The Ride of the Valkyries: The Evolution of Athletics and Sports at Converse College
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The Ride of the Valkyries: The Evolution of Athletics and Sports at Converse College

Black and white photo of Converse swim team

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By Joe P. Dunn Charles A. Dana and Margaret S. Moore

The saga of women’s athletics at Converse and in the nation is infused with strong notions about women’s physical nature, gender roles, and prejudices against “wrong” or “unnatural” feminine behavior. Women in northeastern and midwestern institutions were saddled with these biases in the nineteenth century, and the prejudices were even more prominent in the south, where notions about race and class shaped cultural norms heavily.

When Converse College was founded in 1889, English Victorian and Edwardian views about physical activity still lingered. Athletic uniforms assured that women conformed to a strict standard of femininity. In croquet, southern belles appeared neat and tidy in their hooped skirts and layers of petticoats. Tennis was popular despite some views that it was “unfeminine” to run, but the corset, starched petticoat and skirt, heavily buttoned blouse, silver-buckled belt, and sneakers with large silk bows made running nearly impossible. In these costumes, women maintained strict cultural standards of feminine decorum. Those who styled themselves differently risked being labeled inappropriate, unwomanly, or tomboyish.

The emerging discipline of women’s physical education, led by teachers trained in the northeast, continued to place a high premium on femininity and ladylike qualities but emphasized the importance of physical health to a woman’s well-being. The 1897-98 Converse College Catalogue ex-pressed the Greek conception: “A perfectly sound mind cannot exist in an unsound body, neither can the soul perform its best work when hampered by an unhealthy body.” To enhance students’ well-being, the Department of Expression and Physical Culture offered calisthenics, Swedish gymnastics, hygiene, and a variety of sports activities. In 1894 the college laid out outdoor tennis courts, constructed a two-lane bowling alley, and built a gym on the first two floors of Dexter Hall, a new campus dormitory.

Although some questioned women playing “men’s games,” more competitive sports soon emerged on women’s college campuses. Initially, baseball was the most popular sport, for it could be played in seclusion in remote areas of campus. But it was basketball that soon became the most popular sport at Converse and other women’s colleges. The game was adapted for women by Smith College physical educator Senda Berenson to limit players’ movements, decrease aggression, and emphasize ladylike poise.

Converse adopted Berenson’s version of basketball. Pictures of the campus teams appear in college yearbooks starting in 1899. Dexter Gymnasium was divided into three sections, and games revolved around poles on the court that held up the ceiling. The first competitive basketball teams, the Atalanta Club, named for the Greek mythological female warrior and athlete, and the Hyppolita Club, for the Amazonian queen and daughter of Ares, Greek god of war, vied for a $100 loving cup provided personally by the college president. In 1901 the Atalantas won the game 16-8, and in May 1902 the student literary publication Concept boasted that the Converse women were ready to play baseball against the local Wofford College men. “The time is not far distant when we shall be allowed to win the championship of the State in baseball and basketball,” it proclaimed.

“Tennis outfits consisted of long skirts over full petticoats; white, long-sleeved blouses; a bow tie or long, thin tie; and a hat.”

As competition evolved, so did athletic attire, although Converse uniforms did not change as rapidly as they did at northern women’s colleges. In the 1899 yearbook, students on the first basketball team appear dressed in dark, heavy outfits with long skirts and long-sleeved, loose blouses with sail-or-style collars and the letters “CC.” Although basketball and baseball remained the prime sports, tennis and golf were becoming popular as well. Tennis outfits consisted of long skirts over full petticoats; white, long-sleeved blouses; a bow tie or long, thin tie; and a hat. By 1903, uniform hems rose to mid-calf, though dark stockings still covered the legs.

Sports had become such an integral part of campus life in the first decade of the twentieth century that the Converse College Athletic Association (CCAA) emerged to promote spirit, sportsmanship, and team play among members of the student body. The CCAA began to award a “C” letter to basketball players and those who won specific events at Field Day. The criteria for this distinction became increasingly stringent: women earned their letter by accruing points awarded for athletic prowess, but also for other feminine qualities and for personal health. By 1926, organized sports, including basketball, baseball, field hockey, archery, track, swimming, and tennis had replaced more casual games. Indeed, no woman could consider her college career complete “unless she has been a member of the rowing club, hockey team, or some of the numerous others that exist,” Concept claimed, and she would “sacrifice almost anything for her athletics.”

“Converse adopted a more liberal style of shorter dresses and hairstyles through the 1920s, but only gradually did students begin to wear shorts.”

