A website dedicated to athletics literature / Women in Athletics - from 1900 - 1950

After the turn of the century there was an increasing number of events around the world for women and girls, not all of which were purely ‘athletic’ but which had an athletic element.  In October 1903, for example, the major couture houses in Paris organised the marche des midinettes – A 12km walk through the streets of the city.  Two-and-a-half thousand young women took part.  It was a great success and one observer noted that, “we will remember the smiles, and not the fifths of seconds”.  In November 1904, Paris hosted a different sort of event.  The managers of the Parc des Princes organised a 300m event for women and attracted 250 competitors who had to run a series of qualifying heats.  It was intended as an event for women to be watched by women, but there were many male journalists and VIPs who gained entrance and who subsequently mocked the competitors and their flying skirts, flowing hair, sweaty armpits, falls, and money prizes.  A Damensportsfest staged in Berlin in the same year provoked similar reactions.

1900 – 1924.

Pushing back the Social BoundariesWhen reading the contemporary reports from the first decade of the 20th century, it is clear that the new generation felt exhilarated by the idea that they could push the social and political boundaries even further.  Further than men had ever contemplated, and they were willing to risk public ridicule and anger in the process.

By and large, men were the first organisers of athletics, just as they were the first organisers of most other sports.  When men organised, first clubs, then national, and then international organisations, they never included women.  It probably did not occur to most of these men that they should.  When, later, it was suggested that they should include women in their organisations, this lack of inclusion became deliberate exclusion.  As the athletic organisations which existed were for men only, this inevitably led to women-only organisations.  This, in turn, often led to overt hostility from the men not only to the women’s organisations, but also to women participating at all.  But from 1914 Europe was at war, and women substituted for men in the work place in unprecedented numbers and redefined their social roles.  The world had already changed too much to believe that it could ever go back, but it did not seem like it at the time.

Alice Milliat and the Rise of Women’s Sports Bodies.  Excluded by men, the women, as far as they could took control of their own sporting destinies.  In 1917, Alice Milliat of France founded the Federation Feminine Sportive de France (FFSF) with three clubs.  By the time she resigned in 1925 this had increased to 400.  The Importance of Alice Milliat in the development of women’s athletics can hardly be exaggerated, but the momentum that drove the expansion of women’s athletics was not with one person, or in one country; examples can be found around the world.  There can be no certainty about dates.  Movements often emerge slowly.  In 1913 a women’s athletic association was formed in Australia, but events had been held there since 1906.  In 1918 Austria began its women’s athletics championships, and they sent a team to Budapest in 1919.  Also in 1919, Armed Forces championships in Britain included a women’s 4x110 yards relay for the first time.  Rapidly growing international interest led to Alice Milliat in 1919 requesting the IOC to add women’s events to the Olympic Games programme.  This was rejected, and provoked a long tussle between the women’s athletics movement and the male international sporting authorities.

Women also acted on their own personal initiatives.  It is reported that in 1918 Marie-Louise Ledru joined in the Tour de Paris Marathon (42.29km) and finished in 38th place in 5h 40mins, so proving women’s capacity to succeed in what was commonly believed to be the toughest sporting challenge of all – the marathon.

It should be remembered that women were learning how to fight entrenched, conservative attitudes in all aspects of their lives.  This period also covered some important international suffragette movements, when women took direct action to confront their exclusion from the democratic process.  Women were jailed and went on hunger strike and in Britain one woman died when she threw herself under the hooves of the King’s racehorse during the Derby.  Women wanted to be involved, but emotions and rancour ran high.

Women’s Sport becomes International.  In March 1921, Alice Milliat organised a multi-national athletics competition in Monte Carlo. Five nations took part – France, Great Britain, Italy, Norway and Switzerland.  There were ten track and field events, and several other sports.  Seven months later she organised a match between ‘unofficial’ teams from France and Great Britain, and on the following day the Federation Sportive Feminine Internationale (FSFI) was formed with Alice Milliat at its head.  Six countries – Czechoslovakia, France, Italy, Great Britain, Spain and the USA were the inaugural members.  They were to govern women’s athletics internationally until 1936.  After being rejected by the IOC, the FSFI organised the first women’s Olympic Games in Paris in August 1922.  Five nations took part.  Czechoslovakia, France, Great Britain, Switzerland ant the USA.  The games attracted a crowd of 20,000 for the final session.  The future of women’s international athletics now seemed secure.

In 1922 and 1923 the second and third Monte Carlo Games were successfully held.  Domestically, more nations became organised.  Belgium formed a women’s federation in 1921, and the Women’s AAA was formed in England in 1922.  Poland, the USA and the USSR all held their first women’s championships in 1922.  In England, the Women’s AAA held its first championships in 1923, as did Czechoslovakia. 


1925 – 1949.

The FSFI’s tussle with the IOC and IAAF had been going on for some years, and would continue until 1936.  The IOC objected to the FSFI’s use of the word ‘Olympic’ in the title of their championships.  The FSFI agreed to drop the word in exchange for the IOC holding ten events for women in the 1928 Olympic Games.  In accordance with this agreement, the FSFI renamed their championships, and in 1926 organised their second championships – now called The Women’s World Games.  They were held in Gothenburg over three days, with eight nations competing in 13 events.  The Swedish royal family patronised the event and several world records were broken.  Comparisons were drawn with Stockholm’s staging of the Olympic Games in 1912.  The versatile Kinue Hitomi from Japan, only 18, was voted ‘Best Athlete of the Games’ after winning the Running, and the Standing Long Jump, 2nd in the Discus Throw, 3rd in the 100m, 5th in the 60m, and 6th in the 250m, demonstrating to the world just how much women’s athletics had developed in Asia.

