November 12, 1998
Vol. 18 No. 4

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    [1917 women's basketball team]   Gertrude Dudley (standing, at left) poses for a photograph with the 1917 women's basketball team.

    Chicago pioneer got women onto courts, fields for variety of competitive athletics

    By Jennifer Leovy
    News Office

    One hundred years ago, Gertrude Dudley made everybody sweat. As Director of Women’s Athletics, Dudley bucked her contemporaries and launched competitive athletics for women at Chicago–the 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 women’s 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 Dudley’s goals of cooperation and citizenship through sports in her B.A. essay in history at Chicago.

    Dudley’s program of interclass athletics gained attention quickly. Within three years, more than 100 women vied for positions on the 1901 women’s baseball team.

    Extracurricular sports also became available to women students under Dudley’s leadership, when she established the Women’s Athletic Association in 1904. The WAA sponsored sports clubs, such as the Racket Club (tennis) and the Tarpon Society (swimming). Because women’s competitive sports were not allowed between universities, the WAA was promoted as a social organization, its motto: “Play for Play’s 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 Dudley’s legacy from 1937 to 1967, and it was under Ballwebber’s direction that Chicago’s Play Days gained popularity. They remained popular well into the late 1960s when women’s intercollegiate play was formalized. Chicago’s WAA has endured as a varsity letter association, making it one of the longest operating women’s 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 women’s intercollegiate sports was Mary Jean Mulvaney, who arrived at Chicago in 1967. Mulvaney’s leadership ushered in a new era of firsts for the University. Mulvaney was a pioneer in her own right–the first woman on the NCAA Council and the first woman to chair a joint men’s and women’s department of athletics in the country. Under Mulvaney’s guidance, Chicago had its first women’s 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. “I’ll 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 women’s volleyball, badminton, basketball and softball, became Director of Women’s Athletics. Kirby supported the women’s teams as mentor and doctor–traveling to men’s training clinics (women’s 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 didn’t 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.

    Chicago’s 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 wouldn’t violate the dress codes at other colleges,” said Mulvaney.

    The University received national recognition again in 1974 for being the first to fly its women’s 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 O’Connell, retired Vice President and Dean of Students, Mulvaney orchestrated Chicago’s 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 O’Connell. “Mary Jean’s knowledge of conference organization was invaluable.”

    Thomas Weingartner, current Chairman of the Department of Physical Education & Athletics, said joining the UAA allowed Chicago’s men’s and women’s 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 women’s volleyball team,” said Weingartner. “Today, we don’t think of women’s athletics–we think ‘athletics.’ It’s a measure of how far we’ve come.”

    By the time students in the class of 2002 were born, women athletes had uniforms, financial backing and athletic credibility. This year, Chicago’s women’s 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 women’s 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 women’s athletics.”