By Mike Pearson
It took more than a century after the University of Illinois first admitted female students in 1870 for there to be gender equality in intercollegiate athletics.
As the author of the UI Directory expressed in the 1905 edition of Illio“Better results are being achieved every year in women’s athletics, and it is hoped that in the near future girls will equal boys in athletics.”
It’s not that Illinois was different from other universities in the country. In fact, the sports timeline for women was almost identical to that of its college counterparts.
In 1874 a female calisthenics program was established and in 1896 “club” sports began to appear at the U of I. It was then that the women of Illini hosted Wesleyan College in basketball at Urbana and beat them by a score of 28-14.
Surprisingly enough, women were initially more active than men in the new sport of basketball, invented by James Naismith in 1891. Female athletes, then known as “Illinae”, wore black jumpsuits while they tossed the ball into peach baskets.
Noted Illio“Everyone was delighted with the agility, nerve and skill of the young women, and their perfect handling of the game.”
The “men” on campus, it was said, viewed basketball as a “dumb game” for female students only. Their attitude finally changed and the men made it a varsity sport in 1905-06.
An organization called the Women’s Athletic Association (WAA) was formed in 1903. It started with a few dozen members and grew to over 200 by 1920. The number of sports offered to female athletes increased dramatically in 1927 when seasons of four sports have been established. . A woman was allowed to participate in one major sport (field hockey, football, basketball, volleyball, swimming, baseball, and track and field) and one minor sport (tennis, golf, rifle shooting, bowling, hiking, and something called device).
In 1915, Louise Freer was appointed the first head of physical education for women. She oversaw the WAA from 1915 to 1949 and oversaw the first major letter “I” awards to WAA members for athletic success in 1919.
A 1923 WAA manual suggested that female athletes sleep eight hours, consume no coffee or tea or eat between meals, and take a hot shower followed by a cold shower after each practice and match.
During the decade of the 1930s, the first free-standing women’s gymnasium was built, but there was a trend away from intercollegiate competition for women due to a fear of rivalry and professionalism. Typically, multiple colleges competed at one site. At the same time, participation in intramurals has increased.
A daily illini The article said that the philosophy of physical educators was that collegiate athletics and the WAA “should be recreational and enjoyed by many women.” They strongly disapproved of the selection of a single group of highly skilled players.
In the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, the trend in women’s athletics shifted towards extramural competition, primarily due to the equalization of sporting opportunities for women and men.
One person who was on hand for almost 40 years as a member of IU’s women’s physical education staff was Carita Robertson. In a 1975 interview, Robertson said that attendance was popular because “there wasn’t that much to do on campus then”.
In 1952, the WAA became the WSA (Women’s Sports Association) because, as one campus official explained, “the philosophy of the program was really sports rather than athletics. Athletics were not accepted for women. The students trained themselves and the coach was more of an advisor.”
In 1964, the organization’s title changed again, this time to Women’s Extramural Sports Association (WESA) in 1964, under new director Helga Deutsch.
Karol Kahrs, director of WESA from 1966 to 1970, said the organization’s goal was maximum participation of all female students.
“The development of leadership and social skills was emphasized,” Kahrs said. “Winning was de-emphasized.”
WESA became the Women’s Intercollegiate Sports Association in 1973 and had to drop four of its nine sports due to lack of funds. A year later, women’s sport would receive a much-needed injection of support.
The last title change occurred in 1974, two years after members of the United States Congress passed the Title IX Amendment in the summer of 1972, signaling legal equality of the sexes and prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex. In June 1974, women’s varsity athletics was adopted by the Athletic Association, the precursor to the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics.
Seven sports – volleyball, golf, swimming, basketball, tennis, gymnastics and track and field – were officially launched in the 1974-75 season and life would never be the same for the University’s female athletes. from Illinois.