The Early Years for Women (1890s-1970)

Pioneers in Motion

Under the Radar

The early days of women’s athletics at the University of Oregon consisted of loosely organized competitions and social gatherings. With a handful of practices, sporadic contests, and minimal resources, women athletes enjoyed only limited opportunities during the first 75 years on campus.

Just as the University attempted to forge new paths from the beginning of its formation, so too did women’s athletics. During the late 1890s, the Co-ed Athletic Club (CAC) formed with the goal to generate interest in sports among women. Basketball was the most popular sport, and intramural games were the most common type of competition. In the late 1890s, University President, Charles Chapman, encouraged athletic growth and mandated that all students participate in gym classes.

Fueling Expansion

Despite the opportunities offered, the majority of women shied away from actual participation, choosing instead to focus on supporting the men’s teams. A shift in this pattern began after a new men’s gymnasium was completed in 1909. Women were given expanded use of the old gymnasium and were encouraged to be more active. The efforts of Dr. Bertha S. Stuart, who was hired as the Physical Director for Women in 1909, had a particularly strong effect on the activity level of women students.

In addition, the University also began making humble financial appropriations for women’s athletics. In 1909, female students established a tennis club, convincing University officials to allocate $200 for the construction of three courts. The following year, the Board of Regents approved $5,000 for the remodeling the old gymnasium which was being used by women athletes.

With increased support from the University, the Women’s Athletic Association (WAA) formed in 1913, creating the initial framework for an organized women’s athletic program. The WAA aimed to connect women interested in sports while encouraging active lifestyles among all. Typically, these sports events were accompanied by social gatherings, such as a luncheon or tea party. The WAA also began a long tradition of holding annual field days to heighten interest on campus.

Shortly after the WAA formed, the University competed in its first official women’s intercollegiate competition-a tennis match in 1914 against Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University). The event signaled the beginning of a tradition of contests between the two schools, particularly since women’s teams did not regularly travel to competitions requiring overnight stays until the 1970s.

From 1918 to 1919, WAA membership doubled, showing promising signs for the future of women’s sports. Basketball, tennis, indoor baseball and field hockey drew the most attention as women’s athletics gained a foothold at Oregon.

The Beginning of Transitional Times (1920-1950) Expanding the Playing Platform

Basketball: Women's, 1920s [9] (recto)
Basketball: Women's, 1920s [9] (recto)

Women continued to gain more athletic opportunities as the decades continued. During the 1920s, on-campus participation grew substantially. Most of the growth was attributed to the recently created Donut Leagues, which resembled today’s intramurals. Teams were formed through dormitory and sorority affiliations, and nearly 100 women participated in the first contests.

In addition to new leagues, the completion of the women’s gymnasium in 1921, now known as Gerlinger Hall, further stimulated interest in sports. The opportunities the new gym afforded included expanded class offerings, extended hours for activities, and a heightened focus on women’s health and physical fitness.

Increased intercollegiate competitions gained momentum during this era as well. The First Annual Play Day between Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University) and the University of Oregon took place May 22, 1926. The affair involved an array of sports events, ranging from badminton to field hockey, that were accompanied by a social gathering. In addition to the all-day themed activities, the University also competed against teams throughout the Northwest in a handful of contests in field hockey, swimming, and tennis.

Restraining Trends

Although the popularity of the women’s sports appeared to be growing, a trend toward minimizing women’s participation in athletics swept across the country. In 1923, Lou Henry Hoover, wife of President Hoover, organized a committee regarding education and women’s recreation. They concluded that women should not participate in competitive athletics. Although this was not a mandate, the decision influenced others opinions across the nation.

Throughout this era, there was a strong push across America to keep women’s athletics more focused on educational and recreational enjoyment as opposed to money and competition, which were the focus of men’s athletics. The Hoover decision, coupled with these opinions, drastically affected women’s athletics until after World War II.

