In the days before Title IX, games like drop-the-handkerchief and musical chairs were considered sports at women’s colleges. Anything more would be scandalous—as Diane Crowley, an early coach of women’s field hockey, recalled, “It was barely acceptable to see ladies running, let alone brandishing weapons in the pursuit of a little ball.”
So when Constance M. K. Applebee brought hockey to Radcliffe College, she was considered a radical by many establishment figures at the University. Applebee, an Englishwoman and graduate of the British College of Physical Education, was encouraged to apply to Harvard Summer School by Dudley Allen Sargent, director of the Hemenway Gymnasium.
Applebee registered for a class on Indoor Track, but was disappointed to find that musical chairs was a prominent part of the coursework for women. “We play those games at parties,” one woman recalled her saying. “For exercise we play hockey.”
After receiving permission from a reluctant Dr. Sargent, Applebee and a group of young women staged a field hockey demonstration in Harvard Yard with makeshift sticks and ball. This game was controversial at the time. “One feels that only a person with Miss Applebee’s qualities could gain access to this famous yard, followed by 22 other ladies armed with clubs,” Crowley later recalled.
Charles Eliot Norton, a popular Harvard lecturer and member of the Class of 1846, expressed concern over the rise of field hockey and other less conservative sports in his 1901 commencement address at Radcliffe. “But there is one form of vulgarity to which you young women are in these days especially susceptible and exposed,” he said. “You are tempted to rival your brothers in sports fit for men alone.”
Applebee, not the type to give in to criticism, stayed in the U.S. to teach hockey at other women’s colleges. In 1901 and 1902, she travelled to Vassar, Smith, Wellesley, Mt. Holyoke, Radcliffe, and Bryn Mawr. Field hockey caught on quickly with the support of female athletic directors at each college, prompting some concern that it would replace another popular new women’s sport—basketball.
Applebee’s colorful personality quickly won over the holdouts—even the basketball fans. One document from the Bryn Mawr archives notes Applebee’s use of a “particular brand of encouragement.” A student recalled her yelling, “Put both claws on your stick, you one-legged turnip.”
After 1904, Applebee stayed at Bryn Mawr as the Director of Outdoor Sports, where she stayed until her retirement in 1929, although she continued to coach informally until her death in 1981 at the age 0f 107.
In spite of her success, women’s athletics at the turn of the century was still unusual. In 1905, 60 percent of the entering class at Bryn Mawr was excused from all physical activity “because of the female complaint.”
Applebee fought against these Victorian ideas of female athletics, which she saw as intimately related to other gender-related concerns. She once told M. Carey Thomas, the female suffragist president of Bryn Mawr, “You want all these students to go out and do something in the world, to get the vote. What’s the good of their having the vote if they’re too ill to use it?”
However, progressive activity in the early 1900s had a darker side beyond women’s suffrage. Eugenics played a large role in the rise of physical education, particularly for women. Dr. Dudley Allen Sargent, who first invited Applebee to the U.S., was a major figure in all these movements.
After graduating from Yale Medical School, Sargent came to Harvard in 1879 as the inaugural director of the Hemenway Gymnasium. He was controversial at first, not because of his advocacy of eugenics, but because of his opposition to football, which in its anarchic early days resulted in many fatalities and injuries among college students. On Nov. 25, 1905 alone, three football players died midgame across the U.S.
Although Sargent failed to receive a full professorship thanks to fierce opposition from football-loving alumni, he spent much of his time researching athletes’ bodies to define what a healthy figure looked like. He produced complex charts, comparing age to lung capacity to “pubic arch height.” These measurements attracted Applebee to Sargent in the first place—their correspondence began after Applebee wrote a letter to Sargent expressing admiration for his work.
At the height of Sargent’s career at Harvard, there was great concern over whether women were “fast assuming the physical proportions and mental characteristics of the man,” as one magazine on physical education reported at the turn of the century. Sargent himself was worried about this. Unlike Norton, though, he saw women’s athletics as a solution rather than a separate problem.
“The failure of past generations to provide for the physical as well as the mental training of women has been to me one of the most unaccountable things in men’s efforts toward human progress,” Sargent once wrote. At the same time, his concerns were hardly geared towards female empowerment. He believed in “strong mothers” to raise the men of a future America. In the same article, he wrote, “Growth in the size of the pelvis must keep pace with growth in the size of the head and both must necessarily accompany a high standard of civilization.”
To be fair, Sargent did believe that the physical and mental education of women was valuable in its own right. But he saw that goal as secondary to motherhood. “It is in the breeding power of women,” Sargent wrote, “not in their voting power that the hopes of the future depend.”
Voices like Sargent’s greatly accelerated the acceptance of women’s athletics in America. The doctors who wrote excuses for the women of Bryn Mawr quickly shifted their attitudes as progressivist eugenics swept across the country.
However, women like Applebee were perhaps even more important. The movement for women’s athletics gained steam quickly after Applebee’s field hockey tour of the Seven Sisters—after only a few years, games went from small gym classes to intercollegiate varsity events.
Shortly after her death, several Bryn Mawr alumni wrote that all female athletes today “can trace their efforts back to this indomitable woman who is remembered by generations of loving and awe-struck students as ‘The Apple.’”