The State of Women’s Sport Pre-1972

Athletic Council

The first Athletic Council at the Harrsionburg State Normal School (Schoolma’am, 50).

Before the passage of Title IX, American sports had been essentially reserved for males since the inception of organized sports. Sports were seen as a way for men both young and old to build character and to stay healthy. For women however, competitive athletics was viewed as unnatural and women were barred from organized athletics for many years.  In 1971 a Connecticut judge, when ruling against a woman’s plea to join the all male cross country high school team, said, “Athletic competition builds character in our boys. We do not need that kind of character in our girls, the women of tomorrow…”  (Ware, 8-9). According to Susan Ware, competitive and organized athletics developed similarly to that of segregated schools before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education in that sports between the genders were separate and definitely unequal (Ware, 9).

Just because organized sports were frowned upon for women, this did not mean that women did not find outlets for exercise. According to Ware, many young women found opportunities for exercise through informal outlets such as in neighborhoods and at the local YWCAs, and settlement houses (Ware, 8-9). Women’s sport at the collegiate level was also informal, offering far fewer opportunities for competition. According to Dr. Lee Morrison, former president and founding member of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, described the landscape of competitive women’s sports in a speech entitled, “The Struggle for Women’s Athletics.” She wrote,

           None of the conferences, leagues, nor national athletic organizations was providing and leadership or competitive participation to women… In the thirties, there were the beginning rumbles for competition at that time. A very powerful group of women, including a majority of college women physical educators and president Hoover’s wife were successful in convincing educators and the public that the so-called evils of competition should be avoided for girls and women (Morrison, 2).

The Tomahawkers Basketball Team at the Harrisonburg Normal School in 1910 (Schoolma'am, 54)

The Tomahawkers Basketball Team at the Harrisonburg Normal School in 1910 (Schoolma’am, 54).


Since its conception in 1909, Madison College, now James Madison University has provided some type of sport for women. In the schools first yearbook, from 1910, sports teams and councils are photographed and documented. Included are three basketball teams and two tennis teams. The photograph above shows the first Athletic Association formed in 1910. The 1910 yearbook reads, “The students and faculty of the Harrisonburg Normal School, desiring to promote physical, moral, and mental development, and realizing that soul helps body not more than body helps soul, organized on March 3, 1910” (Schoolma’am, 51). The Athletic Council was designed to represent each sport available at the school. The first teams at the school included three basketball teams and two tennis clubs. The basketball teams seemed very competitive, complete with their own cheers and intimidating nicknames. One such team, shown in the picture above, was known as the “Tomahawkers” and their cheer was “Googly, googly/ Googly, Gen! Tomahawkers, Tomahawkers/ Nineteen ten!” (Schoolma’am, 54). These chants and nicknames promoted a healthy competitive spirit between the women at the college and laid a foundation for future competitive sports.

Since Madison College was an all women’s school, women likely had more opportunity to participate and compete in sports because, as shown in the school’s yearbook, they believed that it was important for their health. This rare opportunity to compete against one another without the stigma being put on them by male students and faculty, female sports had the opportunity to grow and define itself before the arrival of men at Madison College/ James Madison University.

Works Cited:

Morrison, Leotus. “The Struggle In Women’s Athletics.” November 12, 1974: 1-15, Lee Morrison Papers, Special Collections, Carrier Library, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Schoolma’am. Harrisonburg: Harrisonburg Normal School, 1910

Ware, Susan. Title IX: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2007.