Lou Henry Hoover and Athletics for Women and Girls

by Matthew Schaefer

Last month my wife and I attended a women’s basketball game at the University of Iowa.  We were delighted to learn that the game coincided with National Girls and Women in Sports Day, so that we’d get the commemorative t-shirts.  This led to a discussion of women’s athletics, Title IX, and the relatively recent creation of the National Girls and Women in Sports Day.  February 7, 1986 marked the first such day, more than a decade after the passage of Title IX.  In turn, Title IX can trace its intellectual and institutional history back through the American Association of Health, Physical Education and Dance [AAHPERD] to the National Amateur Athletic Federation-Women’s Division and Lou Henry Hoover.

Lou Henry, practicing archery in 1895.

Lou Hoover joined the NAAF board in April 1923, with the intention of expanding to women its message of the physical and mental value of athletics.  Lou firmly believed that the courage, strength and character gained through sports participation gave girls the tools needed to be the confident leaders of tomorrow.  As the only woman on the board, Lou worked tirelessly to build the infrastructure needed to make the Women’s Division successful.  Lou contacted more than 400 leaders from Girl Scouts of America, leaders in Women’s physical education, and teachers at schools and colleges for women and girls.  Nearly all responded positively to this effort.  By the mid-1920s Lou had shaped the Women’s Division into: ‘A national movement having as its goal the development of the health, physical fitness and morale, and consequent usefulness to the nation as citizens and mothers, of every girl and woman in America.’

While a successful fundraiser for the organization, Lou Hoover found resistance to long-term corporate underwriting. Ultimately, she helped create the organization’s mission in the “promotion of competition that stresses enjoyment of sport and the development of good sportsmanship and character rather than those types that emphasize the making and breaking of records, and the winning of championships for the enjoyment of spectators and for the athletic reputation or commercial advantages of institutions and organizations.” Eventually, the Women’s Division was merged into the American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation in 1940.  Before this merger, Lou kept the Women’s Division focused on its goal: ‘A sport for every girl and every girl in a sport.’

Lou Hoover’s hard work was acknowledged by her peers.  Henry Breckenridge, president of the NAAF, wrote Lou in December 1923: “Frankly I think you just about saved the Federation’s life. The combination of the prestige of your name and real direction you gave the women working with you raised our mission above the plain of petty controversy.’  Alice Setton, writing the history of the Women’s Division in 1939, dedicated the book ‘with deep affection and sincere appreciation to our Founder, our First Chairman, and our Permanent Honorary Chair-Lou Henry Hoover.’  Lou Hoover herself, usually self-effacing to a fault, acknowledged in a mid-1930s reminiscence that: ‘The Women’s Division accomplished much more in its field that the men have in theirs.’

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