The Sporting Life: Stories from Chicago Collections archives

Women Athletes

While we might historically view athletics as a male domain, Chicago women have long participated in "the sporting life" alongside men. The late nineteenth century was a particularly heady time to be involved with sports, as many moments coincided: the Industrial Revolution, the Progressive Era, suffragist movements around the world, the substitution of corsets for less restrictive undergarments and the invention of the bicycle, one of the world’s first affordable and independent transportation devices.

Frances Willard: suffragist, temperance leader and avid cyclist

Frances Willard, social reformer, temperance leader, and suffragist, learned how to ride the bicycle at age 53, with the hope of improving her health. She named her bicycle Gladys and was an instant convert to the independence and power of bicycling, especially for women. In her 1895 book Wheel within a Wheel, Willard not only stresses the benefits of bicycle riding (see the quote below), but also uses her experience as a metaphor to show that that one can always learn something new. "Driving is not real exercise; it does not renovate the river of blood that flows so sluggishly in the veins of those who from any cause have lost the natural adjustment of brain to brawn. Horse-back-riding, which does promise vigorous exercise, is expensive. The bicycle meets all the conditions and will ere long come within the reach of all."  (72-73)

School Teams

Around the same time that Willard was learning to ride her bicycle, area high schools and colleges started organizing women’s sports teams. This first image is from Northwestern University’s tennis team in 1896. Just the next year the team would go on to win the second annual intercollegiate tournament. Women's tennis became popular in the United States in the late nineteenth century, but women did not participate in professional games until the 1920s.

The Image Gallery below features another image from academia, Barbara Blatchford with her Oak Park High School basketball team in 1912. Blatchford is the granddaughter of E.W. Blatchford, one of the founders of the Newberry Library. She later became an occupational therapist and nutritionist, perhaps influenced by her early participation in sports.

Professional Athletes and Exhibitions

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women had very limited options if they wanted to transition from school athletics to professional sports. A place to showcase one’s prowess was in exhibitions like the Olympics and the Pan American Games. Here we have an image of women swimming in the third Pan American games hosted in Chicago in 1959. The Pan American Games, first held in Dallas in 1932, always occur one year before the summer Olympics with athletes from countries in North and South America. Cleveland was originally scheduled to host the 1959 event, and the last-minute scramble might explain some of the difficulties Chicago faced. Facilities all over Chicago hosted events; Portage Park served as the primary aquatic center. The United States swept the swimming events, winning all 16 gold medals. The 1950 Pan American Games are just one example of exhibitions held on Chicago Park District grounds; another example includes the exhibit cover image of gymnasts in 1984 at the Lincoln Park Zoo, also featured in the Image Gallery below. It’s likely these gymnasts were performing in honor of the Chicago Park District’s fiftieth anniversary.

Extracurricular Sports

In addition to professional exhibitions, many women participated in amateur athletics. Amateur sports clubs and leagues have long been vehicles for socializing, exercising and independence. Bowling has a particularly long history in Chicago’s life of leisure. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, more than 230 bowling alleys operated in the city by 1910. Chicago hosted the first United States women’s championships in 1901, and the city hosted the Women’s International Bowling Congress tournaments in 1920 and 1935. Here is a Chicago Daily News photograph of Mrs. George Brignall posing in a bowling alley in 1920, although there’s no indication she was part of the tournament.

In our Image Gallery, you can find a member of the Lincoln Park Archery Club member Ann Long (?) posing in front of a Lake Shore Drive high-rise apartment in 1940, another example of an amateur athlete. Browse the gallery below for images relating to women in sports from our member institutions, including University of Chicago archers, boaters in Lincoln Park, runners at the Brookfield Zoo and flower shows organized by the Chicago Horticulture Society.

Learn More

There is more information about Women Athletes in EXPLORE Chicago Collections, as well as collections generally about Sports, Recreation and Leisure and Gender.

Sources consulted for information on this page not linked above and sources for further reading:

Image Gallery

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  1. Portage Park (0147) Events - Pan-American Games, 1959
  2. Northwestern University Women's Tennis Team
  3. Mrs. George Brignall holding a bowling ball