Schools ban girls’ basketball, 1907

When Springfield High School principal L.M. Castle shut down the successful girls’ basketball program, all the girls could do was publish a protest. From the January 1908 SHS Capitoline (Sangamon Valley Collection)

In December 1907, when Springfield high school Principal L.M. Castle abruptly told the women’s basketball team they had to play behind closed doors, the girls revolted. They shut down the team and published a bitter protest in the January 1908 edition of the Capitoline, the student-run monthly magazine.

“In Memoriam,” the stark two-page ad said. “Girls’ Basket Ball … Died in the Year of Our Lord One Thousand Nine Hundred and Eight.”

High school women had been playing basketball in Springfield for a decade by the time Castle (1852-1932) weighed in.

Girls at the school formed four teams in the 1897-98 school year, and two of the teams (the “Mermaids” and the “Psyches”) played in front of an audience in December 1897. However, the Illinois State Journal’s story about the game gave an indication why girls’ basketball – indeed, girls’ sports of all sorts – eventually ran into roadblocks that lasted almost 70 years.

A novel contest and one which has no precedent in this city was pulled off yesterday afternoon at the Y.M.C.A. gymnasium. It was a basketball game and the attraction of the contest centered in the fact that the players were ladies, members of the High School Athletic association. …

Promptly at 2:30 o’clock the young contestants appeared at the hall and were greeted with applause from about 150 people as they threw off their extra garments and stood forth daintily clad in athletic costumes of a modest brevity which gave them an extremely attractive appearance and materially set forth their athletic and comely forms. (Emphasis added by SangamonLink)

The next few years were an early golden age for high-school girls’ basketball. In addition to intramural games, some Springfield high school teams – with names like the Ragers and the Dashing Dozen – played touring opponents from as far away as Pontiac and Oak Park.

In 1904, a Capitoline graphic gave girls’ basketball equal billing with boys’ football (SVC)

The most successful and longest-lived high-school-based team of the period apparently was the Noughty Blues (the name derived from the fact the Blues were formed in 1900, but the newspapers almost always misspelled it “Naughty”).

The Blues, coached by high school history teacher Grace Freeman (1872-1954), beat a Decatur team 21-2 in 1901. In April 1903, the Blues traveled to St. Louis for a game. Forced by the home team to play under boys’ rules, which required more full-court play and longer periods, the Springfield team lost 10-4.

And girls’ games drew crowds. An audience estimated at 450 watched a Springfield team (possibly the Blues) lose to a Decatur team, 9-7, in December 1902. Freeman, the Illinois State Journal reported afterwards, “deserves much credit in developing the players into a fast team.”

The basketball program was largely run by the 90 or so members of the high school girls’ athletic association. Faculty members like Freeman coached, and the Blues had a male “manager” whose duties have gone unrecorded. But the student association organized the teams, chose their leaders, selected uniforms, arranged schedules and found places to practice and play.

The 1905 team; Grace Freeman, fourth from right (State Journal-Register)

“Basketball provided a welcome relief from the boredom of the typical girls’ athletic program, and this simple fact surely accounted for its sudden and immense popularity among high school girls,” Illinois High School Association staff member Scott Johnson wrote in a 1990s study, Not Altogether Ladylike: The Premature Demise of Girls’ Interscholastic Basketball in Illinois.

Perversely, however, boys’ football was one reason the Illinois High School Athletic Association, the predecessor of today’s Illinois High School Association, clamped down on girls’ basketball in 1907. “As a simple playground game, girls’ basketball had prompted few objections,” Johnson wrote.

However, when girls started developing interscholastic programs that rivaled those of the boys, basketball quickly turned into a nightmare for school administrators. While students and sympathetic teachers pushed for more interschool play, school principals and professional educators marshaled their resistance to what they perceived as the masculinization of the female athletic program.