Fashion also helped encourage women’s participation in sports. The “Gibson Girl,” an athletic, voluptuous ideal created by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, was the upper-class standard of feminine beauty at the turn of the century. In Spartanburg, wrote historian Howard L. Preston, “the ‘Gibson Girl’ and the ‘Converse Girl’ were interchangeable.” Furthermore, images of fashionable young women engaging in sport helped to encourage and motivate students “who had previously been given every reason to believe that athletic competition was too strenuous and physically taxing for them.” As the century wore on, the Gibson “updo” hairstyle disappeared, and gym uniforms transformed. Converse adopted a more liberal style of shorter dresses and hairstyles through the 1920s, but only gradually did students begin to wear shorts. Although women at state institutions in North Carolina changed their uniforms in the 1930s, pictures of Converse athletes in shorts do not appear until the 1950s.

The emphasis on women’s poise and personal health continued throughout the twentieth century. Carolyn Duer Pennell, class of 1950, explained that in her day, one requirement for earning a letter was to quit smoking for six weeks. Mrs. Pennell remembered that she “always fulfilled the other requirements” but “just could not give up the smoking.” She never achieved the coveted “Block C” award and admitted that “at times” her teams “weren’t very good,” but Pennell also recalled having lots of fun and laughing a lot.

Until the 1960s, Converse followed the philosophy of physical educator Helen N. Smith, who in a 1931 article titled “Evils of Sports for Women,” warned against the commercialization of sport. She advocated playing for enjoyment with the “spirit of play and fellowship” rather than intercollegiate competition and star athletes. Physical education and athletic competition were intended for exercise, health, and general well-being, and all students, not just selected athletes, participated.Black and white photo of old Converse pool In pursuit of healthy living, gardening was included in the physical education curriculum from 1934 into the 1950s. Activity courses stressed grace, poise, body strength, and habits of lifelong recreation. From the late 1940s until the 1960s, Converse students participated in Play Days held at nearby colleges, particularly sister women’s college Winthrop. In the 1960s Converse shifted to intercollegiate athletics.

The change was modest. In 1973, Converse’s only sports teams were tennis and field hockey, both in transition from club activity to inter-collegiate competition. That year, twenty-three-year-old Margaret Sakowski, an undergraduate athlete at women’s institution Queens College with a master’s degree in physical education from the University of Georgia, arrived as instructor and coach. In addition to teaching a full academic load of activity courses, Sakowski inherited the tennis and field hockey teams.

“As one of the smallest colleges in the country to maintain a robust women’s sports program, Converse demonstrates that athletics are as central to its future as it has been to its past.”

In the next few years, she added basketball and volleyball as intercollegiate teams. Competition was minimal at first. The Converse “All-Stars”—a play on the Converse shoe company’s famous “Chuck Taylor All-Stars” sneakers—played private high school teams and a few colleges. Recruiting players was a challenge since only two schools in South Carolina played field hockey, and many of the original basketball players came from church leagues.

The biggest change in Converse athletics came in 1985 when the Board of Trustees inaugurated athletic scholarships. Converse sports teams for the first time became competitive and the cross country, tennis, and basketball teams all gained national achievement in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But things were not all positive. Returning from a pre-season game in October 1987, the basketball team bus was run over by a trailer truck that resulted in the deaths of two players and the driver; four others sustained permanent lifetime injuries and the rest were all hospitalized. The team continued the season with walk-on players that included two future Miss America finalists.

Converse joined the NCAA in 1993. But at the end of its inaugural year in its new conference, the Board of Trustees publicly announced the elimination of all Converse athletics programs as part of an emergency deficit reduction measure. All but six of the 39 scholarship athletes stayed at the college with their scholarships honored, but their athletic careers ended. Within six months, the board decided to revive the athletic program, but the level of competition and institutional affiliation had to be determined. Converse opted for Division II, with which most co-educational schools in the Carolinas affiliated, even though the institution would be the only women’s college in the nation at that level. Reapplication to the NCAA, acceptance by a new conference, upgrading facilities, building new teams with coaches and players, and launching the new Valkyries mascot were accomplished by 2007.

Women’s colleges played a key role in the early development of women’s physical activity and athletics, but the small number of these institutions that exist today have low athletic profiles. As one of the smallest colleges in the country to maintain a robust women’s sports program, Converse demonstrates that athletics are as central to its future as it has been to its past.

This is an excerpt from the article published in Carologue, a publication of the South Carolina Historical Society. View the full story here…

Originally published in The Converse Magazine.