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Athletics and Physical Education at Bryn Mawr College, 1885-1929

The Context: Hopes

Students running

Students running through a field, circa 1907.

However, it was also believed that the correct physical exercise, if properly moderated, could balance out the ill effects of mental strain in both men and women. Napheys also wrote in The Physical Life of Woman that

exercise, whether as games, the skipping rope, croquet, walking, dancing, riding, and callisthenics, or as regular labor, is highly beneficial, especially when it leads one into the fresh air, the sunshine and the country1.

On the other hand, Napheys warned that

over-exertion [during menstruation] is a most fruitful cause of disease. Long walks, shopping, dancing, riding, labor should be avoided or diminished1.

Constance M. K. Applebee was a pioneer in physical education and Director of Physical Education at Bryn Mawr College from 1904 to 1929. She recalled in a speech from the 1950s that

even tennis was frowned on by many eminent doctors as being too boisterous and fatiguing for the female sex, walking being the ideal exercise. Running was entirely tabooed, both by doctors and many Physicale [sic] educators2.
Student on rings

Although there was consistent resistance among students toward the required gymnastics classes, this student clearly relishes her gymnastic work on the rings.

Gymnastics in particular emerged as an appropriate and healthy form of physical activity for white middle-class women. Very different from contemporary gymnastics, where the focus is on competition and pushing the limits of the human body, gymnastics as it developed first in Europe and then in the United States in the nineteenth century was meant to prevent and correct ill-health in the average person3.

Vassar and Wellesley, two of the first women's colleges in the United States to attempt to replicate the curriculum of men's colleges, from their opening required students to regularly engage in gymnastics4. Along with required gymnastics classes, regular medical inspections were also typical of women's colleges at the time5. These policies, which were the norm by the turn of the twentieth century, were conscious responses to societal and especially medical opposition to higher education for women.


1. Napheys, Physical Life, pp. 31.
2. Applebee, Constance. "50 Years a [sic] Growing," ca. 1950. Folder 7, Box 5, Constance Applebee Papers, Special Collections Department, Bryn Mawr College Library.
3. Todd, Jan. Physical Culture and the Body Beautiful: Purposive Exercise in the Lives of American Women 1800-1870. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1998.
Hargreaves, Jennifer. "The Legitimation of Female Exercise: The Case of Physical Education." Sporting Females: Critical Issues in the History and Sociology of Women's Sports. London; New York: Routledge, 1993.

4. Ballantine, Harriet Isabel. The History of Physical Training at Vassar College: 1865-1915. Poughkeepsie, NY: Lansing & Bros, n.d.
Ainsworth, Dorothy S. A History of Physical Education in Colleges for Women. New York, A.S. Barnes and Co., 1930.
Litchfield, Miriam. "The History of Athletics." The Vassar Miscellany, October 1915, pp. 165-172.
5. Verbrugge, Able-Bodied Womanhood, pp. 153-155.