… In basketball, at least, high school girls became the athletic equals of boys — forming teams and leagues, scheduling games and transportation, issuing challenges and upholding school pride. Girls’ teams received broad support from the student body, both male and female, and uniformly positive reviews from the popular press. Perhaps because girls’ athletics was new and exciting, many of these teams received public attention that outstripped their male counterparts.

Not surprisingly, many school administrators saw dubious value in young ladies acting like young men. They were joined in their fight against girls’ interscholastics by many female physical educators who believed in the importance of athletics for girls but not when it meant duplicating the objectionable aspects of the male athletic model.

The 1906 team. L-R: Hazel Snell, Eileen Campbell, Ellen Tucker, Angela Fischer, Ruth Melin, Dorothy Barker, Georgia Smith, Jessie Reed (SJ-R)

Many adults saw another problem with girls playing basketball in public. That was spelled out during a state teachers association meeting in Springfield in 1906. The Illinois State Journal reported that the group “condemned” the practice of girls playing in front of mixed audiences.

The principals of the various high schools over the state are shocked over the disposition among men to attend the games played by teams composed of girls and if they have their way about it men will be denied admission and the girls required to play the game before an audience composed of their own sex if they play at all. …

Some of the members said that it is a disgrace to see the girls attired in their bloomer suits running back and forth in the plays and frequently falling down on the floor. It was contended that the game is too much of a strain on the feminine sex and that it is a ruination to their health.

For Springfield High girls, the 1907-08 basketball season began on a high note. “Practice will start tomorrow evening at the old Armory Hall at Third and Washington streets,” the Journal reported Dec. 15.

Many candidates are out for places on the team and the coaches are hopeful for the best team in the school’s annuals (sic).

Members of the Basketball association are elated over the appearance of Hazel Snell, who unexpectedly returned to school. She has played on the team several years and always played a fast steady game.

The girls hoped to arrange “a good schedule” of games, the Journal said.

The IHSAA, however, had already squelched those hopes, voting the month before to ban interscholastic girls’ basketball.

“The game is altogether too masculine and has met with much opposition on the part of parents,” the association declared. “The committee finds that roughness is not foreign to the game, and that the exercise in public is immodest and not altogether ladylike.”

Principal Lucius Marsh Castle (

Castle followed the IHSAA’s guidance. “(T)he faculty, headed by Principal Castle, says contests may be played, but they must be behind closed doors,” the Journal reported Dec. 22. “To this the girls object, half the fun of the game being to show the boys how to play basketball.”

The girls’ protest, including their bitter Capitoline advertisement, went nowhere. The IHSAA formally banned interscholastic athletic competition among girls in 1909.

“The question was revived in the 1950s,” Johnson wrote in Not Altogether Ladylike, “but it was not until 1973, when the sanctions of Title IX legislation were imminent, that the IHSA’s ban was finally lifted. In 1998, almost 19,000 Illinois high school girls participated in interscholastic basketball programs at 638 schools.”

In January 1973, Lanphier High School defeated Springfield and Southeast high schools in the first local girls’ tournament since the ban was imposed. Donetta Poulliard scored 35 points in Lanphier’s two games.

Sangamon County’s outlaw league

Not everybody went along with the ban. Among the scofflaws were a half-dozen Sangamon County high schools, which banded together in the mid-1920s to sponsor interscholastic girls’ basketball competition. They got away with it for a couple of years – they may even have been unaware of the ban on girls’ basketball – but the IHSAA eventually squelched that league as well.

The IHSAA’s idea had been for girls to play intramural games, but smaller schools often didn’t have enough female students to form more than one team (and sometimes not even that).

That was especially true for two- and three-year high schools, schools with enrollments too small to justify full high-school curriculums. Those were common in rural Illinois, on the grounds that many students dropped out after only a year or two of high school anyway. Students who wanted full high school educations had to transfer to complete their schooling.

