introduce physical exercise programs for women on college campuses around the nation. [4]

Later, competitive team sports, such as field hockey, baseball, track and field, and basketball were added to women’s athletic programs. At first, most colleges limited play to intramural matches, but as time went on, extramural games were added. [5]

Social life at some coed and women’s schools at the beginning of the 20th century began to revolve around competitive sports, and the “Athletic Girl” was extolled as an example of a the truly modern woman. Popular magazines celebrated the “hardy sun-tanned girl,” who competed in sports and spent her summers playing outdoors. [6]

Although there were other careers for women at the turn of the 19th century, many female college graduates went into teaching, and most of them taught at high schools. Because of their experience with sports in college, many of these women were anxious to introduce physical education to their female students. Often, they found a receptive audience in the male educators of that “Progressive Era.” [7]

That’s what happened at Norwalk High School. Women’s basketball was introduced there as early as 1904. [8] And who coached that team? English teacher Minnie Cleghorn, whom we introduced in an earlier post. Where did she gain her interest and expertise in athletics? We’ll find out in my next post.


[1] Betty Spears, “Senda Berenson Abbott: New Woman: New Sport;” A Century of Women’s Basketball: From Frailty to Final Four, edited by Joan S. Hult and Marianna Trekel; National Association for Girls and Women in Sport, 1907, Reston, VA; 19.

[2] Squires, Mary-Lou, “Sport and the Cult of ‘True Womanhood’: A Paradox at the Turn of the Century,” in Her Story in Sport: A Historical Anthology of Women in Sport, Ed. Reet Howell, PhD. (Leisure Press, West Point, NY: 1982), 101-105.

[3] Kenney, Karen, “The Realm of Sports and the Athletic Woman: 1850-1900,” in Her Story in Sport: A Historical Anthology of Women in Sport, Ed. Reet Howell, PhD. (Leisure Press, West Point, NY: 1982), 107-140.

[4] Susan K. Cahn, Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Women’s Sport; University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield, 2015; 13.

Ibid [5] Kenney, Karen, “The Realm of Sports and the Athletic Woman: 1850-1900,” in Her Story in Sport: A Historical Anthology of Women in Sport, Ed. Reet Howell, PhD.; 107-140.

[6] Susan K. Cahn, Coming on Strong; 7, 18.

[7] Robert Pruter, “Chapter 8: The New Athletic Girl and Interscholastic Sports”, The Rise of American High School Sports and the Search for Control: 1880-1930, Syracuse University, 2013; 146-147.

[8] “Basketball Friday,” The Norwalk Evening Herald, December 9, 1903, page 1, column

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