Before the WAAA

The athletic woman is not new.

In the ancient Greek world women as well as men competed in physical pursuits; the men had the Olympics, the women the Heraea Games, honouring the Goddess Hera.

In England there are records of foot races for women as far back as 1639

Detail from an engraving by John Collect, 1770, entitled An HOLLAND SMOCK to be run for, by any Woman born in this COUNTY: The best Woman in three Heats.
“Best of three” racing for women runners began around 1730, borrowed from horse racing, and by the end of the century was the most common format of racing for women. Three races spaced throughout the day with breathers in between; if the same runner won the first two races the contest was over, but if two different runners won the first two it would go to a decider. This had the advantage of keeping the crowds entertained over a prolonged period of time, with the distances being run sometimes several miles.
Courtesy of Peter Radford

These races, often run as part of village fairs had prizes of clothing or money for the winner.

In England there are records of foot races for women as far back as 1639, often run as part of village fairs, with prizes of clothing or money. In eighteenth-century England women of all classes engaged in sporting competitions in large numbers. There were cricket and football matches, and stool-ball. Curling was popular in the North and in Scotland, and women of all classes rode in competition. Running was a hugely popular competitive sport for women during the Georgian Era, more so even than for men.

Work, as well as recreation was physically demanding. Washing, spinning wool, or working in domestic service were all labour-intensive occupations undertaken by women, and as the industrial revolution took hold women as well as men worked long hours in factories.

The 1880s saw women permitted to play tennis at Wimbledon for the first time, and the invention of the Safety Bicycle in the same decade transformed the bicycle from a tall, wobbly, dangerous machine into something which could be ridden in a skirt, leading to an explosion in numbers of women cyclists.

Newspaper adverts for women’s sporting apparel in the 1890s indicate that there was a market for such items, and an article in the Dundee Courier in 1900 asking if the “The Era of The Athletic Girl is on the Wane?” implies both that the existence of athletic women had been long enough to constitute an era, and that there were enough such women to be noticed by the paper’s readership.

As World War One took working age men to the front lines and drew more women into factories and on to the land the physical activity undertaken by women in the workplace expanded. In the course of the War women’s football drew large crowds with the gate money often being donated to charity. It would seem that the era of the athletic girl was far from waning, although certain sections of society in the early 1920s were far from happy about this….