Women’s Hoops at Hull-House

Image 1: Hull-House Women’s Basketball Team

Women played basketball at Hull-House. Well…they played basket ball, two words. In bloomers, wearing long sleeves and lace collars, and with hair coiffed into neat buns. Early on, female players of this thrilling new game also competed under the regulation of girls’ rules, which restricted their movement across the court. There were many people in those days who deemed the game unwomanly and fretted about women overexerting themselves. However, women’s basketball at Hull-House quickly got real. What would become one of America’s favorite sports made an early start in Chicago on Hull-House hardwood, and women were on the court from the start. Who knew Jane Addams, in the closing decade of the nineteenth century, helped birth the first generation of female athletes in the city?!

James Naismith invented and promoted the game of basketball in 1891, and two years later women at Smith College were playing it with modified rules to “avoid physical roughness” and to maintain at least the appearance of femininity. When Hull-House resident Rose Gyles became director of the Hull-House gymnasium in 1895, she brought the game to the men, women, and children of Chicago’s Nineteenth Ward. Under her guidance, Hull-House fielded one of the first girls basketball teams in Chicago. At Hull-House, the women’s players shared the facilities right along with the three Hull-House men’s teams. By the late 1890s, Hull-House had two competitive women’s teams, a growing group of interested girls playing the sport for recreation at the settlement, and a winning record in Chicago’s burgeoning basketball league. A generation of “new” women were growing up at Hull-House, and competitive sport played a role in their changing relationships with the world around them. For many Hull-House girls, like reformer Florence Kelley’s daughter Margaret (who was partly raised at the settlement), basketball was a part of their coming-out party.

Image 2: Female Physical Education at Hull-House

Women of the upper classes long had access to organized sports, like tennis, croquet, and archery. However, in the context of a growing belief in the benefits of fresh air, physical fitness, and physical education programs, interest in sports for the masses increased, and basketball became a popular activity. Public and private schools fielded recreational and competitive teams, churches and private organizations like the YMCA offered athletic facilities, city parks built playgrounds and athletic fields, and even settlement houses jumped on the sports bandwagon. Hull-House maintained a gymnasium from the start and continually worked to improve it over the years, offering girls, boys, men, and women in the neighborhood a variety of athletic programs.

Hull-House was famous for its social settlement and reform work, but in Chicago it was also famous for basketball. And at Hull-House, the basketball program, like most all of its other programs, did not discriminate against girls and young women. Hull-House celebrated female athletics. Women’s basketball games at Hull-House were announced in the Chicago papers, encouraging attendance, and scores were published the next day.

Image 3: Hull-House Women’s Basketball Team

In 1906, Jane Addams’s Hull-House girls beat Graham Taylor’s Chicago Commons girls 26-3 in the Hull-House Gymnasium. Over the years, Hull-House sort of owned Chicago Commons where women’s basketball was concerned, and I wonder if Addams ever teased her good friend and fellow settlement worker across town about Hull-House domination. Hull-House teams did not only compete against other settlement houses, however. They also played Chicago high schools, church teams, and other organizational teams, as well.

Jane Addams was herself a proponent of exercise and recreational activities for women. In a speech in 1908, she praised Chicago for establishing and maintaining “fifteen parks with playing fields, gymnasiums and baths, which at present enroll 18,000 young women and girls.” Addams was very supportive of the developing basketball program at Hull-House, although she did question the wisdom of the sports’ less-than-adequate venue. In 1902, when sixteen-year-old Margaret Kelley was injured during a game, Addams wrote her mother: “She hurt her head playing basket ball you know—and I am in doubt as to whether she ought to play in a gym full of posts!”

Image 4: Hull-House Gymnasium, c. 1900.

Jane Addams was, of course, merely joking, and basketball carried on at the settlement. Regardless that male and female athletes might get hurt, the Hull-House gymnasium remained a popular gathering place for basketball players and for spectators, alike. In the first decade of the twentieth century, basketball was a quickly growing sport. It was popular with men and children, but it was also becoming a favorite activity of college coeds. The captain of the University of Chicago women’s team said of the sport in 1896: “It calls into play every muscle in the body, and besides the real benefit we get out of the exercise it is quite the nicest game we play.” Another aficionado of the sport noted that it tended to quiet the nerves of restless young women.

