In 1895, women had their first chance to participate in organized athletics at the UW as rowers. Basketball was their next opportunity. Just a few years after the game was invented, UW women took up the sport and organized a team in 1897 — a year before UW men formed their own varsity basketball team. By 1917, the university’s Women's Athletic Association (the other WAA) also boasted archery, hockey, baseball, swimming, tennis, and track teams.
While promoting athletics for women was relatively progressive more than 100 years ago, today’s female athletes would have a hard time tempering themselves to follow 19th century regulations. Early female athletes had to contend with heavy uniforms, neatly pinned updos, and game rules that discouraged contact and intense exercise. Blanche Trilling, director of Physical Education for Women at the UW from 1912–46, believed that female sports should teach teamwork and promote health in a ladylike manner. Aggression, competitiveness, and overexertion were viewed as masculine, so women often participated in watered down versions of men’s sports.
Administrators gradually began to encourage fierce athleticism and competition in women’s athletics, but female athletes still did not have the full resources and support on campus that male athletes received. Before the 1970s, women’s athletics at the UW took the form of interclass teams and club sports, with volunteer coaches, little institutional funding, and limited access to practice facilities.
The passage of Title IX on June 23, 1972 — a law that prohibits exclusion from education programs and activities based on sex — changed the tide of women’s athletics at the UW, though it took some time to implement. The UW Athletic Department officially added women’s sports on July 1, 1974. Kit Saunders-Nordeen took her place as the first director of women’s intercollegiate athletics that same year.
Over the next 50 years, Badger women have proven their athletic prowess with conference titles, national championships, and Olympic medals. Today’s student-athletes participate in sport to push their limits, and yes, learn teamwork — as Ms. Trilling preferred to emphasize. “The rules of teamwork which a girl learns in her athletics are lessons which she may apply to the teamwork of life in which she is to take part later. In her play, a girl meets knocks and is subject to discipline that is valuable training that she can never receive elsewhere.”
Keep scrolling to see how women’s basketball players at the UW have pushed the limits over the last 125 years, despite institutional barriers and literally restrictive uniforms. Then, flip through the Women’s Athletic Association’s scrapbook to see what other athletic activities looked like for 20th-century women at the UW.