IAAF Sets up Women’s Committee but Prejudice RemainsThe politics of women’s participation continued to be a complex affair.  The voting for and against women’s participation by various individuals and organisations in this period is not easy to interpret.  For example, in England when the General Committee of the AAA voted that it would be advisable for women to have their own governing body, are we to believe that they were supporters of women’s athletics, or that women’s athletics was so controversial that they wanted nothing to do with it?  Later, when the IAAF supported the inclusion of women’s events in the Olympic Games was it because they were supporters of the FSFI or because inclusion in the Olympic Games would give the IOC greater control over the FSFI than if they were outside?  In any event, in 1926 the IOC agreed to put on only five events in the 1928 Olympic Games, and the IAAF decided to set up their own Women’s Committee.

The FSFI were understandably angry at what they regarded as the IOC’s token gesture of including only five events in 1928 rather than the ten events previously agreed, and the English Women’s Amateur Athletic Association, (WAAA) boycotted the Olympic Games in protest.  Nevertheless, those Games were a landmark.  Women competed for the first time in the 100m, 800m, 4x100m, Long Jump, and Discus Throw.  Sadly, controversy continued to dog the women’s events.  The 800m heats and final had been arranged on consecutive days, and although the event was won by Lina Radke-Batschauer of Germany in world record time (2min 164/5sec), there was much concern over the apparent distress of some of the competitors, which led to an immediate backlash against women running the event in the future.  It was not to be an Olympic event again until 1960.  At the 1928 IOC Congress there was a motion to abolish all women’s events, but it was defeated 16-6.

How Far Should Women Run?  The notion that that 800m was too far for women to run competitively was hotly disputed, and as if to prove a point, the first women’s cross-country international was held in Brussels in 1930 between Belgium and France.  The French had held their first cross-country championships as early as 1919.  In 1927, the WAAA of England held their inaugural cross-country championships (about 3miles/4828km), and attracted 108 competitors, and in 1931 women took part in their first International Cross-Country Championships in France – this was ‘unofficial’ however, and although the competition continued annually it was not officially ‘approved’ until 1967. 

Several nations continued to include the 800m/880 yards in their championships.  In England, however, the WAAA did not permit women to run any further than 1000mts.  Nevertheless, in 1926 newspapers reported that Violet Piercy ran a marathon from Windsor to Battersea in 3h 40m 20s.  She was a great publicist of women’s endurance running and ran many events over the next 10 years “to prove that a woman’s stamina can be just as remarkable as a man’s”.  By 1934 she was organising women’s 3-mile (4.82km) road races with ‘many prominent women’s London clubs’ competing.

We should not imagine that the opposition to women’s athletics came solely from men.  Many women also wondered whether they were sacrificing too much when they chose to take their place in the men’s world of competitive athletics, rather than travelling a parallel route where health, participation and fun were the main objectives.  Despite the controversies and the differences of opinion, however, women’s athletics continued to grow.  In 1930 the FSFI put on its third Women’s World Games in Prague.  A record 17 nations took part, and in the same year women’s events were added to the programme of the ‘International Universities’ Games.  However, in 1932, only the 80m Hurdles and the Javelin Throw were added to the women’s Olympic Programme, reinforcing the rift between the FSFI and the male dominated international sporting organisations.  So, in 1934, the FSFI organised the Fourth Women’s World Games.  Held in London in attracted another record attendance (19 nations) to compete in 12 events.  Also in 1934, six women’s events were added to the British Empire Games in London, including the 880 yards (804.7m). 

Winning-Over Public Opinion.  Women athletes were now, clearly a permanent feature of world sport and women were anxious to be involved in all aspects of athletics.  If we take England as an example, women’s road-walking championships were contested at Wembley for the first time.  By the mid-1930s any opposition the public once had to women in international athletics had all but faded away and the sport had all but shed it bourgeois image and had become accessible to all social classes.  In 1935, one British commentator observed, “now that women’s athletics are such a feature in practically every country in the world, it is difficult to realise how comparatively young the movement is, and what a storm of opposition it has weathered.”

Politically, however, there were still battles to be fought.  The IOC planned to freeze the women’s Olympic programme at six events for 1936.  This was in contrast to the FSFI’s aspirations of a full women’s programme, and equal representation on the IOC.  Among the FSFI there was talk once more of staging their own Olympic Games as they had in 1922.  But the world-wide depression, the rise of fascism and the international tension that would lead to World War II, had changed the climate.  Most now favoured a new order in which the women fought their case from within the establishment rather than from outside it, and in 1936 the FSFI merged with the IAAF.

Public Relations and Personalities.  Now the years of direct political conflict were over, women’s athletics needed personalities to capture the public’s imagination.  This came after the war when Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands won gold medals at 100m, 200m, 80m Hurdles and 4x100m Relay, becoming the star of the 1948 Olympic Games.  She also held the world record for the High Jump and Long Jump at the time and was rightly judged one of the greatest women athletes of all time.  There were of course, many other great athletes.

by Peter Radford

Acknowledgement.  Athlos is grateful to the IAAF for giving permission to reproduce this three-part essay, which was originally published as, Women’s Athletics – The Road to Recognition, in, IAAF 1912-2012 – 100 Years of Athletics Excellence, (Monaco: IAAF, 2012), pp. 239-259.

Acknowledgements.  I am grateful to Peter Lovesey of the National Union of Track Statisticians, and to David Bedford of the London Marathon, for information, and to members of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport – most notably Jean-Michel Delaplace, Giglio Gori, Allen Guttman, Gerd von de Lippe, Roberta Park and Gertrud Pfister, on whose original research I have heavily relied.  Any errors of interpretation are, of course, my own.

CONTINUE TO 1950 to 2012





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