Thursday, September 20, 2012

Sesquicentennial Stories: The Promise of UK #127

Women’s basketball was established on the University of Kentucky campus in 1902.  Making the 1902-03 women’s basketball team the first of either sex at the then called State College to play a full intercollegiate schedule.

At State College, there was no place to play basketball until Barker Hall was built. Even then, basketball was not a spectator sport for the simple reason that the gym could not accommodate more than those who could stand around the floor of the balcony, which was also the running track.  From 1903 on, the men shared the gym with the women.

Old gymnasium in Barker Hall, circa 1901
Women’s basketball was taken quite seriously by the women themselves, but not, it seems, by the men students. According to Hail Kentucky by Helen Deiss Irvin,  A “Kentuckian” of 1904 reports a game as one vast tide of straight hair, stray hair, curls and ribbons reversed and cries of ‘Here Rebekah,’ and ‘Oh, Gemima, how could you?’”  That same year one Herman Scholtz disguised himself as a girl and went to Georgetown with the coeds, obviously with their connivance.  There he watched a spirited contest forbidden to male spectators.  He had to be punished, but the faculty was at a loss.  Although there were more than 180 specific rules, nobody had ever thought to include one against dressing up as a girl.  Scholtz got a general reprimand. 

Women's basketball team, Kentucky State College, 1903.  Photo shows the Women’s Basketball team of 1902-03, made up of Miriam Nave, Alice Pence, Nell Norwood, Fanny Redd, Amanda Maull, Helen Jaeger, Willie Spier, Jimmie Offutt and Mary E. Clarke.  They were coached by Jane Todd Watson.
For the first few years of its existence on UK's campus, the women's basketball team mostly played inter-class scrimmages, only playing one or two intercollegiate games per season. All games were carefully monitored by Florence Offutt Stout, the women's physical education director and first Dean of Women, and no spectators were allowed.  Stout was a proponent of "medical gymnastics," a more gentle form of physical exercise targeted at promoting physical health and eliminating obesity, and considered competitive sports at odds with this program.

Kentucky women's basketball team, 1921, with student coach Sarah Blanding
 In 1909, the women's basketball team complained via a petition to the faculty senate stating that Stout did not support the development of the sport and asked that the athletic association take over the management of the team. This started a power struggle which stretched over almost two decades among Stout, women students in favor of the sport, and the athletic association.  In 1924, bolstered by the support of Sarah Blanding -- the new Dean of Women -- Stout finally convinced the University Senate and UK President Frank McVey that basketball was "too strenuous for girls." McVey cited this "strenuousity" and the claim that road trips for the team were prohibitively expensive due to "the necessity of proper chaperonage" as reasons for banning women's basketball. This was in spite of the fact that the 1923-1924 women's team had won the Southern Intercollegiate Championship after an undefeated 10-0 season. All women's intercollegiate varsity sports were discontinued on November 13, 1924. Ironically, the 1924-1925 season marked the first season of men's basketball play in Alumni Gym and a rise of popularity in the game on campus.

In the next decades, women's basketball continued to be played in physical education classes, and later as an intramural sport, but organizing campus dances became the primary focus of the Women's Athletic Association. It was not until 1974 that women's basketball was reinstated as a varsity sport, with Sue Feamster serving as the first coach of a varsity team in fifty years.

Gregory Kent Stanley has written a fuller account of the early years of women's basketball and the campus politics affecting it in his book Before Big Blue. UK Athletics offers a historic timeline of women's basketball achievements on its website under "History and records."

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