Getting Started

The Amateur Athletic Club (AAC) was formed in 1866, becoming the Amateur Athletics Association (AAA), governing body for athletics in England in 1880. It was among the first national governing bodies for the athletics in the world; however, it dealt exclusively with men’s competitions. Women’s athletics was organised through clubs, usually affiliated to men’s athletics clubs, or through public schools but with no governing body the approach was piecemeal.

A women’s team from England competed at the First Monte Carlo Games – the first international event for women – in 1921.

Embroidered England Team badge from a match between England and France held in 1922.
Private collection.

Without a governing body or structure, the team was coached and managed by Joe Palmer a timekeeper and starter, and Major W.B. Marchant, Director of Physical Education at Regent Street Polytechnic. The team was selected from promising looking girls in the Polytechnic’s PE classes. They did well, the standout performers being Mary Lines who medalled in the 60m, 250m, long jump and, sprint relays along with Ivy Lowman, Daisy Wright and Norma Callebout, and Hilda Hatt who medalled in the hurdles, high jump, and pentathlon. Florence Birchenough took silver in the javelin.

Developments in the governance of women’s athletics overseas, particularly in France where the Fédération Sportive Féminine International (FSFI) was being established, and the success at Monte Carlo encouraged England to look to the governance of women’s athletics at home. The AAA however were reluctant, their position was that they thought it:

advisable for women’s athletics to be governed by a separate body

Amateur Athletic Association, 1922

Vera Seale, 1920s sprint champion and later stalwart of the WAAA, as Hon. Secretary, Chairman, and President of the organisation over her eight decades of involvement had a different take on the AAAs position:

The men didn’t want anything to do with us. They were afraid of a lot of fierce looking women interfering!

Vera Seale, 1989, reminiscing about the origin of the WAAA

There was vociferous opposition to women’s athletics, arguments ranged from women being too frail to compete to the fear that the physical exertion required for athletics might make women become too manly in both appearance and manner. The perennial “no-one will be interested in watching women’s sport” was voiced by many. There were concerns on medical grounds too that women taking part in physical activity might not be able to bear children. Vera, again had opinions on this:

I think it would be safe to say that 99% of the medical profession in this country were against women taking an active part in athletics. They said you were leaving your womanhood on the track, and it was quite possible none of us would ever have children. That made me laugh. How could they know anything about it? They’d never seen any woman running.

Vera Searle

In spite of all the concerns, the WAAA was formed in October 1922, by athletes Florence Birchenough, shot and discus, and Mary Lines, long jump and 60m and 800m who had both competed at the Monte Carlo Games in 1921 and 1922, Major Marchant and Joe Palmer who had managed the team at Monte Carlo 1921, Teddy Knowles, Harry Wadmore and Charles Churchill.