Persevering Ahead

Despite national influences and reduced attention on women’s athletics, Oregon forged ahead. In 1939, the WAA created two branches: one focusing on intramural sports clubs and the other on extramural activities. The intramural branch began instituting all-star teams for each event offered, and intercollegiate swimming, field hockey, and tennis competitions gained ground.

The swim team regularly competed in Intercollegiate Telegraphic Swimming Meets, where athletes competed at their own schools and then sent in the results to a central headquarters to be ranked across the country. In 1946, the team placed fourth in the nation. The next season, Oregon hosted the meet, serving as the central collection point for participants’ scores.

In the following years, the popularity of tennis peaked and Orchesis (modern dance), which was established in 1944, became the newest hit on campus. The women’s synchronized swimming team, the Amphibians, splashed into the spotlight as well.

Fielding Opportunities

As women dabbled in various sports, field hockey remained a steady activity for the University. Janet Woodruff was instrumental in keeping the sport alive as she coached the field hockey team during her 38 years on campus (1929-1967). The Pacific Northwest Conference formally began in 1940 and started holding field hockey tournaments. During the mid-1940s, interest in field hockey grew so much that two community teams, the Cascade and Evergreen Clubs, were integrated into the University system. Most students had been trying to juggle playing on both the University team and the community team. Faculty members and graduate students also participated.

The Transitional Years: Women 1950-1970 Maintaining Momentum

Over the course of the first half of the century women’s athletics at the University were gradually reshaped. In 1951, the Women’s Athletic Association (WAA) was renamed the Women’s Recreation Association (WRA).

Although interest in intramurals, field hockey, swimming and Orchesis remained steady, no major change in the women’s athletic landscape occurred until 1966 when the Northwest College Women’s Extramural Association (NCWEA) was formed. The organization held responsibilities for scheduling, establishing rules, and creating tournaments.

During the mid-1960s, the women’s basketball, volleyball, softball, and track and field teams began taking part in intercollegiate competitions more formally. The University did not fund these sports, but they were recognized as intercollegiate athletics. All the teams matched up against local rivals, such as Oregon State University, Oregon College of Education (Western Oregon University), and Portland State University. Typically, women participated in sports for one credit and met once a week for practice. The teams shared one set of uniforms and all used the same locker room.

Leading the Pack

Field hockey stood out from the rest of women’s sports throughout this period. A tradition at Oregon since the early 1900s, the field hockey team practiced and competed more than any other women’s club on campus. The squad met for four practices a week and played six intercollegiate season games in addition to a regional conference tournament. Since women’s athletics were not funded at the time, coaches found unique ways to cover expenses. For instance, Janet Woodruff, long-time head coach of the field hockey team, used money from swim-cap rental fees to purchase tunics for the team.

As the 1970s began, new leaders emerged and major discussions on women’s athletics at the University started to unfold. Becky Sisley joined the Department of Health and Physical Education in 1965. She assumed coaching duties in several sports and played a major role in transforming the women’s athletic program over the next 30 years.

In 1969, the Department of Health and Physical Education prioritized key elements related to women’s athletics, deciding to emphasize education above all else. Focus was given to the institutional program first, then to the recreational program, and lastly to the intercollegiate program. The general consensus throughout the nation was that women’s sports needed to be sheltered from the “corrupt” elements of men’s sports, such as monetary scandals and sports politics. The faculty and staff used this logic when deciding not to offer women athletic scholarships at Oregon.

Fun Facts

  • Women earned awards for their participation in intramurals during the 1920s. The points were based on their skill level in each activity-100 points were granted for making the first team, 75 points for second team, etc. Winning an "O" letter required 500 points. Sweaters were awarded for 1,000 points and stripes for 2,000 points. The award system was not well publicized and was eventually discontinued as the national trend of discouraging women's participation in competitive athletics gained momentum.
  • In 1930, Janet Woodruff organized a match between Oregon and the U.S. Field Hockey team.
  • The 1941 Oregana credits the women's riflery team for beating the University's men's team.
  • The 1939 top women's sports were tennis followed by basketball.