Active Bodies: A History of Women's Physical Education in Twentieth-Century America

Active Bodies: A History of Women's Physical Education in Twentieth-Century America

Active Bodies: A History of Women's Physical Education in Twentieth-Century America

Active Bodies: A History of Women's Physical Education in Twentieth-Century America


During the twentieth century, opportunities for exercise and sports grew significantly for girls and women in the United States. Among the key figures who influenced this revolution were female physical educators. Drawing on extensive archival research, Active Bodies examines the ideas, experiences, and instructional programs of white and black female physical educators who taught in public schools and diverse colleges and universities, including coed and single-sex, public and private, and predominantly white and historically black institutions. Working primarily with female students, women physical educators had to consider what an active female could and should do in comparison to boys and men. Applying concepts of sex differences, they debated the implications of female anatomy, physiology, reproductive functions, and psychosocial traits for achieving gender parity in the gym. Teachers' interpretations were conditioned by the places where they worked, as well as developments in education, feminism, and the law, society's changing attitudes about gender, race, and sexuality, and scientific controversies over the nature and significance of sex differences. While deliberating fairness for their students, women physical educators also pursued equity for themselves, as their workplaces and nascent profession often marginalized female and minority personnel. Questions of difference and equity divided the field throughout the century; while some teachers favored moderate views and incremental change, others promoted justice for their students and themselves by exerting authority at their schools, critiquing traditional concepts of "difference," and devising innovative curricula.

Exploring physical education within and beyond the gym, Active Bodies sheds new light on the enduring complexities of difference and equity in American culture.


“Gym class.” For many Americans—young and old, male and female—this phrase evokes strong images. Among teenagers, it brings to mind fitness tests, coed soccer, multicultural games, and group showers. Older generations might think back to dodge ball, sit-ups, social dance, and the humiliation of wearing ill-fitting gym suits. Regardless of age, few people forget the satisfaction of mastering a difficult skill in “PE” or the pain of being picked last for a team.

The vividness of these memories speaks to the resonance of physical education in American culture. Lessons in physical activity take place not only in schools and colleges but also in community centers, retirement homes, social service agencies, and commercial gyms and fitness clubs. Instruction can entail basic exercise, proficiency tests, recreational and competitive games, and information about health, hygiene, physiology, and sex. Physical education also conveys indelible lessons about the body and the self; it teaches discipline and spontaneity, competition and cooperation, self-esteem and embarrassment, confidence and alienation. Most Americans understand these meanings at a visceral level; other school lessons—from parsing a sentence to solving quadratic equations—are long forgotten, but we still remember how gym class both empowered and demoralized us. This paradox seems intrinsic to everyone’s experience of physical education.

Other features, however, vary by social address. Age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, and locality have always affected people’s experiences in gym class. During the early decades of the twentieth century, physical education gained a foothold in America’s public schools. Prior to 1915, only three states required physical education for school-aged youth; shortly after World War I the number grew to twenty-eight; in 1929 the total was forty-six. Young boys and girls typically exercised together in racially segregated primary schools. In secondary schools, white boys participated in military drills and sports, while white girls practiced calisthenics; the same held true for black pupils in upper grades. At boarding schools for Native Americans, boys competed in baseball and football, and girls learned calisthenics . . .

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