As of 2020, women’s athletics have combined to win 86 Ivy League titles for the Quakers. But 100 years ago, female Penn students weren’t even allowed to use campus gymnasiums.
Women have been present at the University since the late 1800s, but the first mention of a formalized association of women’s athletics at Penn is found in the 1917 women’s yearbook.
“The fact is that athletic activities among the girls at Penn are in their very earliest infancy,” the yearbook reads. “It was only the spring of 1916 that several girls, inspired by the irresistible murmurings of soft May winds, introduced into Undergrad the question of some kind of athletics for Penn girls, be it ever so humble.”
After raising the idea, female students were given permission to use the city-owned tennis courts at 49th and Chester. The space was used informally for both tennis and field hockey.
The following year, female students petitioned unsuccessfully for gymnasium time on campus. It wasn’t until 1921, when the National Women's Athletic Association (NWAA) was officially established, that women’s sports gained a permanent foothold at Penn.
With a lack of access to sufficient sports facilities, a group of female students arranged for time at the West Branch YMCA to practice basketball. Sensing interest in the student body, the university then offered gym classes for women two hours per day at Kingsessing Playground and Gymnasium. Although the classes were only for elective credit, more than 50 women attended, instructed by Margaret Majer.
During these gym classes, the Penn women developed baseball and tennis teams and strengthened their basketball team. In the latter sport, they played eight games against external teams, including those from Bryn Mawr, Temple, and Drexel. At the helm of the program, Majer earned the title of the first official coach of women’s athletics at Penn.
Majer also helped organize the construction of new tennis courts exclusively for women at 34th and Walnut, now the location of Fisher-Bennett Hall.
By 1922, the athletic teams had expanded significantly. The basketball team put up a record of 5-6, with some of their victories coming against teams like Pittsburgh, George Washington, and Adelphi. Fencing, swimming, baseball, and tennis programs continued to develop. Penn’s first intercollegiate field hockey game was played against Temple.
The Daily Pennsylvanian, at the time unfamiliar with the traditionally European game, described the rules of field hockey prior to a scrimmage against Swarthmore in the Oct. 16, 1924 edition of the paper.
“There are eleven players on a team, each being equipped with tennis shoes, shin guards, and a curved weapon greatly resembling the old fashioned shinny club,” the DP wrote. “And a hard rubber ball about the size of a baseball is used in place of a puck.”
While the programs were expanding rapidly over the next few years, female athletes were not yet seen as equal to their male counterparts.
“There is no doubt that a gross error was committed by permitting women athletes to wear the standard Varsity letter that is awarded to men,” the DP wrote on Mar. 9, 1926. “Women’s athletics, it is true, have their place in the University which admits them as students, but their athletic awards most certainly should be distinctive from that awarded to the men who participate under the colors of the University. To give them an identical award would be to lessen materially the value of the traditional Varsity ‘P’.”
In 1927, Penn added a women’s rifle team to their lineup. However, the same year, the NWAA eliminated all intercollegiate contests, in an effort to focus on intramural sports and increase overall participation from the female student body.
The Association explained the decision in the 1930 women’s yearbook.
“When women in colleges first began to show an active interest in athletics, the general tendency was to imitate the men — develop strong varsity teams for a few girls and sponsor intercollegiate competition,” the yearbook says.
“But fortunately they discovered they were starting at the wrong place — they were developing the apex of the triangle rather than the broader base which would include many women.”
This change only lasted a few years before varsity teams were reinstated. By 1940, the field hockey, basketball, tennis, and swimming teams were back to intercollegiate competition. The Association also maintained “minor sports," consisting of riflery, archery, golf, and riding.
By 1950, the list of varsity offerings for women also included softball, lacrosse, badminton, bowling, and fencing. But women still had a long way to go for equal footing in athletics at Penn. Tradition and gender roles dictated even how they could engage in sports as fans.
Although cheerleading is generally dominated by women today, for the better part of the 20th century, only men were found on the sidelines for the Red and Blue. It wasn’t until 1967 when three female students lobbied for equal opportunities for participation.
At first, this was met with scorn by the male student body, including the cheerleading squad.
