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Vassar and beyond: Women and baseball in the 1800s

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In the early days of baseball, women’s participation in the game was both a way to encourage fitness and a fraught political act.

Vassar College Resolutes, 1876
Vassar College Digital Library

“The progress of feminine fashion is becoming positively alarming,” wrote a Cleveland newspaper on December 18th, 1865. “And now,” it continued, “as we pass the irresistible damsels, wearing our own identical hats, boots, and collars... we shrink within our innermost fastnesses, and cling to our last remaining treasure, our beloved pantaloons.”

As women began to plot out paths of independence following the end of the Civil War, men became incensed and frightened that the all-male world would suddenly belong to women. When women began to seriously play baseball, the fear spawned a slew of articles like the one above, declaring that doing so disrupted feminine sensibilities, but asserting that so long as women continued playing in skirts, they, thankfully, could not be taken seriously. From there, men became determined to exclude women from baseball.

The beginning of the suffrage movement

With the advent of industrialization in the late 1700s, women began entering the workforce, leaving behind lives of pure domesticity. Throughout the 1800s, groups of women formed various labor unions and political groups, intent on not only proving they were capable of the same things as men, but also set on ushering in a total civil rights movement, linking anti-slavery with women’s rights, an effort welcomed and supported by abolitionist leaders. The progress toward both was languid, though, hampered by a strong resistence and a growing belief among white women that they should focus on less radical concepts, restricting their efforts to domestic equality and rebuking the strong language and policies of Susan B. Anthony. By the mid-1850s, six years after the Seneca Falls Convention, women in various states had won equal divorce rights and began entering educational institutions in greater numbers. In the few years prior to the Civil War, however, women’s rights movements gave way to abolition efforts, which they believed would also lead to women’s suffrage.

Over 400 women, many of whom disguised themselves as men, fought in the Civil War. Those who remained home experienced more freedom and amassed more power than they ever had before. Following the end of the Civil War, women were disappointed to learn that their efforts were for naught, as the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments applied only to men. This stinging loss emboldened the women’s rights movement, pushing it further toward total economic and social equality, with the main goal being suffrage. Both white and Black women refused to return to domestic lives, instead clamoring for increased freedoms and rights.

Men quickly sought to counter these movements, asserting that women belonged in no place but the home. Activities from which they wished to bar women were labeled “masculine” and assigned the potential to crush feminine sensitivities and invite evil into the family dynamic. Men stressed the need for women to return to their homes and not engage in activities geared toward “manly virtues,” to fulfill their “feminine duties” in rebuilding the country.[1] Women’s rights movements were viewed by many, including a number of well-to-do women, as selfish acts aimed at destroying America for good. Now, more than ever, it was crucial for women to embrace their femininity, to put away hopes of being like men, to eschew bloomers in favor of full skirts and dainty corsets. All aspects of women’s lives were scrutinized and women in large were pushed toward quiet, feminine activities that left no room for politics.

The rise of women’s baseball

Unsurprisingly, women’s involvement in baseball during this time followed a similar pattern. Since the sport became popularized in the 1830s, women have played it, but with the creation of organized teams and the professionalization of the game, men began asserting it as something masculine, far too difficult for women to play.

Nonetheless, women continued to participate, and in 1866, the newly-formed Vassar College instituted the first two organized women’s teams. Created in 1861, Vassar was one of the seven Ivy League-equivalent schools for women that sprouted up in New York and new England in the 1860s. At the behest of his niece, Matthew Vassar established Vassar with the goal of strengthening women’s bodies so they could participate in rigorous academic disciplines which were formerly believed to be too strenuous for delicate feminine bodies. As part of this goal, he instituted physical education courses and morning calisthenics. From this emphasis on physical strength sprung the establishment of a number of sporting clubs, including one for baseball.

The first baseball teams, Laurel and Abenakis, were created in 1866, each featuring nine women. One of the creators, valedictorian Annie Glidden, wrote to her brother John about the creation of these teams, joking that “we think after we have practiced a little, we will let the Atlantic Club play a match with us,” demonstrating at the same time the seriousness with which they viewed their participation in the game.[2] While the women were allowed to form baseball teams, the sport was considered to be far too manly to be truly beneficial for them. The players had to provide their own equipment, and the field was rough and hidden from the rest of the school. Women were allowed to play baseball, but only barely. The next year, both Laurel and Abenakis had disbanded, and no woman on either team was present on the Precocious club, the teams’ replacement. This kind of turnover continued until the early 1870s, when the school buckled under public pressure and finally parroted the falsity that the sport was far too manly for these women of high society to play.

Laurel and Abenakis, the initial teams in 1866, though, were pioneers of a larger trend that saw the creation of over 20 women’s teams across the country in the ensuing three years. In 1867, a team popped up at Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut. Called Tunxis after the Native Americans who had inhabited the state, the team played several games, but was ultimately shut down after the school received a number of letters from parents calling for a stop to this “strenuous exercise.” The women at Mills College underwent a similar series of events. It was already controversial enough to have women’s college of any sort, and allowing them to play baseball was a step too far, a play for more independence than society was willing to grant. Once news of these teams circulated, they each faced a swift backlash from parents and then newspapers.[3]

The papers first assumed an informative tone that gave way to incredulous. Initially, newspapers simply asserted that their city or town now included a women’s baseball team. But amongst these reports were ones that commented on the absurdity of women playing baseball. The Utica Morning Herald and Daily Gazette wrote in 1867 that while women technically had the right to play, doing so was laughable: “Imagine a fair creature arrayed in all the paraphernalia of dress, hoop skirts, and sun bonnet making a home run!... Who would wish to see his sweetheart’s eye done in mourning for a week or her fair hand battered and bruised and soiled by a ‘foul’ ball, or her fair hair all pulled out or her ankle swathed in bandages.”[4] Other newspapers wrote much the same thing, equating the idea of women playing baseball to the equally fanciful notion of them practicing law or medicine.

