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The Early Years of ‘Physical Culture’ at Smith College

At the time of Smith College’s foundation, the physical well-being of the students was a matter of deep concern for the College. Trying to calm parents who might be worried by the popular view that rigorous study would be detrimental to their daughters’ health, in 1877 the College assured the families of potential students that “No student has thus far received the slightest apparent physical injury from her collegiate work.” Students’ health was taken into account in the planning of the housing system and in the architecture of the buildings, which were built with few staircases to minimize unnecessary strain on the students.

The College implemented a physical education program to help students maintain their health under the academic pressure. Along with attending lectures on Physiology and Hygiene, Smith students were expected to participate in regular exercise to ensure that the “mode of life…[was] carefully adapted to the demands of an enlightened physiology.” According to President Seelye, ensuring the physical well-being of the students through “sleep and systematic exercise” was “as beneficial physically, as other academic requirements have been intellectually.” This exercise was designed “not merely to secure health, but also a graceful carriage, and well-formed bodies.”

Smith’s physical education program underwent several changes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Gymnastics classes were taught in College Hall until 1880, when the first gymnasium was built with a bowling alley and a large room outfitted with the appropriate “gymnastic apparatus.” A new program that involved the use of light weights and regular physical assessment was implemented in the mid-1880s. Students’ progress was tracked throughout their time at Smith. Miss Gertrude Walker, a gymnastics teacher in 1888, writes, “At the end of the year they go with ease from plain marching to chest weights and individual work, from these to dumb bell practice followed by light gymnastics, and the last few minutes are given to fancy marching.” While students’ progress in physical fitness was applauded, the goal of the physical education program was “simply to keep the girls as well as possible.” By no means was the program designed to promote “the power of agility or to arouse enthusiasm by displays of muscular strength…[or to include] anything spasmodic and exhausting.” Although the fear of overexertion would not disappear, students would soon begin doing more intense physical activity than this “old style of tidle-de-winks and gyrations” in the classroom.

Twelve years after the College built its first gymnasium, the physical education program underwent a change of leadership that led to a strong and well-organized curriculum. In 1892, a woman named Senda Berenson became the head of the gymnastics program. Senda Berenson, who was born in 1868 in Lithuania, moved to Boston with her family in 1875, where she spent her childhood and adolescence. In her early twenties, Berenson, who had been very weak in her early years, began attending the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics, the first school in the United States to teach Swedish Gymnastics. This was a transformative experience for Berenson, who gradually developed the strength and agility required to master the technique. After less than two years at the school, Berenson said, “My indifference had changed to deep conviction and I wanted to work only in physical education so that I might help others as I had been helped.”

When Senda Berenson arrived at Smith, she struggled against the second-class standing of physical education and the belief that “physical exercise was injurious to the delicate mechanism of the female body or that gymnastics should not be taught in a college.” Berenson combated these obstacles by trying to cultivate an appreciation for the value of exercise in her students and in the faculty. Soon her students, who met with her for four hours each week, were having showcases of the work they had been doing in their classes. Although Berenson was eager to create competition between the members of each class and among the classes, her own experience of physical weakness led her to believe that physical education should be “work for the many—not specialized work for the few.” She was not an advocate of competitive intercollegiate athletics, which would have excluded many members of the community from participating. Instead, she used the physical education program to bring students together. She gave everyone an opportunity to progress and developed special classes for those students who were too weak to participate in regular classes.

Until Berenson’s arrival at Smith, physical education, sport and exercise for women had been largely individualistic. There had been no emphasis on team sports or working together until Berenson brought basketball to Smith in the spring of 1893. “Basket ball” was a new sport that had just been invented for men at the YMCA training school in Springfield, Massachusetts. After finding out about the sport, Berenson decided to try it out with her classes. It was a great success. On March 22, 1893, the first game of women’s basket ball was played between the classes of 1895 and 1896. The game was widely attended and hugely popular. The players were aggressive and competitive. The “wild” playing of the students led to a dislocated shoulder and headlines in several Boston newspapers saying something like: …Smith College Athletes Play Basket ball One dead, another dying etc etc. Needing to tone down the aggressive edge of the game, Berenson changed the rules for her students. Instead of being able to run around the court, players were assigned to one of three sections and could not steal the ball from opponents. In its new form, basket ball swept the campus and the nation—other women’s colleges soon began integrating basket ball into their physical education programs. At Smith, basket ball games between class teams were competitive, attended by most of the student body and anticipated with excitement. Berenson, known as the “Mother of Women’s Basketball,” went on to publish the official rules of women’s basketball and land one of the first spots given to a woman in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1985.

Although Berenson’s program was popular among her students, Berenson still struggled to show faculty members who believed basket ball and gymnastics made students “awkward and ungraceful” that “the ‘department of physical training had just as much dignity as the department of philosophy.” In an 1893 exhibition of the students’ work, Berenson had several basket ball players demonstrate their grace by dancing the minuet.

Even in these early years, Smith students enjoyed playing sports and did not limit themselves to the physical activities performed in the gym. “In the 1880s, Smith women created their own teams and organized their own sporting events in golf, tennis and baseball. They were very innovative and persevered despite the admonitions of the administration to maintain modesty and feminine decorum.” In the spring of 1893, enthusiastic students who were intent on improving the athletic program at Smith started the Gymnasium and Field Association (which would later become the Athletic Association). In its first few years, a fee was required to join the Association. The money collected went towards buying boats, building tennis courts and a boathouse, creating a golf course and improving existing facilities. Tennis and boating were very popular among members, who also played volleyball, baseball, cricket, hockey, as well as fencing and doing archery. The Walking Club, which was created in 1895, had over one hundred and twenty members in its first year. Members of the Walking Club probably contributed to the extinction of the Mayflower from the area immediately surrounding the College. The extinction of this flower, which also became scarce around Mount Holyoke College, was probably a result of the droves of students, encouraged to get exercise, who went on walks and picked the pretty flower. Athletics would continue to be an important aspect of life at Smith. 1908 marked the completion of the first athletic fields, which gave students more freedom to engage in outdoor sports. The annual Field Day, where students from each class competed against each other in games and races, was also held that year. While intramurals continued to exist, Smith did not participate in intercollegiate athletics until 1971. Now the college has fourteen varsity teams, several club sports and intramural house competitions.

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