Cheerleader and president of the 1967 senior class, Jeremy Rifken, told the DP on March 15, 1967, “I am unequivocally opposed to girl cheerleaders in any way, shape, or form!”
Others disagreed with the idea of female cheerleaders on the basis of tradition, questioning where they would stay on road trips and how they would handle the “drunken student body.”
The decision ultimately fell to a student referendum. The women lost, with 63% of students opposed to women on the sidelines of football games and 59% against female cheerleaders for basketball.
The three women that were rejected by the poll accused the cheerleaders of actively campaigning against them and of stuffing the ballot boxes to ensure an all-male team.
While the male squad won the battle that year, by 1972 a woman by the name of Linda Magoon had risen through the ranks to co-captain the team.
There was one position where only women were allowed to participate — the baseball team’s “batgirl.” While the job description included chasing down foul balls and putting bats on the rack, the true purpose was to draw spectators to the men’s games, largely using their attire.
“One of the more popular aspects of the batgirls are their pert outfits, or, in warmer weather, lack of pert outfits … In summer-like temperatures the girls wear marvelously-fitting hotpants with blue mesh stockings,” the DP wrote on April 21, 1972. “At least it makes those Swarthmore games more bearable.”
Notably, at the same time, colleges across the United States were taking a critical step towards their female athletes being taken seriously in their own right.
The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women was founded in 1971 as a governing body for women’s athletics that could organize national championships.
At first, there were stark differences between the AIAW and the NCAA. The AIAW prioritized academics before athletics and emphasized participation over winning. In an effort to maintain parity between teams, no AIAW member school was permitted to recruit students.
Penn was one of those member schools. By 1974, the Quakers offered eight varsity women’s teams under the AIAW banner and had plans to establish three more.
Prior to Title IX, the NCAA had little interest in women’s athletics and had no issue with the AIAW cornering that market.
When Title IX was passed in 1972, much of that changed. Title IX requires all educational institutions that receive any federal funds to provide equal opportunities for men and women to participate in sports. This does not necessarily entail identical programming or funding — only equal opportunity to play, equal treatment, and equal scholarship dollars, proportional to participation.
The following year, after their lawsuit challenging the legality of Title IX failed, the NCAA flipped their stance on women’s athletics, and began offering their own championships for female sports.
This was a significant blow to the AIAW, as member schools began defecting to the more established organization. For some schools, this was a financial decision, since unlike the AIAW, the NCAA was able to pay traveling expenses for teams or individuals attending their championships.
At first, all Ivy League women’s athletics programs stayed loyal to their association. It didn’t hurt that Princeton’s Director of Athletics, Marilee Baker, simultaneously served as president of the AIAW in 1981.
But loyalty from the Ivy League wasn’t enough to keep the faltering association going forever. There was only room for one governing body of women’s collegiate athletics, and the NCAA wasn’t going anywhere. The AIAW ceased athletic operations in mid-1982, and folded completely by 1983.
Many advocates for women’s athletics were wary of the NCAA, unable to forget how the association had filed a suit challenging the legality of Title IX when it was introduced. Some feared that the NCAA didn’t have a true interest in developing women’s athletics, and saw the move as a calculated takeover of the AIAW.
The AIAW had provided many leadership positions for women within the organization, placing women in charge of the administration of their own collegiate sports. The NCAA, a predominantly male organization, took away this control.
“Before, [female athletes] had the potential to decide their own destiny and now that’s being taken away from them,” Penn’s Associate Athletic Director Martha McConnell told the DP in February 1981. “And they will not have the option to develop their own model in women’s athletics.”
There were some benefits to the organizational change. The NCAA had greater reach in terms of television coverage than the AIAW, and this served to give female sports nationwide attention. Women were now allowed to be actively recruited by universities, and athletic scholarships available for female athletes increased.
Over the past four decades, female athletes have cemented themselves as equal stakeholders in the NCAA, and Title IX has expanded athletic opportunities for women across the country.
For the Quakers, women’s athletics have changed dramatically over the last century. Penn’s female athletes have come a long way from the days of casual field hockey scrimmages on an unused, off-campus tennis court.