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“Have Not the Women the Same Rights as the Men?”
Pioneers in Women’s Sports at St. Lawrence

In conjunction with the University’s sesquicentennial, Professor Emerita of Sport and Leisure Studies Dotty Hall has written Women’s Sports at St. Lawrence University: From Beginnings to Title IX.  The book is available online or in person at Brewer Bookstore. As she notes in her Foreword, her study commences in 1894 with the establishment of a women’s basketball club and ends in 1974 when women’s and men’s athletics were merged into one department and the Education Amendments Act of 1972 (“Title IX”) demanded a new approach to women’s athletics. Prof. Hall portrays an 80-year period of growth, decline and recovery setting the stage for the great expansion and achievements of the past 30 years.

Origins of First Sports (1894 – 1914)

About twenty-five of the young ladies of the college have formed a basketball club. The games are played nearly every afternoon in one of the basement rooms of College Hall.
--The Laurentian, December 1894

Basketball, generally recognized as the first sport played by college women, was also the inaugural women’s sport at St. Lawrence. It even appears that the women’s basketball club preceded any male basketball clubs or teams at St. Lawrence.

Class teams seemed to be the most popular organizing principle for women’s basketball.  But on February 21, 1903, a St. Lawrence “girls’” basketball team traveled by train to Ogdensburg to play the Ogdensburg Free Academy girls.  The Laurentian, March 1903, reported that, chaperoned by Professor Mary Young, the SLU girls “led their opponents until near the close of the second half when the O.F.A. team tied the score.  Time expired with the score four to four and on playing off the tie Miss Burt threw the winning goal for O.F.A.  Miss Black secured all of the points for St. Lawrence.  Our girls returned with the kindest reports of their treatment at the hands of their Ogdensburg hosts.”

Tennis was the second sport to be organized by and for women students.  Field hockey began in the second decade of the 20th century.

Slow and Steady Growth (1915-1931)

“The old type of woman, who thought it undignified to take any more violent type of exercise than a stroll about her flower garden, well protected by a parasol, is surely becoming extinct.  We hope to see such sports as archery, hockey, etc., already popular at many women’s colleges, introduced at St. Lawrence in due season.” --The Hill News, December 5, 1921

Well into the mid-1920s, growth in women’s sports at St. Lawrence was slow, but steady.   Then, in 1924, the women’s varsity basketball team was disbanded. 

Martha Sansom was St. Lawrence's first director of women's athletics (1926).

An exciting new era began in women’s sport and physical education at St. Lawrence in 1926 with Martha Sansom’s appointment as women’s athletic director. Miss Sansom provided effective leadership for significant growth and development. Existing programs became stronger and many new activities were added. But they reflected a time when broad-based participation was captured by the oft-quoted “A girl in every sport and a sport for every girl.” This cliché was promoted by those female physical educators who continued to oppose high-level competition for girls and women in the country’s educational institutions. 

Responsive to the growing “anti-competitive movement” within women’s intercollegiate sport, the Women’s Athletic Association (WAA) hosted several non-competitive “play days” over the next few decades.  This concept is best conveyed in a Hill News article of May 8, 1929, about the first such event for St. Lawrence: “Representatives from Middlebury, Syracuse, Elmira, Buffalo, and St. Lawrence are expected to be in Canton.  Teams for baseball, basketball, tennis, archery, and track will be selected from the girls taking part in the meet, quite regardless of their respective schools.  The motive of the ‘play day’ is not to test the athletic skill of any of the colleges represented, but merely to promote intercollegiate friendliness among the women of the various student bodies.” 

The Anti-Competitive Era (1932-1967)

Helen Hicks, one of 13 LPGA founders, came to campus to display her golf skills, speak at the Women's Athletic Association (WAA) end-of-the-year rally and conduct a clinic for students in May 1937.

“Women’s sports, except perhaps skiing, were not highly valued, but those of us who persevered enjoyed the experience.” --Susan Powers Suger ’54

In response to calls for more organized women’s intercollegiate athletics, it would take several decades for women’s sports at St. Lawrence to get beyond isolated instances of intercollegiate competition.  In the intervening years, a variety of sports with varying formats were introduced at St. Lawrence, some for men as well as women: soccer, golf, volleyball, badminton and ping-pong. 

Intercollegiate athletic activity was minimal at best throughout World War II. Skiing became firmly entrenched; established in the late 1930s, the women’s team continued to travel to various collegiate winter carnival events, winning the UVM carnival in 1948. Although it did not yet include competition against other schools, the WAA-sponsored Spring Riding Show was considered a major campus activity.

A Fencing Club, open to women and men, was established in 1948.  The club sponsored men’s and women’s teams drawn from its membership.  Fencers including Dot Norton ’53, Hedevig “Deddy” Frolich ’52, Thelma Gore ’51, Nathalie Norton ’53 and Nancy Des Reis ’54 were part of a four-year winning streak, 1950-54. 

For almost 20 years, from the end of World War II into the mid-1960s, a “typical WAA year” reflected what was happening at St. Lawrence as the anti-competitive era in women’s sports slowly drew to a close.  In addition to the fall, winter and spring “play days,” annual events included a fall mountain climbing trip in the Adirondacks, followed by a Halloween party.  “The WAA on Ice” was the main winter event; the annual horse show was featured in the spring. 

Changing Programs and the Impact of Title IX (1968-1974)

“No person shall…. on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation
in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance.”
Title IX – Education Act of 1972

In her article “Women’s Pre-Title IX Sports History in the United States,” Nancy Struna states that there was “a dynamic and continuing growth of women’s sports in the late 1960’s” (  St. Lawrence’s women were not left behind in this movement.
Throughout the 1960s, Women’s Athletic and Recreation Association (WARA, the successor to the WAA) sports days became less frequent and department-sponsored teams were organized.  By the close of the decade, limited game schedules for intercollegiate competition began to grow for field hockey, tennis and basketball.

In the fall of 1974, the merging of the men’s and women’s departments paved the way for a committed effort to adhere to both the spirit and the letter of Title IX.  Women’s intercollegiate offerings continued to grow, with soccer, ice hockey, volleyball, swimming, cross country and track and field.  Later, softball was elevated from club status.  When crew, golf and squash were added in the late 1990s for both women and men, the college reached its current level of offerings – 15 for men, 16 for women and one, riding, which is coeducational in the modern meaning of the word.

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