Early this summer, two events took up much of my time: watching the women’s World Cup soccer matches and researching the history of William Smith College athletics. By whatever name you choose – games, sports, athletics – physical education has been at the center of women’s colleges like William Smith.
Born into a family of clergy and reformers, Catharine Beecher (1800-1878) devoted her life to female education. She believed physical fitness was important, and in 1831 wrote the “Course of Calisthenics for Young Ladies.” When Mount Holyoke College for women opened in 1837, physical education instructors were on the faculty. Calisthenics, or “exercises designed to develop physical health and vigor,” were the earliest activity. Strict Christians felt that calisthenics looked too much like dancing, but adding equipment like Indian clubs made it okay.
In the 19th century, exercise was considered necessary for women in college since excessive studying was thought to be physically draining, if not harmful, for women. Physical education was necessary to correct the “damage” done by intellectual pursuits. (By contrast, most men’s colleges added physical education long after their students had formed athletic clubs on their own.)
William Smith College’s first class enrolled in 1908. By the spring, the students had “gym work every Tuesday and Saturday afternoon.” Frances Bell Eddy, Class of 1912, wrote, “We learned to march, heads erect and arms at side, with utmost stateliness and dignity. Sometimes we played basketball and volleyball and baseball; thus laying the foundation for the reputation that our college holds in athletics.”
Team sports were always part of William Smith life. Interclass tournaments were played in basketball, field hockey and tennis. However, intercollegiate play was discouraged because competition would overexcite young women, breed aggressiveness and cause “pelvic disturbances.”
The consolation prize was “play days.” Colleges met and formed teams of players from multiple schools. Meeting new people and sharing refreshments afterward was more important than the score.
Professor Marcia Winn joined the physical education staff in 1930, becoming athletic director from 1934 until 1967. She summarized her feelings about non-competitive games:
“Once at a ‘Play Day’ an observer remarked, ‘Isn’t it nice to see the dear girls playing without any desire to win.’ Utter rot — and an injustice to the ‘dear girls,’ who, being normal healthy individuals, presumably had a normal healthy desire to win.”
With Professor Janet Seeley, Winn organized “sports days” for true competition with colleges in central and northern New York. By 1970, varsity teams included field hockey, tennis, swimming, basketball, volleyball, sailing and lacrosse. Most of the teams posted winning records. The swimming team had one loss from 1971 to 1973, and a two-time state champion in Christie Hayes ’71.
In 1972, Title IX, an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibited gender discrimination “under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” In 1974, a clause was added for “reasonable provisions considering the nature of particular sports,” and the law went into effect in 1975.
In 1973, William Smith had about $5,000 for intercollegiate sports compared to $100,000 for Hobart. Pat Genovese coached field hockey, basketball and lacrosse. There was no team doctor, teams shared warm-up sweats and uniforms and there were no awards or team jackets. When Title IX was enforced in 1975, the Colleges increased the William Smith sports budget.
Today, William Smith has 11 teams: basketball, cross country, field hockey, golf, ice hockey, lacrosse, rowing, soccer, squash, swimming and diving and tennis. Sailing is a co-ed team with Hobart.
Even at the small-college level, successful sports teams are considered a reflection of their school. National championships are the highest achievement. Swimmer Vibeke Hopkinson ‘83 was the first William Smith athlete or team to win a national championship. She won individual NCAA titles in the 50-yard and 100-yard backstroke as a senior.
In 1988, soccer was the first team to win a national title. Field hockey followed with national championships in 1992, 1997 and 2000. Soccer won a second title in 2013.
National championships aren’t the only measure of a program. Since 1995, William Smith teams have won 54 conference championships. The lacrosse team has appeared in nine Final Fours, playing for the title five times. Since 1997, the rowing team has advanced to the national championship regatta 13 times.
Marks is the curator of collections at the Geneva Historical Society.