A 1938 physical-education course required for graduation. Courtesy Duke University Archives
A 1938 physical-education course required for graduation. Courtesy Duke University Archives

A Sporting Chance

1934 event gave women a day to play—if not compete.
November 12, 2012

Title IX, the landmark federal legislation that celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year, marked a breakthrough for female athletes at Duke, opening the door to full participation in varsity athletics on a national stage. But the desire of women to compete on a level playing field with men can be seen much earlier in campus history. Those aspirations— and the resistance to them—were evident during a curious event in 1934 called “Play Day.”

Perhaps the earliest intercollegiate competition for women at Duke, “Play Day” was held on November 23, 1934, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Twenty-one students from the Duke Woman’s College joined students from the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina (now UNC-Greensboro), Meredith College, Peace College, and St. Mary’s College (now St. Mary’s School) to participate in sports such as “bat ball,” “volley ball,” and “captain ball.” Similar events had been occurring around the nation since the 1920s, but the one at UNC appears to have been the first in the Triangle.

Organizers took pains to emphasize Play Day’s harmonious nature. The aim of the event, according to the Durham Morning Herald, was “to sponsor better relations among the schools, and therefore all gameswill be so arranged as to have no competitive school spirit.” For team sports, women were divided into non-school-specific teams to discourage any rallying around the school pride. Following the athletic events, participants were treated to tea and “comic prizes,” which were intended solely for entertainment rather than to recognize achievement. Even so, it was noted that Alma Hull ’36 of the Duke Woman’s College won the archery contest.

Play Day didn’t seem to make much of a splash on the Duke campus. The Chronicle made no mention of the event and didn’t bother to report its outcome. But there were other signs of growing interest in women’s sports. As early as 1917, twenty years after women were admitted as “regular students,” Coach “Cap” Card began offering voluntary gym classes for women, and by 1919 a female instructor was hired. In 1924, the first director of athletics for women, Julia Grout, arrived. According to a Chronicle article in 1931, both Grout and the students found the facilities inadequate, even with the opening of Southgate Hall, which contained a gymnasium and dining hall, in 1921.

Members of the women's swimming team practice diving in 1954. Courtesy Duke University Archives

“Having no pool of their own, the coeds had to be content with using the boys’ pool two afternoons of the week,” the article reported. “There was no special athletic field set aside for the use of the women, and for years they took archery on one slope, played baseball on another, and dribbled hockey and soccer balls up and down a rough, uneven field that was inundated by the smallest shower.” In a February 1923 Archive essay, Herminia Haynes ’23 argued that the gap between Trinity men and women was largest when it came to access to sports: “The women pay the same athletic fee as do the men. The men are provided with two coaches and an athletic director for their physical culture, football, basketball, baseball, track, and courts for tennis. The women do not have a regular physical director, although they have some equipment and enjoy the use of two tennis courts twice a week.”

Bowling in the basement of the Ark on East Campus. Courtesy Duke University Archives

The conversion of Southgate Hall to serve women exclusively helped provide more opportunities for participation in sports. However, there were limitations to what student-organized groups such as the Women’s Recreation Association could do to provide competitive opportunities to female students. Occasional intramural competitions in the 1950s and 1960s gave way to fully formed and supported women’s teams at the dawn of Title IX. Forty years after Play Day was held, Duke women could finally play with the respect—and in the spirit of competition—that Duke men had long enjoyed.