Reaching for the gold
Campus celebrates decades of excellence in women’s sports

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs


women athletes

Photos courtesy of Chronicle of the University of California

06 March 2001 | Berkeley celebrates 25 years of excellence in women’s sports in April, marking the anniversary of the recognition of Cal women’s teams at the varsity level. But the tradition of women’s athletics far exceeds that quarter-century mark.

While most colleges and universities across the nation were merging their athletic programs in 1976, Berkeley struck out on its own and established the Department of Women’s Intercollegiate Athletics. The new department sponsored 10 women’s teams (basketball, crew, cross country, field hockey, gymnastics, softball, swimming and diving, tennis, track and field and volleyball) and two coed teams (fencing and badminton).

That accomplishment was far from seamless. Although female students had been competing since the late 1800s, they spent eight decades in the shadows of men’s athletics before receiving official recognition.

The Chronicle of the University of California recounts Berkeley women’s long and enduring presence in collegiate sports in “A Gym of Their Own,” an article by Roberta Park, professor in the graduate school, published in fall 1998. What started in 1876 as an effort by Berkeley’s Young Ladies Club to “obtain a football and engage in that healthful and invigorating sport,” turned into a spirited legacy of competition that has nurtured scores of Olympic gold medallists, beginning with Helen Wills, a 1927 alumna, and her tennis partner, Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman (’09), at the 1924 Paris Olympics.

Some names known from Berkeley’s founding spearheaded efforts to build the campus’s first women’s gym. Thanks to A. K. P. Harmon, a “neat and substantial structure” opened its doors to female students in 1879. According to the 1880 Blue and Gold, young women used the new Harmon gymnasium on Wednesday and Friday afternoons. By the turn of the century, a gift from Phoebe Apperson Hearst had given women their own gymnasium, Hearst Hall, which was destroyed by fire in 1922 and replaced five years later by the current Hearst Gymnasium, donated by William Randolph Hearst in memory of his mother, Phoebe.

From the late 1800s through the 1950s, a women’s gym was more than a place for regular and prescribed exercise, the Chronicle notes. “It was an important social center where a variety of sports, dance and club organizations offered opportunities for young women to work together and develop leadership skills.”

At a coeducational institution, where men were allowed entrance to the gym only on special occasions, the gymnasium was also a quiet retreat. Hearst Hall offered lounges where students could have lunch or tea, and rooms where the Associated Women Students and other groups could hold meetings.

An outdoor basketball court was added in the early 1900s, five years after Cal held its first women’s intercollegiate basketball game against Stanford. No male spectators were allowed to attend that game, but 500 women watched Stanford score a victory over Berkeley.

Early milestones in the history of women’s athletics underscored the triumphs of Berkeley’s own, such as 12-time Wimbledon champion and Olympic gold medallist Helen Wills. Swimmer Ann Curtis Cuneo, who graduated in 1948, captured the Olympic gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle at the London Olympic Games in 1948 and was the first woman to win the Sullivan Award.

The entry of the Soviets into Olympic competition at Helsinki in 1952 fueled profound changes in women’s sports and spurred the Women’s Board of the U.S. Olympic Development Committee to increase the pool of female athletes for international sport.

“Wilma Rudolph’s four gold medals at Rome in 1960, continuing victories by America’s swimmers and other outstanding performances by female athletes were witnessed by millions of television viewers,” the Chronicle notes. Those successes were poignant examples of feamale accomplishments.

Women’s Intercollegiate Athletics operated as a separate department on the Berkeley campus until 1991-92, when then-Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien merged the departments of Men’s Athletics, Women’s Athletics, and Recreational Sports into one unit.

Currently, Cal sponsors 14 women’s sports.


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Calendar of Events - Women's History Month


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