The Smith College Alumnae Gymnasium
What were Athletics like at a Women’s College at the Turn of the Century?
In 1891, Elizabeth Lawrence (Smith College class of 1883) became the first Smith alumna elected to the Board of Trustees. She worked with the Smith College alumnae association, which was around five hundred Smith graduates at that time, to raise $23,000 to build a new gymnasium for Smith College students. This gymnasium was quickly built and opened the next year. The building became not only a gymnasium to Smith students, but also a part of everyday life. The gymnasium not only held athletic events for Smithies to watch, but also held performances, celebrations, and events.
The alumnae gymnasium was originally created for gymnastics, which at the time was the most acceptable way for women to exercise. Yet the building not only held facilities for gymnastics, but also held a swimming pool that was capable of holding
between two and five people at one time (and therefore referred to as a “swimming bath” rather than a pool). At the time, the Smith College alumnae gymnasium was one of the largest at best equipped gyms for women – making Smith a pretty radical place.
When the alumnae gymnasium first opened, Senda Berenson was the director of the physical education department at Smith and worked to keep the physical education requirement at Smith. Berenson is most famous for creating the game of women’s basketball and introducing it to Smith College students. After seeing the sport played by men, she made modifications to basketball in order to make the game more “feminine” and less aggressive. This game was one of the first instances where women actually played something that required teamwork and sportmanship, rather than stressing the importance of individuality.
What was the importance of a gymnasium at a women’s college?
How were athletics seen in the life of a woman at the start of the 20th Century?
Why was it deemed important for sports created for men to be altered in order for women to be able to participate?
What did having a gymnasium of this scale say about Smith College and the women who attended?
How do women’s athletics today differ from men’s athletics?
Do women’s athletics still hold a stigma? What about athletics at a women’s college?
All of these photos were found in the Smith College Archives. For more information on the Smith College alumnae gymnasium, visit the “Buildings and Grounds” collection and see Box 20. More information can also be found in the Smith College archives about basketball and athletics in general at Smith College.
To read more about the early days of basketball at Smith College, see these books:
Shattering the Glass: The Remarkable History of Women’s Basketball by Pamela Grundy & Susan Shackelford
A Century of Women’s Basketball: From Frailty to Final Four by Joan S. Hult & Marianna Trekell