In 1907, Sangamon County had only two four-year schools, in Springfield and Auburn. That number grew over the next two decades, but in 1927, the county still had as many three-year high schools (eight) as four-year ones. The three-year schools were Buffalo, Chatham, Dawson, Riverton, Rochester, Loami, Mechanicsburg and tiny Salisbury – total enrollment in 1927, 21 students. Four-year schools were Springfield, Auburn, Ball Township, Divernon, Illiopolis, New Berlin, Pleasant Plains and Williamsville. (All the two- and three-year schools in Sangamon County either converted to four-year curriculums or consolidated with four-year districts in the late 1930s and early ‘40s.)

The girls’ basketball ban “was poorly understood and unevenly enforced until well into the 1920s,” Johnson wrote in Not Altogether Ladylike.

The IHSA’s files are filled with letters from high school principals, most of them at rural schools that opened their doors after 1907, inquiring about the possibility of their girls playing interscholastic basketball. The first such letter posed the question succinctly: “If Girls Teams may belong to Association with whom are they to play?”

It was the hope of the association that the girls would play intramural games, but at many of the smallest schools in Illinois this proved impractical or impossible. Throughout the 1910’s and 1920’s there are numerous reports of schools skirting the IHSAA ban by organizing a few of their girls and one or two graduates into “town teams” or “independent teams” that would play other teams of similar composition.

In Sangamon County, a half-dozen schools fielded girls’ teams that played each other in the 1925-26, 1926-27 and 1927-28 school years. Among them were three-year schools Chatham, Dawson, Mechanicsburg, Riverton and Rochester; four-year schools Auburn and New Berlin also sponsored girls’ teams in 1925-26.

Chatham High School’s undefeated 1925-26 team; Buster Bartholomew, left (Illinois High School Glory Days)

“Their games would precede the boys’ games and were well attended,” high school sports chronologist Phil Shadid wrote on his website, Illinois High School Glory Days. “However, newspapers of the day did not always report game scores for the girls.”

Chatham, whose boys’ and girls’ teams both were coached by the legendary Homer “Buster” Bartholomew (1891-1943), was the dominant team. Chatham compiled a 28-3 record over the three years the league is known to have operated, winning the county’s small-school tournament twice and the conference championship all three years.

“Girls played ‘boys rules,’ meaning 5 vs. 5 on a full court, instead of 3 vs. 3 at each end of the court and 2 vs. 2 for center jumps, as was the case in Iowa and some other states,” Shadid wrote.

Emily Fullenwider (1904-88) at Mechanicsburg High was the only female coach in the conference.

The IHSAA eventually caught up with Sangamon County’s upstart league, Johnson wrote.

One important case, probably the last of its kind, involved five small high schools south of Springfield in 1927. Charles W. Whitten, Manager of the IHSAA, spoke for the organization in a letter to one of the principals:

“Our Board has repeatedly ruled that any athletic games between teams made up wholly or in part of girls from two different high schools violate both the letter and the spirit of our rule. This is particularly true if the teams are sponsored or coached by any high school teacher, if the games are held in the high school or if they are in any way recognized by the high school authorities. …”

“Of course, from the ethical viewpoint, such an evasion is more demoralizing than an open flouting of the rule for it indicates a disposition to violate the rule without the courage to openly violate it. It might be called a sort of “athletic bootlegging.”

Women, many of them probably high-school age, continued to play in YWCA programs, independent leagues (CIPS and Illinois Bell sponsored strong women’s teams in the 1930s and ‘40s in Springfield), church leagues and other programs. But the IHSAA’s letter shut down girls’ high school basketball for more than 60 years.

Hat tips: To Phil Shadid, for alerting SangamonLink to girls’ basketball programs in the early 20th century and, as always, for his exhaustive research into sports for both girls and boys at closed Illinois high schools; and to Scott Johnson, who provided SangamonLink with his original version of Not Altogether Ladylike: The Premature Demise of Girls’ Interscholastic Basketball in Illinois and then answered additional questions.

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