Others believed women should avoid sports like basketball. Some medical professionals argued that the sport was too athletic for women and, according to one University of Chicago physician, the exertion the sport required of women led to “enlarged, irritable, and overactive hearts.” His assertion is, of course, ludicrous from the viewpoint of our modern medical perspective, but it was alarming to many people in the early 1900s. In 1907, the Illinois State High School Athletic Association barred girls from playing basketball, arguing:

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

Fortunately for the female basketball players in Chicago, the ruling did not affect them, as Chicago schools were not members of the state association. Thus, women’s basketball continued on in the city, and women played it with increasing gusto. Early women’s basketball in Chicago had followed Smith College rules, which positioned seven players in designated areas of the court to limit physical exertion. However, in 1903, the Chicago girls basketball league adopted boy’s rules instead, and thereafter five players for each team took the court for each girls basketball game, and the physicality of the play increased. In 1909, the Chicago Tribune reported on a particularly athletic came between the Evanston Girls Athletic Club and the Evanston YMCA team:

“Frizzles, pompadours, marcel waves, psyche knots, corkscrew curls, and Aunt Mary’s wavelets were all mauled in a strenuous context last night…Bangs, rats, and other feminine fixings became segregated from their original compositions and several times it was necessary to stop the carnage to make repairs. The athletic girls won, 9 to 8, but this was merely one of the hair raising incidents.”

In spite of the possible physical dangers of athletics and in the face of public, medical, and media scorn for women who engaged in sports, more and more girls and young women wanted to play games and to be physically active. There may have been a decline in public enthusiasm for the sport as an acceptable pursuit for women, but basketball was still popular with young women, particularly on college campuses. College women were not only playing the sport for healthy recreation, either. They were also gaining a competitive spirit and making demands for proper equipment and equity with men’s teams. In 1902, for example, Northwestern University women basketball players demanded the college provide them with uniforms and allow them to travel outside of Evanston, IL, for games. The woman ultimately won their fight to travel, and the team played in their first away game in Pontiac, IL, the following year.

By 1916, 900 young people were enrolled in programs in the Hull-House gymnasium, many of them girls and women, and many of them playing on sixteen organized basketball teams. Title IX—sweeping federal legislation that sought to equalize women’s access to educational opportunities of all sorts, including sports—was still decades away. In the first half of the twentieth century, there remained, as well, widespread concern that organized sports defeminized women. Society also placed a stigma upon women who dared to step outside of gendered norms which sought to constrain them. However, women and girls played on, at Hull-House, in Chicago, and  across the country.

Women who had the opportunity to engage in physical activities like basketball in the Hull-House gymnasium took those experiences out into the world with them. Playing the sport gave them confidence in their bodies and developed in their spirits courage and grit and gumption. Emma Karstens, a Hull-House basketball player and coach went on to direct other athletic programs in the city, inspiring girls and young women to be physically active and to play sports. In 1920, she was involved with a city-wide sports fest, which encouraged girls and boys to take part in athletics. In less direct ways, girls who played basketball and other games at Hull-House were also shaped by those experiences. The settlement’s early encourage of girls to engage in sports and other activities previously thought to be the domain of men inspired thousands of women and girls to be more, do more, and raise daughters differently than they themselves were raised. Hull-House was on a grand scale a locus of serious social, economic, and political reforms; but Hull-House was also a place where girls could stretch the boundaries of their own imaginations.

Image 5: Hull-House Basketball Team (1907)
Image 6: Hull-House Basketball Team (1909)

Hoops at Hull-House could arguably be credited with establishing the popularity of basketball in the city of Chicago. We might also accurately call Jane Addams one of the mothers of the first generation of female athletes. But one thing is certain. Hull-House offered girls and women opportunities about which they may have never dared to dream. On the hardwood or elsewhere on the settlement campus, girls and women mattered. Girls and women were considered capable. And, most importantly perhaps, Hull-House set the bar high for girls and women and expected them not only clear the bar, but to set it even higher for themselves.

