They've Come A Long Way, Maybe
In the first 26 years of its existence, the University of Kansas did not encourage its women students to participate in any athletic endeavors except as observers.
But in the fall of 1893, when KU instituted “systematic gymnasium work for men and women,” female students gained the opportunity to partake in various forms of physical training and exertion. By 1896, the Kansas University Weekly had published an editorial calling for the introduction of basketball to the University precisely because the game was “especially well-adapted for girls as quickness and accuracy count instead of muscular strength.” And in 1903 James Naismith, the inventor of basketball and KU’s director of physical education, agreed to coach an intercollegiate women’s basketball team for the University.
This squad posted a 6-2 record, but its success did not lead to the establishment of a permanent women’s basketball team at KU. (It would be more than 60 years before the university played its next intercollegiate game of women’s basketball).
Nonetheless, many KU females remained interested in participating in formal sports competitions more involved than the calisthenics and related offerings provided by the Physical Education department. Thus, on February 8, 1912, “the women of the University who [were] athletically inclined” organized the Women’s Athletic Association (WAA) with the assistance of physical education instructor Hazel Pratt.
The newly formed association modeled itself after a similar group at the University of Wisconsin. Following the Wisconsin format, the WAA established a point system for various athletic accomplishments such as making a team, winning a competition, or hiking a specified number of miles. When a student had achieved a certain number of points, she was entitled to a variety of awards to mark her accomplishment – from a sweater to the organization’s equivalent of a varsity letter to the highest award, a silver loving cup. Upon joining the organization, the new member had to sign an agreement that she would both keep her “body physically fit by obeying the rules of health [and] live up to the rules of good sportsmanship.”
By 1914, the University had constructed some tennis courts for the exclusive use of its coeds, and by the following year had laid out a series of athletic fields for the women behind old Robinson gymnasium. Two years later, the WAA was effectively running the high school girls’ state basketball championships, acting as volunteer scorekeepers, timekeepers, and officials. Pratt left the University in 1920. Her successors were Margaret Barto and Ruth Hoover, the latter of whom remained an integral part of the WAA (and its successor the Women’s Recreation Association) until her retirement from the University in 1962.
Although its popularity among the students fluctuated, from the 1920s to the 1950s, the WAA managed to develop an impressive array of athletic clubs and contests. Its best-remembered events were the annual intramural sports tournaments, which sometimes attracted almost 1,000 participants. (In some years almost half of the University’s coeds were involved in the annual proceedings.) From swimming races in Potter Lake to a basketball tournament, the most hotly contested event of the year, KU women would compete against each other as classmates and sorority sisters.
For the less competitive and less gifted athletes, the WAA encouraged participation in physical education classes that focused on the “natural gymnastics” consisting of “different animal walks and tumbling” in which “not so much attention was paid to exactness.” Participants gained points for personal appearance, poise, carriage, manner, and self-control, and many WAA members worked on “correcting defects of the feet and deformities of the spine.” (Apparently, virtually everyone had some physical shortcoming that needed correction. One member of the physical education department, for example, claimed to have “made more than 500 examinations of feet of University women [and had] found but one girl having feet that could be called perfect.”)
The WAA did more, however, than correct “defects” and “deformities” and act as the sponsor of women’s intramural activities. Its members also hosted a number of dances each year, an all-University party known as the Jaywalk, and an annual WAA Circus in which the gymnastically gifted dressed in costumes and entertained the student body with acrobatic feats. Its Quack Club put on an annual water show for the University as well. Beginning in 1926, it even published a yearly magazine, The Jayhawk Sport Girl, which celebrated its accomplishments.
In an effort to encourage sports among Kansas high school girls, the WAA hosted an annual “Mayday Playday” which saw almost two hundred young women participate in sports as diverse as archery, dance, swimming, volleyball, and softball. The “Playday” also provided the best female athletes from KU with the opportunity to compete against the best women from other schools in eastern Kansas. Occasionally, a speaker of national repute would attend the event. In 1938, for instance, Constance Appleby, who was responsible for the introduction of field hockey to American schools in 1901, attended the event and even officiated a number of games.
While the “Mayday Playday” provided a degree of intercollegiate competition, it was limited and far below what the WAA had initially desired. For the first few years of its existence, the WAA hoped to compete regularly against women from other universities. Unfortunately, the organization was never able to realize that plan, and indeed came to briefly abandon it altogether.
By 1920, the women attending the Central Sectional Conference of American College Women (which included a KU delegation) determined that women “should not take any part in intercollegiate athletics.” In 1923, a faculty member who sat on the WAA’s executive board predicted “the time is not far off when women’s athletics will be instituted in many universities.” However, she tempered the optimistic statement by asserting that women were not yet ready for such a challenge as their “finer nervous systems could not stand up under the double burden of studying and engaging in competitive athletics.”
By mid-century, the biggest obstacle to women’s athletic teams traveling to play other schools was not an anachronistic fear of women’s “finer nervous systems,” but an absence of financial support. Women’s athletic programs at the University remained under the authority of the physical education department until 1974, and simply lacked the funds necessary to initiate anything larger in scope than the traditional intramural competitions.
The WAA’s rifle squad occasionally participated in “mail order” matches with other universities in which each team “fire [d] in its home sector” and then mailed their results to their opponents. (They went 3-4 in 1925, but undefeated the following year. Whether their marksmanship improved or their honesty suffered is not quite clear.) Most teams, however, lacked the luxury of being able to mail results to their opponents and so had to satisfy themselves with intramural competition.
As late as 1973, women’s athletic programs received only $9,300 (which, meager as it was, still represented three times its budget of three years earlier). When in 1974, KU joined other institutions of higher education throughout the nation in implementing a genuine program of women’s intercollegiate athletics, it did so primarily in order to comply with Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act of 1972, which forbid “discrimination under any education program or activity” on the basis of sex.
By 1975, the University had handed out its first athletic scholarships to women. Most of the women who received those scholarships were probably unaware of the enormous debt they owed to the WAA for its efforts to firmly establish a place for female athletes at KU.
Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas