“We brought people together.” A tribute to the Women’s Physical Education Alumnae Association (WPEAA)

From left: Former WPEAA board members Stringer, Haugan, and Anderson

A bright star in the history of the U of M and the School of Kinesiology flickered out quietly two years ago, on September 24, 2016. On that day, the Women’s Physical Education Alumnae Association (WPEAA), one of the longest running organizations on campus, held their last Annual Fall Breakfast. A vibrant organization that once numbered in the hundreds, the WPEAA provided a forceful voice and strength in numbers to women graduates and faculty in the U of M School of Health and Physical Education throughout decades of social and cultural change.

“It was earth-shattering when we closed the organization two years ago,” said Pat Stringer (‘60), long-time member of the WPEAA board. “It was difficult to let go.”

Stringer, along with Shirley Oehler Anderson (‘59), Anne Hillgren Haugan (‘55), and other board members, were dealing with the effects of physical education licensure program changes, and degree and state education requirements. The traditional physical education curriculum, based on a model in which students completed the program as a cohort and became WPEAA members at graduation, no longer existed. An aging membership and people moving out of state or to warmer climates had a significant impact as well. But the WPEAA had a great run, at one point numbering over 600 members.

A fledgling organization

No one knows exactly when the organization started, but the final directory includes graduates from the classes of 1922 through 1999. Anderson explained that early on, women weren’t allowed to participate in organized sports, so they had to organize and fund themselves. The Women’s Athletic Association (WAA) was a national college organization that encouraged competition in individual and team sports, and clubs on campus promoted a number of activities such as golf, tennis, archery, and bowling. “To raise money, our students held a rummage sale every fall on Washington Avenue,” said Anderson. “They also inflated and sold thousands of balloons at the Homecoming football game. Afterwards they’d go to breakfast, and after a while it grew into an organization. It started as more of a social group, with a goal of providing scholarships to young women.” 

In the 1950s, the group voted to provide a $100 scholarship annually to an incoming freshman. Money for scholarships was generally collected at the Homecoming breakfasts, but fund-raising efforts hadn’t been going well. One fall breakfast, Janabelle Taylor, who later worked with Hallie Q. Brown, pioneering educator, activist, and writer, stood up and announced, “We need money for scholarships!” She proceeded to take off her hat and pass it around the tables. “She had to pass the hat twice,” Haugan laughed, “but she raised some money for us.” For years the fund was maintained with proceeds from the annual balloon and rummage sales, and today stands at $123,000. The organization has given out a total of over 200 scholarships, says Anderson, and the fund currently is being administered by UM-Duluth, which continues to offer a licensure program in physical education.

Separate programs

Long before the WPEAA, the U of M had separate physical education programs for women and men. The women’s program was initiated in 1901, and curriculum for certification to teach physical education was introduced in 1906. J. Anna Norris, a pioneer in the field of education for women, was appointed director of the women’s program in 1912. Classes were segregated by gender, and women were not allowed to compete or participate in organized sports until the 1950s, when women’s sports clubs were finally permitted. “We wanted to compete,” said Stringer. “We took every opportunity to do it, through the WAA and community leagues. And we had wonderful athletes who never had the chance like they do today because of Title IX.”

The men who enrolled in the physical education program were tutored in sciences, but the women were not, and they often struggled with those courses. The men and women took their science exams together in an auditorium, Anderson recalled, and the instructors would walk around the room and “help” the men if they were struggling with a test problem. “The instructors actually gave the men the answers to the test questions,” said Anderson. “They ignored the women.” Stringer recalls a time when the women were studying together for a physiology exam, and someone offered them a copy of test questions that had been stolen. “People were very quiet,” she said. “Then someone said, ‘I don’t want to be a part of this,’ and we all left the room.”

Lifelong relationships

The lasting power of the WPEAA was in the lifelong connections it fostered. The women’s physical education program functioned as a cohort: Students took all their required courses and sport classes together. “We all knew each other so well,” said Anderson. “A lot of what the organization did was to bring people together.” Women who went through the program maintained their friendships for decades, and, Stringer said, “the WPEAA was the glue that held them together.”

Mentoring the younger members of the organization was a primary function. “One of our purposes was to be advocates for women in P.E. through mentoring and role-playing,” says Haugan. “We always had speakers at our breakfasts who promoted the roles of women.” Eloise Jaeger, director of Women’s Physical Education who later presided over both women’s and men’s programs as director of the School of Physical Education, was one of their role models, Haugan said. Helen Slocum, who headed up the School’s health education program and expanded it to include both an undergraduate and graduate program, was another.  

Display case for WPEAA in the Cooke Hall lobby

The group recalled the many reunions they’d attended over the years, and the abiding connections they’d made. “We maintained lifelong relationships through this program,” said Anderson. “My class of ‘59 has had a fall cabin party for the last 20 years.” The class of ‘61 had a running chain letter to keep everyone up-to-date. Said Haugan, “One of my fondest memories is the reunion breakfast we had in 1983 at the Nicollet Island Inn. Every one of the 1933 grads went swimming before breakfast at the Normandy Inn Hotel where they were staying. It was amazing!”

Critical issues in the field of physical education

There was no debate among the group that, over the years, the many changes in the field of physical education took their toll on the organization. They felt the introduction in 1991 of the fifth-year program, which allowed students with undergraduate degrees to enter licensure programs and receive their M.Ed. after one year of study, was particularly damaging. “With the fifth-year program, we lost relationship continuity,” said Stringer. “People didn’t go through the program as a cohort, building relationships, and there wasn’t a younger base joining our organization to keep it going.” She added, “They could get a teaching degree, but it didn’t improve the program content.”

In Stringer’s view, a critical issue affecting the field of physical education is the perception of “athletics” vs. “physical education.” She says, “The question now is, ‘Why do we need P.E. if we have athletics?’ We’re realizing that we haven’t provided skills to ‘get beyond the ball.’ Health teachers were expected to fill the role of P.E. teachers, but they didn’t have the background.” The idea of physical educators as “gym teachers” was another problem, she added.

“Lifetime sports created an understanding of what physical education was,” said Stringer. “We need to bring back its interdisciplinary nature.” She explained that although the men’s and women’s programs were separate for many years, both integrated with other departments at the University. “In a class on marksmanship, they’d bring in Home Arts to teach students how to cook the game they shot,” she said. “Physical education must be integrated into life skills.”

“Learning about sports in elementary grades will help kids in the future,” said Anderson. “They’ll know about sports both as a player and a spectator.” Haugan feels elementary kids need more time for recess.”Kids can learn how to play a game in gym class, and then organize their own games in recess. They need to learn and practice team play and sportsmanship, and have fun doing it.”

Photos and items on display at the final WPEAA Alumni Breakfast, Sept. 24, 2016

The legacy

The WPEAA, the group agreed, promoted a truth that still resonates: Women in physical education are leaders. Up against social and cultural norms of the day that accepted (and advocated) all types of discrimination, the organization strived to instill young women physical educators a sense of their own power and prerogative to exert influence.

“The women in physical education were always leaders,” says Stringer. The group cited alumni known for their “firsts”: Ellie Rynda (‘54) was the first woman to coach both women’s and men’s track and field at UMD; Margie Hanson (‘43) held a national post as vice president of the American Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (AAHPERD); Jean Freeman (‘73) became the first full-time women’s swimming coach at the U of M and is the namesake of the U of M’s Freeman Aquatic Center.

Perhaps most important, for decades the WPEAA provided a powerful and defining culture of professional and social support to women that may be irreplaceable. And the future seems a little less bright without it.

[Editor’s note: WPEAA newsletters and other historical materials and information can be found in University Archives & Special Collections in Andersen Library.]


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