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#WhenINPlayed: Why women’s sports history is more than just sports

From May 27 to June 7, 2020 the Indiana Historical Bureau is asking Hoosiers to share their favorite sports stories on social media as part of its #WhenINPlayed campaign. You won’t be surprised that we’ve picked two stories that highlight the ways that women playing sports is tied to women’s political, social and economic power. Because we couldn’t fit everything we wanted to say in 280 characters…well, here you go!

Entitled to More , 1972

One of the key legislative achievements of Second Wave feminists was Title IX. Championed by Indiana’s own Senator Birch Bayh and passed in 1972, it barred discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program that received federal financial assistance. It was part of a wave of legal changes that included the Equal Rights Amendment (which was passed but never ratified) and the Roe v. Wade decision, and radically reshaped women’s economic, educational and social prospects in the early 1970s. Though not designed with athletics in mind, the law quickly had ramifications for women’s sports. For instance, in 1970, before Title IX, fewer than 16,000 women athletes participated in college sports; in 2014, the number of women athletes was over 200,000. Bayh himself was a fervent supporter of women’s rights, also sponsoring the Equal Rights Amendment that same year. When he introduced the Title IX bill, Bayh argued that its passage “would guarantee that women, too, enjoy the educational opportunities every American deserves.” Perhaps not surprisingly—it is Indiana, after all—among the first post-Title IX hires at IUPUI was a coaching staff for the Lady Metros basketball team. 

Turnvereins, Turnfestes and Turnfahrtens, 1919

When German immigrants arrived in the 19th century, they brought with them a robust gymnastics culture. The German love of “turnen” traces its roots to the old country, where it was believed that the sport cultivated physical readiness and mental discipline among young men and strengthened German national identity and democratic spirit at a time of foreign occupation and political turmoil. In the U.S., German immigrants set up Turnvereins (gymnastics clubs) and held multi-day Turnfestes (competitions and “love feasts” with beer, food, sing-alongs and dancing) across the Midwest; Turnfahrten (gymnastics travel trips) enabled German-Americans to visit and network across cities. The Athenaeum, Turnverein apartments and South Side Turner Club were all founded as gymnastics societies from the 1870s to the 1910s. Indy also hosted a huge Turnfeste in 1905, with tens of thousands of club members and spectators.

Girls in formation at the Indianapolis South Side Turners / IUPUI Special Collections

As early as 1876, the Indianapolis Athenaeum had a Ladies Auxiliary; by the late 1880s, women were increasingly likely to be members of the regular turner clubs, rather than women’s auxiliaries. Historian Annette Hoffman notes that through their participation in women’s turner associations, German American women “[gained] feelings of self worth, [learned] to appear in public, and [became] skilled at fundraising…. They provided women the opportunity to prove themselves and helped them find acceptance among equals beyond the understanding of the male-dominated world. Being an auxiliary member was one way for German-American women in the nineteenth century to gain independence from male-dominated cultural practices, and this broadened women’s horizons and roles.”

The Turnlehrerseminar (Gymnastics Teachers Seminary) relocated to Indianapolis in 1907, training gymnastics instructors, including women. Indeed, some German American women gained economic independence and were able to work outside the home as gymnastics instructors; sports was more than sports, it was a way to support one’s self and develop an identity separate from that of wife, daughter, or mother. Following the anti-German sentiment of World War I, however, many clubs changed names and membership fell. The Turnlehrerseminar, after several name changes, eventually became the IU School of Physical Education—you may know it today as the IUPUI physical education department. (Fun fact: my grandmother, Dodie E. Baker, majored in P.E. when IUPUI was still The Normal School of Gymnastics Education.)

-Post by Leah Nahmias, director of programs at Indiana Humanities and adapted from the research of former graduate intern Jackie Swihart for Indiana Humanities’ 2019 historic bar crawl Huddle Up: A Booze Throwback Through Indy Sports History.