By Stacy Pratt McDermott, Associate Editor

Sad Epilogue: Margaret Kelley was definitely a young woman who grew through her experiences at Hull-House. She was a courageous and energetic young woman when she arrived at Smith College in 1905, determined to take advantage of college athletics even though she had been “cautioned against violent exercise.” Unfortunately, Margaret’s ailing heart failed her, and she suffered a fatal heart attack that year.

Notes: Mary Lynn McCree Bryan and Allen F. Davis, eds., 100 Years at Hull-House (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 73-74 (Image 3); Peggy Glowacki and Julia Hendry, Hull House (Chicago: Arcadia, 2004), 26 (Image 2);  Shannon Jackson, Lines of Activity: Performance, Historiography, Hull-House Domesticity (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), 306; “The New Athletic Girl and Interscholastic Sports,” in Robert Purter, The Rise of American High School Sports and the Search for Control (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2013), 145-53; “Before the Sports Bra: A Short History of Women’s Sports through the 1970s,” in Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 119-22; Joan S. Hult, “Introduction to Part I,” 6-7; Betty Spears, “Senda Berenson Abbott: New Woman, New Sport,” 24-25; “Clara Gregory Baer: Catalyst for Women’s Basketball,” 45; Lynne Fauley Emery and Margaret Toohey-Costa, “Hoops and Skirts: Women’s Basketball on the West Coast, 1892-1930,” 50, all in Joan S. Hult and Marianna Trekell, eds. A Century of Women’s Basketball: From Frailty to Final Four (Reston, VA: American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 1991); Kathryn Kish Sklar and Beverly Wilson Palmer, eds., The Selected Letters of Florence Kelley, 1869-1931 (Urbana; University of Illinois Press, 2009), 134n1; Emma Karstens in 1910 U.S. Federal Census; Hull-House Basketball Players, 1907 and Hull-House Basketball Players, 1909, photographs, Chicago History Museum, Explore Chicago  Collections (Images 5 & 6); “Many Athletic Coeds,” Chicago Tribune, Mar. 30, 1896, p. 8; “Talks of New Woman,” The Inter Ocean (Chicago), Dec. 29, 1900, p. 12; “’Coed’ Team Wants Uniforms,” Chicago Tribune, Apr. 11, 1902, p. 13; “Girls Adopt Boys’ Rules,” Chicago Tribune, Jan. 11, 1903, p. 10; “Girls to Play Basketball,” Chicago Tribune, Apr. 10, 1903, p. 6; “Athletics at Northwestern,” The Inter-Ocean, Apr. 15, 1903, p. 4; “Drops Dead in Gymnasium,” The Bedford (IN) Daily Mail, Oct. 23, 1905, p. 2; “Hull House Girls Win,” Chicago Tribune, Mar. 4, 1906, p. 11; “Hull House Girls, 25; Gads Hill, 13,” Chicago Tribune, Mar. 10, 1906, p. 10; “Armour Mission Girls Win,” Chicago Tribune, Mar. 18, 1907, p. 12; “Bars Girls from Basketball,” Chicago Tribune, Nov. 3, 1907, p. 25; “Great Wreckage of ‘Fixings,’” Chicago Tribune, Mar. 28, 1909, p. 31; “Women’s Gymnasium,” Suburban Economist (Chicago), May 2, 1919, p. 3; “Chicago Pauses for Day’s Romp with 5,000 Kids,” Chicago Tribune, Oct. 10, 1920, p. 11; Selected Papers of Jane Addams,(Urbana; University of Illinois Press, 2019),  3:xxxii (Image 4), 345n6, 346 (Image 1); Hull-House Bulletin 1 (No. 4, April 1896), 5, Jane Addams Papers Microfilm, reel 53:897; Jane Addams to Florence Kelley, December 29, 1902; Hull-House Year Book 1906-1907; Address to the Playground Association, March 31, 1908; Hull-House Year Book, January 1, 1916, all in Jane Addams Digital Edition.