The weaker sex, this is how women were called for a long time, and especially in the 1800s, when frailty, paleness and thinness were considered attributes of beauty. But things started to change in the late-1800s. Women’ became’ stronger and more mobile.
For the New Woman, athleticism was more a question of everyday wins concerning her freedom of movement than about sport.
Let’s think about it. What kind of social standing can a person have when her ideal of beauty is linked to disease? A disease characterised by coughing, emaciation, relentless diarrhoea, fever, and the expectoration of phlegm?
This is what happened to women in Western societies between the second half of the 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries.
Tuberculosis was endemic in the Western World of the time. In the second half of the 1800s, this illness caused 25% of death in Europe. It means that every family was likely to be touched by it. Once you caught it, you simply wasted away, and nobody could do anything because doctors knew very little about its causes and possible cures. They believed that a person was born with an inclination to catch it and that too much physical or mental exertion may also cause the illness. Women who lived an intense life were thought to be especially exposed, as were men with a literary ‘genius’.
It was a ‘gentle’ disease compared to other common illnesses, like smallpox or cholera, but it was still inescapable. Transforming the symptoms of tuberculosis into something fashionable was, therefore, a defensive strategy. It was a way to make sense of it.
In the first half of the 19th century, all the common symptoms of tuberculosis had become epitomes of beauty: the thinness, the ghostly pallor highlighting blue veins, and the rosy cheeks, sparkling eyes, and red lips that were indications of a constant low-grade fever. Even people who didn’t have the disease used makeup to look like they did.
Women became frail flowers whose existence could be swiped away by the slightest accident, and slowly the idea that they could do nothing without danger to their life became prevalent. Engaging in any physical activity – like sports – or mental activity – like getting an education – would drain women’s energy to the point they might become unable to have children.
In the late 19th century, tuberculosis was finally recognised as the consequence of the contagion from the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis, not a natural inclination – and things changed drastically.Athleticism (Enter the New Woman #AtoZChallenge 2022) It was only at the end of the 1800s that women started to regain freedom of movement #History #WomenHistory Click To Tweet
The Athletic New Woman
At the beginning of the 20th century, being outside in the open air and sun was increasingly recognised as a healthy behaviour that would alleviate some medical conditions and avoid others. Doctors started to advise to be in the sun rather than shy away from it.
Wearing lighter clothes also became advisable. Women were encouraged to shed skirts that brushed the ground – and more so the ‘evil’ trail. It was recognised that this kind of dress gathered germs and was therefore unhealthy – for women, that became an unepected liberation. Their dresses became easier to carry around because they were actually lighter. And women wanted to move!
In the 1890s, women also appropriated the new bicycle, which soon became synonymous with the modern woman and gave women freedom and independence. On a social level, this created some anxiety. But cycling was also considered a sport and, therefore, an healthy activity that should be encouraged.
Besides, all sports became more acceptable for women, starting with the 1890s, and becoming more desirable as the decades wore on until, in the 1920s, a sporting woman was considered attractive.
Of course, not all sports were equally acceptable. Golf, tennis and swimming were considered lady-liked, therefore encouraged, whereas contact sports, like football, were reserved to men. But women increasingly took part in the cheering of these sports, which became important moments in a young person’s social life. Sports were not only good for health, but also for sociality.
Athleticism, the Gibson Girl’s appropriation, became Flapper Jane’s way of expression.
Eabinovitch-Foz, Einan. Dressed for Freedom : The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism. University of Illinois Press, Champaign, Illinois, United States of America, 2021
Hyperallergic – How Tuberculosis Symptoms Became Ideals of Beauty in the 19th Century
Smithsonian Magazine – The Rise of the Modern Sportswoman
Women in Sports and Physical Education at the College of Wooster – Exibit 1920s