Fridays with Fred: Shaking things up with P.E. director Mabel Lee

Women and physical education at Beloit College.

President Melvin Amos Brannon had a penchant for shaking things up. He was the first Beloit College president with a university background, the first who was not a member of the clergy, and the first with more interest in practical and vocational education than a devotion to a classical curriculum.

During the summer of 1920 he searched for someone to develop the languishing department of physical education for women. His first choice was a maverick dynamo named Mabel Lee. “Personally I believe you will find Old Beloit one of the most worthwhile centers in which to develop satisfying and encouraging work with the young women in Physical Education,” he wrote to Lee (pictured below), offering the position at a salary of $1,800 per year plus room and board.

The 34-year-old Lee was from Des Moines, Iowa, a graduate of both Coe College and the Physical Education School at Wellesley, and had most recently served for eight years as director of physical education for women at Coe. The Beloit Alumnus described her as “a woman of exceptional personality and ability.” Those characteristics proved handy when attempting to revive a program the college magazine bemoaned as “drudgery and inconvenience to the women.”

Lee arrived in Beloit for the fall semester and took charge from her tiny office. One woman student, writing in the Round Table, spoke for many: “Beloit women welcome Miss Lee with open arms, for we realize that we are entering upon a new era in women’s athletics, and that the wishes and desires of many are at last to be granted.”

Although it would be over half a century before women participated in intercollegiate athletics, Lee created a strong inter-class program featuring such sports as basketball, field hockey, tennis, and baseball. Women also participated in swimming, gymnastics, archery, and even rifle shooting. Lee strongly believed, however, in other forms of physical education, especially for non-athletes. She held classes in aesthetic, interpretive, and folk dancing. She also instituted regular physical checkups for women. She marched the women on all-day hikes and insisted that they wear knickers, the first of her battles over “appropriate” clothing.

Despite furor among some faculty and administration, Lee eventually won the right for women to wear bloomers for outdoor sports. By October, the Round Table commented on one novel effect of Lee’s presence:

“The campus is going to continue to have a bald spot if the co-eds are to have their way. Human nature and especially feminine nature simply must have some outlet for surplus energy. So when hall rules demand that tomb-like silence be maintained the only natural thing for the girls to do when they get outside the halls of silence is to create a rumpus. Hence the shrieks and dust of late. The encyclopedia says that the first game of ground hockey, vulgarly known as shinny, was played on September 2, 1378. A few years later, October, to be exact, 1920, the game drifted to the Beloit campus…Every afternoon in the week the girls are practicing…”

Her enthusiasm may have been contagious and her will, remarkably strong, but Lee soon discovered that she and her charges were nowhere near on equal footing with the men, as she later wrote in her autobiography, Memories of a Bloomer Girl:

“Not until I learned that the college opened its doors to women only in 1895, did I get the full implication for my departmental work of the undercurrent of non-acceptance of women on campus by many men students. And no department was more resented than the department of physical education for women because it was the one threat to the men in demanding a share in the one building the men felt should be their exclusive domain. My predecessors evidently had not been much of a threat to their liberties. The women of the nation had won their 72-year war for equal suffrage the very summer I had accepted appointment at Beloit. Now the women students championed by me were demanding a much larger share of the gymnasium, including the pool…”

And as it turned out, Smith Gymnasium, up to then a bastion of male athletics, was the site of her toughest fight. From Memories of a Bloomer Girl:

“The boys apparently had been in the habit of running all over the building in the nude. One day, assuming that the men had left a gymnastics class by the door leading to their dressing room since the last bell had rung, I walked out onto the gym floor with a class of girls at my heels only to find a floor full of boys playing basketball, every Mother’s son of one team strip-stark naked, the other team with some item of clothing on to differentiate the two teams. I was furious. Many a time I, alone, had encountered nude boys in the hallway when I had needed to go across to the men’s office at the opposite side of the building for some conference and always had protested to the men’s director who assured me it wouldn’t happen again. However, he added a disgruntled aside to the effect that women had no business in that building anyway. But this time the boys were on the large gym floor at a time when the floor was assigned to the girls. The girls had turned and fled to their dressing room, some in tears, many furiously angry. I followed them, calmed them down as best I could, and dismissed them. Then I changed into street clothes and made one beeline to the office of Dr. Herman Conwell who was chairman of the college athletic committee. He was as angry as I and when I told him of my earlier experiences and broken promises, Dr. Conwell said, ‘We’re going to the president with this.’ There was a prompt order to the men’s department that if any man was ever again seen outside the men’s dressing room or swimming pool nude, he would be expelled. The men were in an uproar over this ruling…”

Mabel Lee left Beloit College after 1924, although she was very tempted to stay, having worked well with both President Brannon and his successor, Irving Maurer. She went on to have a distinguished career as an educator and as a national leader in physical education for women. In 1931 she became the first female president of the American Physical Education Association and in 1940, the first female president of the American Academy of Physical Education. Among her other achievements, she presided over the women’s events of the 1932 Summer Olympics, held in Los Angeles. She always retained her affection for Beloit College, kept in contact, and wrote a letter of support in the early 1960s when Beloit’s chapter of the Delta Gamma sorority came under fire from the national organization for pledging an African-American student. Admired and lauded as an advocate for women’s physical education, Lee also became known for her strong stance on civil rights and women’s rights. She passed away in 1985 at the age of 99.

February 23, 2012

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