“The Best Thing in a Girl’s Life”: Early Women’s Colleges in Fiction and Fact

Athletics

Athletics play a surprisingly complex role in the stories, as they did in real life.  For freshmen, gym often represented the first time they were obliged to pursue organized physical activity or play on a team.  Although the main characters usually take this new interest in stride, incidents are created with other characters who find gym unpleasant or difficult or, alternatively, become very enthusiastic players of a team sport.  In the books, this is usually basketball.  At Bryn Mawr, once coach Constance Applebee arrived in 1904, it was more likely to be field hockey.  Individual outdoor activities were popular in both books and real life, including riding, walking, skating and “dust panning” (improvised sledding).

Sports also serve to establish class identity in the books.  The first important athletic event is always the freshman-sophomore basketball game, for which the freshmen practice assiduously, eager to take their revenge on their taunting predecessors.  They cheer frantically for their team, emitting “unwomanly yells,” urging them on to ever greater efforts. Depending on the needs of plot and character development, they win or lose, but the outcome is usually an outpouring of class spirit.  In Betty Wales, Freshman both Betty and her rather antisocial roommate are inspired by the determined play of their classmates to want to do something exemplary for their class.  It is clear that some Bryn Mawr girls felt that the class athletic performance symbolized their entire experience and achievements; Helen Robertson (1916) wrote home November 16, 1913:

“Do you know? That game Wednesday is the first game 1st time that we have won since we have been in college and I think if we could beat ’15 again it would make all the difference in the world to what the class will do in all kinds of ways, hereafter. We haven’t been a very successful class at anything—except our freshman show which did make up for a good deal. And I think a little success would just touch the match to the fuse.”

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