History of women’s fitness

Striking a pose before the match

Quite the tennis outfit

We’ve already talked about New Year resolutions (still haven’t started on my craft projects, but the year is young!) and a common one for me every year is health. Making better choices can be difficult. I’ve tried for months to reduce my soda intake, but then I go to the store and I tell myself “but it’s sweetened with cane sugar, it’s soo much better for me.” That may be true, but a little less sugary beverage and a little more water wouldn’t do me any harm. It may boil down to selecting a different option in the moment, but an even bigger part of success is finding your inspiration – the reason(s) why you want to make that change. So as I was musing tonight about my health quest, I thought it would be interesting to take a peek into the history of women’s fitness. After all, as a lover of all things vintage, perhaps there’s no better way for me to feel inspired than through research and knowledge. There is a wealth of information out there about this – tell me if you feel the same and want to see some expanded material…

As with most stories, it’s best to start with the beginning. The benefits of consistent physical activity have been promoted since the 17th century. (Keep in mind that before then people were leading such naturally physically demanding lives, the concept of working out would have been met with a serious look of confusion. After all, when you’re hunting and gathering all day you have no need for a gym membership.) But like most things, women were kept out of the limelight on this for centuries. That’s not to say we weren’t feeling those endorphins, it’s just that the menfolk didn’t recognize our participation. The funny thing is that in some ways women’s place in fitness has come so far, but in other respects it feels completely the opposite.

Several sources online reference a particularly telling example of this. In 1912 Harper’s Bazaar published an article titled “Are athletics a menace to motherhood?” You’ll notice if you read the highlights of the female fitness history, there was a lot of concern with our baby makers. Sigh. But here’s the kicker: about 75 years after this article was published, Harper’s revisited the very same subject with the feature “Can sports make you sterile?” Granted, I’m not an expert on matters of the body, but I can’t help but feel like my feathers are ruffled by the wording of that title. Do you feel the same?

One of the themes I noticed during my research is that the media or “experts” always sought to either belittle women’s accomplishments in the athletic realm or scare them off from doing certain things for fear it will make them undesirable. But just to make matters more utterly ridiculous, the undercurrent of “having the perfect shape” was touted repeatedly. So what’s a gal to do? Big question, but for this article I’d like to focus on a couple times when things got awesome for the ladies who lunge (or weight-lift or jog or generally kick butt). I hope you find them inspirational too!


Stand by your man :-)

Kate and her husband Max

This lady is my new hero and I seriously need to print off a photo of her for my desk. Born to Bavarian circus performers in the late 1800s, young Kate Brumbach was destined for greatness. Not only were her parents figures of physical strength in their own right, but they encouraged their daughter to carve her own path as a strong woman icon. Kate was considered unique because she not only had a commanding presence (as a teen she was already over six feet tall and weighed around 185 pounds), but she was a stunning beauty. Kate completely defied the stereotype for what was considered “attractive” to the gentile community and people, by in large, loved her for it. Until then women were supposed to be curvy and delicate. Being too strong, having muscle definition, even talking too loudly – all these things were seen as unseemly. (Exercise guides of the day warned women repeatedly about the dangers of too much physical fitness). But then Kate entered the frame and redefined what is beautiful. That’s right ladies – embrace your strength.

At her peak, Kate’s biceps measured 17″ around and her thighs were 26.5″. Her early act consisted of a wrestling challenge. She would offer 100 German marks to any man who could beat her. Naturally, she always won, and the performances proved fateful as she met her husband this way. I love that “how we met” story! Just look at their photograph – it’s easy to see they’re a couple in love.

Her big break came when she made her way to New York City. While in town she challenged the men of New York to a weight lifting competition. Who should come up to accept the challenge? None other than the father of bodybuilding, Eugene Sandow. Kate won by lifting 300 pounds above her head with one hand (for the record, Eugene could only lift it up to his chest). If you weren’t convinced she was a bad mamma jamma before, I’ll enter this story as all the proof you’d need. But to take it a step further, she created her new stage name, Sandwina, as a nod to her triumph over Sandow. In one fell swoop she put a feminine spin on an icon’s name and showed the world who was boss. Sorry Beyoncé, I love you dearly, but Sandwina takes the cake for queen in my book. Oh and p.s. she also spoke out against the silliness of corsets. Like a boss I’m assuming.

Kate went on to become a mom and retired from touring at the age of 64. At this point, she opened up a restaurant with her husband in the place that kick started it all: New York. Sadly, in 1952 she lost her battle with cancer. Sandwina’s legacy lives on (and the treasure trove of internet sites referencing her is a testament) and I hope you found her story as inspiring as I did.

Coco Chanel and the pant revolution

Lookin' good!

Woman in pants decides to change the world.

Ellen already set the stage for us with her great article on Dress Reform, but I’d like to focus on how fashion liberated women when it came to athletics. Do you remember our article about board games and how sport-focused games were considered the great equalizers as women weren’t allowed to compete with boys “in real life?” If you find it funny that a static board game could in any way capture real sports, then consider this: when women did play a sport it was usually in a dress. Just look at our “tennis in a dress” cover girl for reference.

When you think about it, society’s acceptance of pants may just be the most helpful moment in women’s fitness history. While pants were seen as a necessary evil for women working during the war, they weren’t embraced until Chanel came along. She made pants high fashion when she donned them while at the fanciest resorts, wore them while horseback riding (because skirts, let’s be honest, seriously get in the way), and inspired the masses with her designs.

Chanel was quoted as saying that her aim was to empower women. “I gave them back their bodies: bodies that were drenched in sweat, due to fashion’s finery, lace, corsets, underclothes, padding.” Quite simply, she granted women movement and control over their bodies in a way they hadn’t experienced during the stuffy Victorian years. Add into the mix the 1920s swinging tunes of Jazz, the popularity of dances like the Charleston, and a desire for athletic figures and you’ve got the recipe for moving and grooving.

So as you consider your own health quests, don’t forget to appreciate the little things that are really pretty major when you think about it and don’t underestimate your own power. This year be a Coco, be a Sandwina, be the best version of you!

Cause A Frockus would like to thank their resources: NPR, Glamour, Human Marvels, Forgotten News Makers, and public domain images.

Replies for “History of women’s fitness

  • Ellen Dial

    I’ve always placed Miss Coco “up there” as a wonderful role model and idol – she was independent, brilliantly talented, intelligent and a major change agent for women – in a time when women were held down and back by society, and even their clothing!

    She rocked.

    Now Sandwina is added to the list….. a beautiful woman can be strong and not a shrinking violet. A true woman of power.

    And yes, God forbid we lose our fertility because of exercise…. what about the boys? LOL Of course, the female sexuality has ALWAYS been a mystery… they used to think a menstruating woman couldn’t make cheese – it wouldn’t curdle up properly, or whatever cheese does.

    One must wonder, did Sandwina wear her gym togs to have tea with her lady friends???? 🙂 More on that later…

    Great piece!

  • Lawrence

    Thank you for sharing your info. I really appreciate your efforts and I am
    waiting for your further write ups thanks once again.


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