Women’s Basketball – An Early Controversy

                                         The 2012 Women’s Basketball Team

This week the campus learned that our Women’s Basketball team will be part of the Elite Eight for the first time in the College’s history–just in time for Women’s History Month.  Congratulations, team!

Rollins was founded as a coeducational institution, and all students have participated in physical education from the beginning.  Basketball was one of the first sports open to women as well as men.  Here’s our earliest photo of women basketball players at Rollins:


A closer look at the students’ uniforms brings to mind a story told by one of Rollins’ first professors, Grace Livingston (later known as Grace Livingston Hill).  Miss Livingston taught “calisthenics and heavy gymnastics” (in the 1890s, this included “club swinging, fencing, free work, wand, dumb-bell and hoop exercises,” as well as basketball and “Greek posture” classes).

                     Miss Livingston (center) and her Greek posture class, 1889-1890

Grace Livingston stayed at Rollins only a few years (1889-91), and went on to become a popular novelist.  Writing to A. J. Hanna in 1935, she reminisced about her teaching days and one incident in particular:  the introduction of new women’s gym uniforms.

The students’ uniforms appear quite modest by today’s standards, but 45 years later Grace Hill could still recall the controversy they caused.  After the Lyman Gymnasium was completed in 1890, she lobbied for a new women’s uniform, like the one she herself had worn while a student at Yale.  As Mrs. Hill told the story:

“It consisted of dark blue serge suits, the blouses made high neck with a sailor collar and long sleeves, and a blue serge ‘divided skirt,’ we called it then I think, though it was nothing more than the simple bloomer skirt, made very full with pleats so that the division was not at all visible except in action.  The legs were gathered over rubber bands at the knee and fell over far enough to look like a skirt coming a trifle below the knee.  They were very neat and graceful, worn with long black stockings and gymnasium ‘sneakers,’ and though the modern athlete may think otherwise, the outfit gave entire freedom of action both in heavy and light gymnasium work. . .

“I was to appear formally before the Faculty to talk over the matter of costume for the gymnasium work, and it never occurred to me that it was going to be a difficult task to get what I requested. . . So I was much amazed to find that all but two or three of the Faculty were very doubtful about a thing called a bloomer or a divided skirt, and failed to give way at my eager description of its modesty and appropriateness.”

The faculty offered to approve the uniform, provided male and female students were taught in separate classes, but Miss Livingston “was thoroughly outraged.  Couldn’t they see what a stigma they would be putting upon me if the girls and boys had to be separated when they wore that garb?  I waxed eloquent about the matter and told how it was the only sensible garment, and more modest than ordinary dress, and I said, ‘Why, I have it on now and I can show it to you.  I’ll step into the hall and take off this skirt and come back and let you see how it looks.'”  This she did, before anyone could stop her.

When she reappeared in her uniform, “the effect on the troubled Faculty was astounding.”

“They sat in a circle with downcast eyes, hands in their laps, feeling perhaps that a great crisis in the college affairs was upon them.  Only the two brave ladies who had been privileged to see the skirt before and were in hearty accord with me about it looked up with serene countenances and smiled upon me.  The others remained with downcast eyes, and slowly, one by one, cast furtive sideways glances first at my toes, and then cautiously letting their frightened eyes travel upward till they got the whole effect, they one by one drew sighs of relief and permitted their eyes to resume a normal outlook on the world once more.

“But it was dear old Dr. Hooker, the beloved president, who broke the silence first, I think with a voice that fairly lilted with relief.  ‘I think,’ said he, smiling around upon his teachers and professors, ‘that this dress is much more modest than the garb that is worn in social life.  I can see nothing whatever objectionable in it.  In fact, I heartily approve it.'” That settled it:  “Thus ended the momentous crisis in athletic affairs.”

                   Reverend Edward P. Hooker, the first President of Rollins

            Below:  women’s fencing class, wearing the new uniforms in 1892Mrs. Hill also wrote, “My days spent in Winter Park with the dear Rollins students will ever stand out as a sweet and delightful experience.”  She remained in touch with friends from her teaching days and sent autographed copies of her books to the College library.  As her aunt, Isabella Alden, put it, “she loved Rollins.”

                            Miss Livingston teaching fencing, circa 1890

Our first female athletes had to face some surprising obstacles.  As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we take pride in the contribution women have made to sports at Rollins–then and now.

~ by D. Moore, Archival Specialist

3 thoughts on “Women’s Basketball – An Early Controversy

  1. Darla — magnificent! It seems the innate conservatism (note the small “c”) of faculty never changes.

  2. What fun. Your entries never cease to inform and entertain. The photographs are wonderful, and the lesson is an important one to remember.

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