Active BodiesA History of Women’s Physical Education in Twentieth-Century America

Active BodiesA History of Women’s Physical Education in Twentieth-Century America

Martha H. Verbrugge

Print publication date: 2012

ISBN: 9780195168792

Publisher: Oxford University Press


This book examines the philosophies, experiences, and instructional programs of white and black female physical educators who taught in public schools and diverse colleges and universities, including coed and single-sex, public and private, and predominantly white or black institutions. Working primarily with female students, women physical educators had to consider what an active female could and should do compared to an active male. Applying concepts of sex differences, they debated the implications of female anatomy, physiology, reproductive functions, and psychosocial traits for achieving gender parity in the gym. Teachers’ interpretations were contingent on where they worked and whom they taught. They also responded to broad historical conditions, including developments in American feminism, law, and education, society’s changing attitudes about gender, race, and sexuality, and scientific controversies over sex differences and the relative weight of nature versus nurture. While deliberating fairness for female students, white and black women physical educators also pursued equity for themselves, as their workplaces and nascent profession often marginalized female and minority personnel. Questions of difference and equity divided the field throughout the twentieth century; while some women teachers favored moderate views and incremental change, others promoted justice for their students and themselves by exerting authority at their schools, critiquing traditional concepts of “difference,” and devising innovative curricula. Drawing on extensive archival research, this book sheds new light on physical education’s application of scientific ideas, the politics of gender, race, and sexuality in the domain of active bodies, and the enduring complexities of difference and equity in American culture.