Women’s Athletics at CU Started with Basketball

by Silvia Pettem (published in the Daily Camera, February 21, 2002)

During the Victorian era, when women wore restrictive clothing, calisthenics in the classroom raised more than a few eyebrows. As fashions relaxed, however, women’s sports became more acceptable. As early as 1898, a few University of Colorado coeds traded their long skirts for bloomers and established a women’s basketball team.

That first season, the team only played one game and lost by 12 points to East Denver High School. The game was held in the original CU gymnasium, demolished years ago prior to the construction of Norlin Library.

In 1900, the CU’s women’s team played their first intercollegiate game against the “lady Aggies” from Colorado A&M (now Colorado State University). Before the game, their coach, Mary Elwell, personally escorted each member to a seamstress for fittings for uniforms.

After the game, Elwell told a reporter, “All decked out in very full bloomers and sailor blouses, the basketball team took on the rivals from Fort Collins and beat them. There was no yelling. This was a victory in a complete atmosphere of proper decorum.”

Women’s athletics was looked upon as a positive addition to campus life. An early CU publication stated that basketball games started “a reformation among our girls, transforming them from bookworms into well-rounded University girls.”

Before long, the women were playing inter-mural games, but it wasn’t until 1916 that women’s collegiate sports in Boulder really got off the ground. That year CU held its first Field Day, which soon included track meets, a baseball game, and an interclass tennis tournament.

A writer for the 1916 CU yearbook, the “Coloradoan,” stated, “From September until Thanksgiving, various sections of the campus were occupied daily by the women students, dressed in their athletic uniforms, enjoying to the full the outdoor sports, for which this climate is so peculiarly adapted.”

Even though new sports had been introduced, basketball remained the major sport for women throughout the teen years. In addition to regular basketball, women athletes also played “Captain Ball” which was similar to basketball but had twice the number of players.

In the fall, the women held most of their games outdoors. In the winter they moved to “Varsity Hall,” a rented room above the Dugout Cleaners (now Full Cycle) at 1211 13th Street on the “Hill.” According to the yearbook’s account, men were allowed the watch the games and their “hearty cheering added much spirit to the scene.”

Another yearbook writer summed up CU women’s athletics by stating, “The ball is on the roll, and with the life and ‘go’ of the students here, there is little doubt but that it will not only continue to roll, but gather momentum as it should, from year to year.”

Despite the strides women athletes made in the early years, women were never guaranteed equal opportunities in sports until 1972 when President Richard Nixon signed into law the landmark legislation, known as Title IX of the Educational Amendments, that banned sex discrimination in schools.

To celebrate Title IX’s 30th anniversary, the CU Heritage Center, the CU Athletic Department, and the Alumni C Club are sponsoring a reunion of former female athletes on February 22 and 23. For more information, call the Heritage Center at 303-492-6329.

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