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
I had a few family members die from tuberculosis in the nineteenth century. My grandmother, born 1908, was very sporty – she played golf (very well) and tennis and rode horses.
You know? I’m not sure, but I think one of my ancestors also died of tuberculosis. I know that my granny’s sister died very young in the first years of the 1900s. I think it was tuberculosis, though I’m not hundred percent sure.
I haven’t think about tis family mamory for decades!
I haven’t looked into the sporty life of my female ancestors but as many were farmers wives they probably had little time for recreation. But they have died mainly through child birth or old age rather than diseases like TB.
I know a part of my family’s tory. When I was a kid, my grandparents often told stories of what they remembered. My love for stories probably come form them 🙂
Women have come a long way and its not been an easy path. Modern times see all women taking up some form or exercise if not sport. Stopping by via the AtoZ Master List. Happy blogging!
Hi Archana, and thenks for stopping by 🙂
You know what always surprises me the most? There are so many things we take for granted, and our ancestors had to fight for some of those things.
We’ve certainly come a long way in a little over 100 years, haven’t we?
That’s certainly true.
Ronel Janse van Vuuren
Ronel visiting for the A-Z Challenge My Languishing TBR: A
Hi Ronel! Thanks for stopping by 🙂
Great start to your series – I always learn so much. I’ve always understood how liberating the bicycle was for women, but I hadn’t considered the underlying shift to athleticism. Fascinating!
I loved learning about the bicycle. We use it as the most common of items and still it was so important for our ancestors.
Nice to see you back for another round of A to Z!
Though maybe physically not as strong as the average man, I’ve never thought of women in the past as being particularly weak. They had to deal with so much. My mother was pretty tough. She had been a dancer and a juggler most of her life so she was in pretty good shape. After five kids and an increasingly more sedentary life in later years she started breaking down some, but I can’t recall her ever being sick when I was growing up. She was always there to take care of our sicknesses though.
I think that women in the past were a lot tougher than we normally believe 😉
A very powerful start, indeed! So good that women got rid of that sickly feminine beauty standard. I don´t recall how was the feminine beauty standard for my great-grandparents time, although I have a pic of my great grandmother dressed as an Adelita (the women that joined the revolutionary soldiers around 1910)
I´m looking forward to your next posts.
Ho I envy you for that photo!
You know, it’s true that on the one hand, it sucks that the standard of beauty ws based on a sickly look. But on the other, it was kind of brave that they tried to cope turning fear into beauty. I find it quite fascinating.
I think they should teach this thing about beauty standards and TB. It explains so much, because Victorian literature still has an effect on our ideas of beauty in some ways…
Great first post! The bicycle thing made me think of Annie Londonderry, I read her biography a whole ago. She was a swindler, but a very creative one 😀
Isn’t it? I think this is one of those pieces of history that are so relevant and still somehow we never learn, unless we go hunting for them.
Personally, I find it so fascinating.
Yay for the bicycle and getting a good dose of sunlight. It must have been so difficult when the epitome of beauty was being ill – sometimes fashion boggles the mind.
Tasha’s Thinkings: YouTube – What They Don’t Tell You (and free fiction)
Isn’t the history of the bycicle so interesting? I had no idea!
Glad to connect with you during another April Challenge.
Here in India, recently, doctors have detected a small number of Covid-recovered patients contracting tuberculosis. Luckily we have some very good doctors and medications. So, nothing like the havoc TB used to wreak many, hundreds of years ago.
A great post to start this year’s challenge.
Looking forward to your posts.
Covid had brought back so many things that we thought beloged to the past. It’s been such a strange time.
Wow! This was such a cool post! Who knew looking sickly was actually fashionable back in the day. Thank goodness progressive society saw the error of its ways.
I know! Fascinating, isn’t it?
Wow! Learnt something new today!
Happy you liked it 🙂
My Grandmother was a talented hockey player in the 20s and 30s, she gave it all up when she married because even though participating in sports had become acceptable, being a mother took precedence over her everything else. She also stopped painting.
Sadly, tht was quite common in that time. Women managed to enter the workforce and even attain some form of freedom, btu that all stopped when they married.
But it was still a step forward. We often focus on what they didn’t get, and forget what they did get, for themseves and for who came after them.
I don’t think any of my foremothers were sporty types, though I think I’ve seen pictures of my youngest great-grandma (born in 1906) playing tennis with her friends in the 1920s. She probably went skating too. Fresh air, sunshine, and physical activity make a world of difference for health.
I don’t think my ancestors were very sporty too. But who knows? I don’t really have any evidence.
Joy Weese Moll
I love stories about women and bicycles and the rational dress that went along with it. Frances Willard’s book, A Wheel within a Wheel: How I learned to Ride the Bicycle, is fascinating.
I never heard of that book, but it sounds inteersting. I never imagined tha history of the bysicle to be that fascinating 🙂
Thanks for mentioning it.