The Origins of American Women’s Exercise

Physical education class at Nelson College for Girls. 1913
Physical education class at Nelson College for Girls. 1913. Public Domain | Wikimedia Commons

By Jess Libow

More than a century before a distinction between sex (biology) and gender (social role) was introduced, early women’s exercise discourse reflected the widespread conflation of anatomy and identity. Committed to changing women’s lives by transforming their bodies, experts promoted exercise as a strategy for more effectively inhabiting feminine roles and for elevating domestic labor to the status of a scientific field. For these pioneering physical educators, the body’s social performances were just as important as its health status.

In the early nineteenth century, sex-specific physical education granted women rare authority over their bodies and their health. As a domestic science, exercise instruction could be administered by mothers and school teachers, allowing these women to demonstrate scientific expertise amidst their limited occupational opportunities. Linking prevailing expectations for women with knowledge of human physiology, the first decades of physical education instruction sought to transform women’s lives but also promoted a narrow biological model of womanhood.

The first major exercise fad for American women and girls was calisthenics, which, after its importation from Europe in the 1830s, retained devoted practitioners through the 1860s. Consisting of light, choreographed movements set to music, calisthenic routines largely resembled dance steps designed to emulate white upper-class conventions of beauty and elegance. These routines were also linked to idealized familial roles. The 1831 publication of A Course of Calisthenics for Young Ladies in Schools and Families instructed women in “graceful” and “dignified” exercise routines. Believed to be the first calisthenics manual authored by a woman, the book was signed simply “M” and framed as a series of instructional letters “by a mother,” who suggested that it was a woman’s responsibility to both acquire a healthy physique and train young girls to do the same.

Linking prevailing expectations for women with knowledge of human physiology, the first decades of physical education instruction sought to transform women’s lives but also promoted a narrow biological model of womanhood.

A Course of Calisthenics simultaneously lent scientific authority to women’s limited roles and made this discourse available within the home. While the author was wary of the “indelicacy” of providing anatomical description in a book for “young ladies,” A Course of Calisthenics did explain that women were constitutionally more “delicate” than men. Any changes in the body brought on by physical training were not intended to minimize this difference, but rather to enable a fuller embrace of the maternal role such delicacy facilitated. It was the duty of daughters, sisters, and wives, “M” insisted, “to be ‘a ministering angel' to the weak, the sorrowing, the suffering, and the dying.” In order to provide care for vulnerable members of their communities, women needed to properly maintain their own strength –– within reason.

If A Course of Calisthenics offered a narrow vision of acceptable female embodiment –– more vigorous than “invalids,” but more delicate than men –– education reformer Catherine Beecher put that body to work. When she spoke in 1829 of “The profession of a Woman,” she advocated not for women’s entry into the workplace, but for recognition of domestic labor as a scientific field. Beecher, who as a teenager assumed responsibility for her home and family after her mother’s death, saw domestic labor and exercise as intertwined. Throughout the century, Beecher disseminated such instruction through manuals for mothers and teachers on “domestic economy,” “health and happiness,” “physiology,” and other topics. Much like “M,” she saw physical training as itself a child-rearing task, stating that it was women’s responsibility “to guard the health and form the physical habits of the young.”

Beecher also believed that girls could become physically active through homemaking itself. In A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School (1842) she encouraged readers to promote health in young girls by requiring them to assist with various household duties beginning at age ten. The American Woman’s Home (1869) co-authored with her sister, Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, proposed that by assigning girls domestic chores rather than workouts, mothers could ensure their daughters would “constantly be interested and cheered in their exercises.” Even the motivation Beecher articulated for improving women’s health was linked to familial roles. In Physiology and Calisthenics: For Schools and Families (1856), which provided detailed illustrated anatomical explanations, she critiqued the injury done to American women by restrictive dress and poor diet but expressed this concern as a fear that unhealthy women would produce a “feeble and sickly” nation.

[Beecher] explained that “as a general rule, woman originally is organized more delicately than the other sex, having a constitution that can not bear either labor or long or strong mental excitement as can the more vigorous sex.”

While Beecher sought to reform women’s lives by increasing their health, this desire accompanied a determinist view of their bodies. She explained that “as a general rule, woman originally is organized more delicately than the other sex, having a constitution that can not bear either labor or long or strong mental excitement as can the more vigorous sex.” Exercise offered women an avenue for controlling their own bodies through the pursuit of health, but one in which the emphasis on physicality meant that their presumably weaker physiology posed limits. While young boys could compete in games and sports, daughters were expected to get their exercise from chores.

Ultimately, early P.E. experts such as “M” and Beecher advocated for a paradoxical position: that women’s lives could be improved through exercise, but also that womanhood, along with its associated duties and responsibilities, was defined by a biological model of sex. This attitude persisted into the early twentieth century, when professional physical education training programs for women emerged. As P.E. departments were established in schools, a new cohort of professional women maintained their expert authority by committing to the idea of intractable sex difference, while also insisting that the body could be transformed through physical training.

Early-nineteenth-century texts like A Course of Calisthenics and Physiology and Calisthenics paved the way for these later professional opportunities for women and provided important resources for women whose bodies were subject to the authority of a male medical establishment. At the same time, the instruction in these manuals reinforced a narrow idea of what it meant to be a woman, leaving little room for variations in embodiment or identity.

Further Reading:

Todd, Jan. Physical Culture and the Body Beautiful: Purposive Exercise in the Lives of American Women, 1800-1870. Mercer University Press, 1998.

Verbrugge, Martha H. Active Bodies: A History of Women’s Physical Education in Twentieth-Century America. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Jess Libow is a Ph.D. student in English at Emory University where she studies the role of disability, health, and gender in U.S. literature and culture.

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