Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sports Women

Mary Stuart,
Queen of Scots
 Up until the late nineteenth century, if you were a woman you were not allowed to participate in sports. When did it change?

There were always the exceptions. Women in ancient Greece were not allowed in the Olympics, so they held their own Games of Hera every four years. Mary, Queen of Scots was an avid golfer, and called her assistants “cadets”. The first caddies. During her reign (1542-67), the famous golf course of St. Andrews was built. Women in Regency times walked—Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice enjoyed a good, hardy stroll. There have been a few boxers, fisher-women, horse racers, runners, hot-air balloonists, and archers.

May in "Age of Innocence"
But until the 1870’s to 1890's mainstream women and sports didn’t mix.

The bicycle changed everything—though not because it was a way to get exercise or that it was considered a sport, but that it finally allowed women autonomy. They could move quickly from Point A to Point B by themselves. And they didn’t need a man to come along as a chaperone. I think about the feeling of freedom a woman would have felt the first time she rode a bicycle. The breeze through her hair, the exhilaration of using her limbs until they burned… And the choice involved to go somewhere. Even that. Especially that. Choice.
As bicycles gained popularity in the 1880’s, women’s clothing was adapted for ease of movement. No more bustles! As early as 1850 Amelia Bloomer developed “bloomers” to wear under a skirt, thus giving women more freedom of movement.  With bicycles, the bloomers were ends in themselves.  How risque!  Some considered women who rode bicycles whores...  Yet in the decade of 1890-1900 over a million women would ride bicycles. Beyond all the other sports, bicycling was a wide-spread hit.

During this time many sports became womanized: rowing, hiking, fencing, lawn tennis, tennis, croquet, sailing, and swimming. The summer resort of Newport, Rhode Island, encouraged all these activities.  I have some of my characters deal with bicycling, swimming, and sailing in An Unlikely Suitor. Even baseball was played by women: According to this wonderful timeline site, in 1875 two women’s teams, the "Blondes" and "Brunettes", played their first match. “Newspapers heralded the event as the 'first game of baseball ever played in public for gate money between feminine ball-tossers.'"

Boulder Field of Long's Peak
 Some of these sports didn’t require a lot of physical effort, but some did. In 1871 Addie Alexander climbed Longs Peak in Colorado. I’ve climbed Long’s Peak (the tallest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park at 14,256 feet), but I was 18 and wearing rubber-soled shoes. I can’t imagine climbing over the Boulder Field in the slippery leather-bottomed shoes of Addie’s time. Twenty-two years later, Katharine Lee Bates climbed Pike's Peak and composed a poem, “America the Beautiful.” It was set to music in 1910 by Samuel A. Ward. On top of the peak, there is a commemoration plaque.

With the doors to sports open, some women took it to extremes. In 1891 Mary French Sheldon led an expedition to East Africa. That same year Beatrice Von Dressden jumped with a parachute from a hot air balloon. This was her first jump. First? Are you kidding me? She did it again? Get this woman a place on “Fear Factor”!

Not everyone thought women should exert themselves and there were many articles condemning this change in women’s lives. Many men seemed intimidated by a strong, active woman. But in 1892, the YMCA devoted an issue to women, saying exercise for women was a good thing.

Maybe so, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it! And as with most acts of freedom, I appreciate having the choice.//Nancy

1 comment:

  1. The painting at the top left of your post is my very favorite painting!! It is titled "Mr & Mrs Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes" by John Singer Sargent. I have it framed in several places in my home and even in the sidebar of my blog... LOVE it!!