Accompanying the explosion in feminism in the late 19th century was an explosion, or really a birth, of women’s sports. Middle and upper class women seized onto the bicycle, which gave them a freedom to travel and escape chaperones. Since long dresses were incompatible with bicycle riding, the bike inspired women to risk wearing the more reasonable bloomers.
It was also in the late 1800s that the first American women’s championships in archer, golf and tennis were held. Basketball was claimed by women during this time. In 1896, five years after James Naismith had invented basketball, and claimed it an ideal sport for women, the first intercollegiate women’s basketball game was held, between Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley. Because women’s sweat was considered unfit for men’s eyes, men were not allowed to watch the game, but 500 women packed the stands to watch.
Women even participated in boxing, shot guns as sport, and lifted weights. The first women’s boxing match was held in 1876. In 1885, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show featured sharpshooter Annie Oakley.
Men often criticized women’s growing involvement in sports. They refused to allow women to join sports clubs. They claimed that women who competed in sports would develop gynecological and psychological problems. Cyclists’ saddles were said to induce menstruation, cause contracted vaginas, collapsed uteri, and even inspire masturbation. At Cambridge in 1896, male undergraduates celebrated their school’s refusal to grant women degrees by publicly hanging in effigy a female cyclist in bloomers.
In popular magazines, women were warned of “overexertion.” In 1902, women’s tennis matches were reduced from best-of-five to best-of-three sets. But gradually, men gave up their efforts to dissuade women from sports. Instead, the female athlete was sexualized. And many female athletes tried to accommodate the new beauty standards, and deal with the many other barriers thrown in their way. But no matter what else happened, women’s sports were here to stay.