Chicago pioneer got women onto courts, fields for variety of competitive athleticsBy Jennifer Leovy
One hundred years ago, Gertrude Dudley made everybody sweat. As Director of Womens Athletics, Dudley bucked her contemporaries and launched competitive athletics for women at Chicagothe first program of its kind at a major university.
In 1898, with support from President William Rainey Harper and Director of the Department of Physical Culture Amos Alonzo Stagg, Dudley came to Chicago, where she began a century of firsts for womens athletics.
While competition for women was loudly discouraged in her profession, Miss Dudley not only organized games among the women of the University but initiated intercollegiate contests, said Ann Harvilla, Associate Dean of Students in the College. Dudley recognized that a competitive element generated enthusiasm for athletics, noted Harvilla, who wrote about Dudleys goals of cooperation and citizenship through sports in her B.A. essay in history at Chicago.
Dudleys program of interclass athletics gained attention quickly. Within three years, more than 100 women vied for positions on the 1901 womens baseball team.
Extracurricular sports also became available to women students under Dudleys leadership, when she established the Womens Athletic Association in 1904. The WAA sponsored sports clubs, such as the Racket Club (tennis) and the Tarpon Society (swimming). Because womens competitive sports were not allowed between universities, the WAA was promoted as a social organization, its motto: Play for Plays Sake.
Dudley sidestepped the ban on intercollegiate competition in the 1920s by inviting local colleges to WAA Play Days on the Midway. Play Days games involved mixing teams so no single college could be declared a winner. For a long time, people thought that once winning matters, you lose the value of the activity for its own sake, said Rosalie Resch, Associate Professor and Associate Chairman in Physical Education & Athletics. But we were always ahead of the curve.
Edith Ballwebber continued Dudleys legacy from 1937 to 1967, and it was under Ballwebbers direction that Chicagos Play Days gained popularity. They remained popular well into the late 1960s when womens intercollegiate play was formalized. Chicagos WAA has endured as a varsity letter association, making it one of the longest operating womens athletics associations in the country.
Cutting-edge leadership also had its downside. During the 1930s, the Tarpon Society held its annual water ballet performance for a coed audience. Resch retells alumna Cay Watkins story about the day state-of-the-art rubber swimsuits made by Goodyear debuted at the event.
As the women raised their arms to dive in, half of the suits split, said Resch. The next night, they returned to their old cotton swimsuits, and the line for tickets was out the door.
Also receiving attention for womens intercollegiate sports was Mary Jean Mulvaney, who arrived at Chicago in 1967. Mulvaneys leadership ushered in a new era of firsts for the University. Mulvaney was a pioneer in her own rightthe first woman on the NCAA Council and the first woman to chair a joint mens and womens department of athletics in the country. Under Mulvaneys guidance, Chicago had its first womens sports program with official intercollegiate schedules.
When I arrived, we had one set of uniforms and nine or 10 different teams, said Mulvaney. They rotated overused plain white shirts and maroon shorts until Maroon history repeated itself. Ill never forget when our catcher stood up to make a throw and her shirt ripped, said Mulvaney. We taped her up and kept playing.
When Mulvaney became chair of the department, Patricia Kirby, who originally coached womens volleyball, badminton, basketball and softball, became Director of Womens Athletics. Kirby supported the womens teams as mentor and doctortraveling to mens training clinics (womens clinics did not exist) to learn about ankle wraps and ice packs. Kirby and Mulvaney transported the teams in station wagons and paid for team meals out of their own pockets. In 1997, Kirby received the Norman Maclean Award for teaching and contributions to student life.
The University garnered national attention in 1973 by offering the first four-year, athletic scholarship for women, named after Gertrude Dudley. Margaret Perry in Admissions didnt think it was fair that the men had the Stagg scholarship, and the women had nothing, said Mulvaney.
After Parade published an article about the scholarship, Mulvaney said she received bags and bags and bags of applications. The response was so overwhelming the University decided to give away scholarships to two women, Noel Bairey, who is currently a cardiologist, and Laura Silvieus, who has an M.B.A. and now manages a law firm.
Chicagos dress code also was ahead of its time, permitting female students to wear pants on campus earlier than most other colleges. In the 1960s and 1970s, our women traveled in their uniforms so they wouldnt violate the dress codes at other colleges, said Mulvaney.
The University received national recognition again in 1974 for being the first to fly its womens basketball team to a competition. It was crazy, said Mulvaney. The press was everywhere. Mulvaney said the attention distracted the Maroons, and they did not perform well, but no one in the press cared about that.
Together with Charles OConnell, retired Vice President and Dean of Students, Mulvaney orchestrated Chicagos 1986 entrance into the University Athletic Association. We wanted to be involved with universities like ourselves, who were interested in scholarship and wanted to play for the game itself, said OConnell. Mary Jeans knowledge of conference organization was invaluable.
Thomas Weingartner, current Chairman of the Department of Physical Education & Athletics, said joining the UAA allowed Chicagos mens and womens teams to begin traveling together because their schedules are the same in this conference. They finally got to know one another. The men and women share a common bond as extraordinary students and athletes. They are hugely supportive of one another. For example, the Order of the C just hosted an event purely to support the womens volleyball team, said Weingartner. Today, we dont think of womens athleticswe think athletics. Its a measure of how far weve come.
By the time students in the class of 2002 were born, women athletes had uniforms, financial backing and athletic credibility. This year, Chicagos womens soccer team was selected to the NCAA III Championships, third-year student Rhaina Echols was the top finisher at the UAA Cross Country Championship and womens tennis went 7-0.
It truly is inspiring to know that female athletes, nearly three-quarters of a century before Title IX, had a place at Chicago. Gertrude Dudley, Mary Jean Mulvaney and many other women are responsible for the continued recognition and support of all female athletes, past, present and future, at the University, said Amy Still, WAA President.
We are indebted to them for their contributions to and belief in womens athletics.