But the backlash did not stop girls and women from playing, and those outside these exclusive schools also created teams. In 1867, both Michigan and Florida got teams[5], then Detroit and Peterborough[6], and then the rest of the country. The Peterborough team is the best-documented of the bunch, having as participants several women closely associated with the women’s rights movement, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Nannie Miller, the daughter of the inventor of bloomers, Elizabeth Smith Miller. The most popular account of the team stems from several letters written by Stanton, one of which notes “it was a very pretty sight to see the girls... in full possession of the public square... while the boys were quiet spectators.”[7] For these women, though, the sport was less about furthering the women’s rights movement than about simply achieving physical fitness. Never was baseball a component of Susan B. Anthony’s message, and though it was in a sense a political act, it was not viewed as such by these women; they just assumed baseball was open to them as a physical activity.

The male reaction to the women’s baseball movement

Some men bought into the spectacle of women teams and, like the owner of Crab Orchard in Louisiana, promoted teams as means of boosting business.[8] But as it became clear that women would not give up the sport, the sentiment dramatically shifted. Newspapers quickly attributed playing baseball to the feminist agenda, politicizing the game and radicalizing its participants. The more professionalized the men’s teams became, the less acceptable the women’s teams grew. Just prior to these attacks, though, the newspapers struck at the relatively common notion that it was healthy for women to play baseball. The climax of this method occurred in late 1867, when several newspapers asserted that a woman in Michigan died after “over-exerting herself” playing it.[9] From this point, the majority of men and upstanding women took the physical weakness of women as truth.

In 1873, renowned doctor David H. Clarke published Sex in Education; or a Fair Chance for The Girls, in which he posited that physical exertion, like playing baseball, caused uterine damage and hysteria. After the circulation of this book, few men were willing to defend women’s universities and larger participation in baseball. For society, allowing women to participate in baseball would be permitting the sport to injure women physically and corrupt feminine morals. The more embedded the sport became in American society, the less acceptable it was for girls and women to undertake it.

More subtle means of demeaning women baseball players also entered the fray. If newspapers did not outright condemn the act, they sought to undercut its significance by focusing on the women’s appearance. In 1876, Philadelphia added a women’s team, which the Reading Times declared would wear “the finest [uniform] that ever graced the ball field.”[10] Likewise, Springfield’s teams, the Blondes and the Brunettes, would wear new uniforms which “enable[d] them to travel on their shape.”[11] Since women could not be prevented from playing baseball, society was determined to prevent them from becoming legitimate, reducing teams to spectacles and games to places when men could pick out their future wives.

But women continued to play it and take seriously their participation in the game. It made a resurgence at Vassar College in 1875, thanks to two women employees, school physician Dr. Helen Webster and Director of the Department of Physical Training Lilian Tappan. This resurgence was not widely reported, was only open to the most fit students, and was explained as a means of getting students better motivated to exercise during their mandatory daily hour of fitness. Even fewer students than were qualified participated, many of whom preferred croquet or sailing, both of which would avoid the “‘cold world’s’ sneer” attracted by baseball. Yet there were enough participants to form two teams of twelve, and interest sustained baseball for four years, long past the point of propriety, until it was finally abolished in favor of the more socially acceptable tennis.[12]

Despite the best efforts of men to exclude women from baseball, they continued to flock to it in various capacities for much of the late 1800s. In addition to the resurgence of college baseball at Vassar, Smith, Wellesley, and Holyoke, which lasted into the 1890s, women of lesser education created teams in their towns and cities, and Black women organized teams of their own, particularly in Philadelphia, when they were barred from white women’s teams. Baseball appealed to women as it did to men, and the more American it became, the more women used it to dig out a space for themselves in the social realm. Men forced their participation in the sport to be politicized, and women of the 1800s responded, setting up a long battle for generations ahead.

Notes:

[1] New Berne Times, December 7, 1865, pg. 4.

[2] Annie Glidden to John Glidden, April 20, 1866.

[3] Debra Shattuck, “Women’s Baseball in the 1860s: Reestablishing a Historical Memory,” Journal of Baseball History and Culture 19, no. 2 (2011):1-26.

[4] Utica Morning Herald and Daily Gazette, October 27, 1867, pg. 2.

[5] Burlington Weekly Free Press, July 19, 1867, pg. 4.

[6] Memphis Daily Appeal, August 7, 1870, pg. 2.

[7] Shattuck, 15.

[8] Louisiana Daily Courier, July 6, 1868, pg. 2.

[9] Ashtabula Daily Telegraph, November 23, 1867, pg. 2.

[10] Reading Times, February 15, 1876, pg. 2.

[11] Wichita Eagle, September 23, 1875, pg. 2.

[12] Debra Shattuck, ““Bats, Balls and Books: Baseball and Higher Education for Women at Three Eastern Women’s Colleges, 1866-1891,” Journal of Sport History, 19, no. 2 (1992): 1-22.


Mary Craig is a baseball history enthusiast who writes about the sport’s relation to America’s political history. You can follow her on Twitter at @marymcraig.