Victorian Sensibilities and the “New Woman” Women participating in athletics represented a turning point in […]

Victorian Sensibilities and the “New Woman”

Women participating in athletics represented a turning point in culture and attitudes toward women’s empowerment and gender expectations at the beginning of the 20th century. The era of this “New Woman” in the face of massive socioeconomic and cultural shifts “offered a way not only to understand women’s new visibility and presence in the public sphere, but also to define modern American identity in a period of unsettling change” 1. Smith College, among other women’s colleges, was at the forefront of the movement to make sports accessible and acceptable for young women. Many women’s colleges began mandating physical education classes, and, “students did not only engage in physical activities; they were actively encouraged to participate in competitive sports such as basketball, hockey, and rowing.” 2

A note that reads, "Gentlemen are not allowed in the gymnasium during basket ball games," signed S. Berenson
A note posted on the door before the first basketball game at Smith College

Despite these changes and a redefining of women in society as a whole, gender stereotypes resisted the tide of the times; of particular concern in the athletic arena was how physical activity would irreversibly damage women’s bodies, rendering them either muscular and unattractive or unable to have children. 3 Nineteenth-century Victorian culture stressed the frailty of women and prioritized the status of women in the home, and Berenson expressed concern about the women suffering from “nervous fatigue.” The risk of appearing improper and inelegant in front of men was also a real threat,4 and strict rules regarding comportment of athletes and fans were hallmarks of early women’s sports.


Sports as Feminine Fashion

Some sports, primarily those enjoyed by the upper classes at country clubs, were deemed more acceptable for young women. Women participating in croquet, skating, tennis, and golf became more commonplace between 1850 and 1890, but since these sports brought them into the public view rather than the privacy of a college gymnasium, women “had to climb back into their corsets and fashionable dress.”5

The earliest women to participate in the Olympics played in 1900, competing in sailing, croquet, equestrian, tennis, and lawn golf.6 Such sports became associated with “leisure-class and feminine-fashion,” and “helped fashion a new idea of womanhood by modeling an athletic, energetic femininity with an undertone of explicit, joyful sexuality”7 for women in the flapper era, feeding into the 1920’s affection for “sophisticated outdoorswomen.” However, many of these more “sophisticated” sports also dressed women in elaborate outfits including long, multi-layered skirts, which Cahn argues in Coming On Strong assured the femininity of the participants.

Charles Dana Gibson, “School Days,” Scribner’s Magazine, 1899.

The race and class connotations of sports as feminine leisure are also not to be overlooked; in an era when femininity was defined by the Gibson Girl, ideal women were expected to be refined, of certain social standing, and white. College sports, while increasing accessibility and acceptability of play, were also still limited in scope to the wealthy white women who attended these few elite institutions. Those from lower social classes and people of color could not expect to meet these expectations, and thus found doors to athletics similarly closed. What few points of access there were for women of color in the mid- to late 19th century relied on their participation in sports being seen as a novelty entertainment for a predominantly white audience rather than display of athletic skill, and teams were entirely segregated.




Early sports emphasized health and beauty over competition, a sentiment shared by Senda Berenson, who disagreed with the idea of women’s intercollegiate competition on the grounds that they were “unnecessary and hinted of professionalism” when the aim of the game was, instead, “to promote mental and physical health.”8 Though many today see discouraging competition as a step back, Berenson’s larger goal was to elevate women to a more equal status beyond the spheres of college and sports. She believed that women newly entering the workforce and seeking paid jobs outside the home were at a health-related disadvantage to men, which she saw as limiting women’s opportunities and the possibility for equal wages. For much of the early 20th century, other coaches and administrators felt similarly, due in part to an increasing sentiment that men’s college sports were becoming too commercialized and exploitive of the athletes.

The women’s branch of the National Amateur Athletic Foundation was conceived in the late 1920s, and the organization’s goals included keeping women’s sports non-competitive by discouraging travel and awards, discouraging publicity, and keeping women coaches and administrators in charge of women’s sports.9 Their motto was “every girl in a sport and a sport for every girl,” but nevertheless, the larger community interpreted their stance as full opposition to competition. Varsity and intercollegiate competition continued to be virtually nonexistent, despite modest gains being made during the suffrage movement and associated wave of feminism.

Drawing of a woman with a baseball bat, caption reads: U. McBee, who scorns to do more than look wrathfully contemptuous when a pitched ball threatens her physical welfare. (N.B. most people run.)
Reads: “U. McBee, who scorns to do more than look wrathfully contemptuous when a pitched ball threatens her physical welfare. (N.B. most people run.)”

The NAAF also addressed increasing concerns that women’s sports were too physical and competitive even within the restraints of intramural competition; women athletes continued to use competitive language to describe their own endeavors, and performed with physical intensity that early coaches and administrators did not expect, especially given the expectations of female fragility at the time. The very first basketball game at Smith College resulted in a captain dislocating her shoulder on the first play, and the nature of sports themselves continued to be physically risky, especially as women’s versions drifted closer in play to men’s. Women also continued to push boundaries and participate in the Olympics and professional leagues where they could, proving that the competitive will was there, even if societal and administrative outlets were not available.


Title IX and Sports Today

Progress in women’s sports unfortunately remained stagnant for much of the 20th century, as world events and cultural shifts (especially in the conservative 1950s) continued to result in setbacks and kept women’s sports at the intramural and club levels. Individual women still continued to accomplish impressive feats at the professional and Olympic level of all sports, but these women became significant due to their rarity.

Title IX changed the landscape of women’s sports for good in 1972, going hand in hand with the Equal Rights Amendment to push for equal status of women’s sports. Increased funding, visibility, and participation that came with colleges being forced to include women’s sports fulfilled the fears of early 20th century administrators: the sports themselves became competitive and popularized, and college sports were brought under the umbrella of the NCAA. While falling under the NCAA had some advantages, it took away the autonomy that women’s sports administrators and coaches had enjoyed for so long, and the leadership of women’s sports became male-dominated.

Today, women coaches and leaders are still battling entrenched ideas of sports administration to work back into leadership positions within the NCAA and athletics as a whole. The pervasive culture of sexism surrounding sports as a whole also impacts discussions of women athletes, gaps in funding and viewership for professional sports, and the way athletic uniforms continue to differ between genders today.



  1. Patterson, Martha H. The American New Woman Revisited. Rutgers University Press, 2008.
  2. Rabinovitch-Fox, Einav. New Women in Early 20th-Century America. Oxford University Press, 2017.
  3. Mansky, Jackie, Maya Wei-Haas. The Rise of the Modern Sportswoman. The Smithsonian, 18 August 2016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/rise-modern-sportswoman-180960174/.
  4. Berenson, Senda. Basket Ball for Women. New York, NY: American Sports Publishing Company, 1907.
  5. Rikkers, Renate. “What well-dressed women wore to play.” Amherst Bulletin, June 19, 1991.
  6. Mansky, Jackie, Maya Wei-Haas. The Rise of the Modern Sportswoman. The Smithsonian, 18 August 2016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/rise-modern-sportswoman-180960174/.
  7. Cahn, Susan K. Coming On Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Women’s Sport. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2015.
  8. Benoit, Amy. “Risk Taker.” Springfield, MA, 1999.
  9. Bell, Richard C. “A History of Women In Sport Prior to Title IX.” The Sport Journal, March 14, 2008.