From mile-long hikes to the Olympics

A display of historical athletics equipment, including Indian clubs (left) and a fencing mask (center).

By Keely Savoie

When Mount Holyoke Female Seminary opened its doors in 1837, founder Mary Lyon was adamant about many things. One of them was that students were required to walk a mile a day (or a minimum of 45 minutes in inclement weather) and take part in regular calisthenic exercises.

While it might seem to be an odd preoccupation or just a personal idiosyncrasy, a historical reading of Mary Lyon’s insistence on physical education reveals that it was neither odd nor a preoccupation, but a sensible response to the prevailing social belief at the time: that education might harm women’s bodies or interfere with their reproductive health.

“One of the main reasons Mary Lyon insisted on physical fitness is that she wanted to prove that Mount Holyoke — this radical experiment in educating young women — was not having a negative impact on their bodies,” said Leslie Fields, head of Archives and Special Collections at Mount Holyoke College.

That was one of the revelations to come out of the work of student interns Kyley Butler ’18, Katie Prince ’19, Sam Snodgrass ’18 and Lily Williams ’18, who spent the summer researching and analyzing photographs, yearbooks and objects relating to physical education at Mount Holyoke. They were overseen by Fields with the support from Lynk funding — The Lynk curriculum-to-career initiative supports student research and internships — and two Mount Holyoke alumnae, Kathy Schofield ’70 and Jennie Berkson ’76, who is a new member of Mount Holyoke’s Board of Trustees .

The students’ work is now on display in an exhibit, “From Calisthenics to Olympics: The History of Physical Education at Mount Holyoke,” that probes the various background and social influences that shaped physical education of women at Mount Holyoke through the years.

The opening is slated for September 21 from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m., and the four interns will be on hand to lead personal tours through the exhibits detailing the extraordinary history of physical education at Mount Holyoke.

The cases display photographs and objects that Mount Holyoke women used in sports. They contain Indian clubs, weighted maraca-shaped sticks designed to condition the wrists and arms during calisthenics; a wooden lacrosse stick; a fencing mask; photographs of Mount Holyoke students throughout the ages engaged in sports and physical education; archival floorplans of the gymnasium and sport spaces as they have evolved through the decades; and even a trophy from a horse show in 1933.

Butler curated the case that holds the historic equipment used by students throughout the decades.

“I had never seen the Indian clubs before,” said Butler, a history major and anthropology minor from Gorham, Maine. “But I found a manual written by Cornelia Clapp, the zoology professor who Clapp Laboratory was named for, that described how they were meant to be used. I think one of the most interesting things I found through all this research is how these everyday objects reflected and shaped the lives of the women who used them.”

Snodgrass, a gender studies major, co-curated a case on the history of gymnasia at Mount Holyoke, as well as a case exploring the origins of athletics and ways in which the laws and mores of the times informed how students were able to participate.

For instance, she found that when a residence hall was rendered unoccupiable because of a fire, the residents were moved temporarily into Blanchard Hall, which at the time was the main gymnasium on campus. Another surprise: Blanchard once housed bowling lanes in its basement at a time when no respectable woman could bowl in public.

“It’s really fascinating when you start to dig into all the history there,” Snodgrass said, noting that when she started researching the history of team sports at Mount Holyoke, she found similar evidence of social mores influencing women’s participation in sports in surprising ways.

“For many years, teams competed between classes or dorms, simply because there weren’t other competitors,” she said. “But in the 1930s, Mount Holyoke College started competing against other local colleges. They would play just for fun. There were no leagues or real stakes,” she said, noting that in 1949, the Mount Holyoke field hockey team beat Harvard’s, 6–2.

Team competitions changed after the federal law known as Title IX passed in in 1972. Among the many new rules, colleges and universities were now required to fund women’s athletics on par with men’s. This gave rise to a whole new era of intercollegial, regional and national competitions.

Mount Holyoke’s physical education and athletics department has come a long way since Mary Lyon’s mile-long hikes, having turned out six Olympic athletes, and innumerable national champions and All-Americans across its 14 sports.

Join our team. Visit.