Digital Fitness History

Shaping Up: Physical Fitness Initiatives for Women, 1900-1965 (Dissertation in Progress)


In 1942, New York state proposed and funded a division of the State War Council to manage and encourage the physical fitness of men, women, and children. An offshoot of a similar federal program, the New York program focused specifically on women war workers in an effort to ensure that they were fit to participate in both in factories and in the home. Both Government officials and industry leaders believed that women in particular were susceptible to and the cause of high absentee rates in industry due to the physical inefficiencies of their bodies. Local war council members and industry representatives expressed concern that women entering industry were “not equipped to meet the strains and endurance which are required” and that there was a “direct relationship between physical fitness and production.” Ensuring that the wartime body, especially the female body, was both efficient and present at work required agencies at both the city and state level to collaborate on the promotion of physical fitness.

The collaboration between federal and state governments, medical associations, and the media to ensure a physically fit wartime body was influenced by decades of developments in physical culture and continual efforts by reformers to institute a national fitness program. This collaboration can be traced back to the Progressive Era and the creation of local networks of physical culture classes at public parks and gymnasiums in cities such as Boston, New York, and Chicago. These institutions and programs touted fitness as a requisite for proper and effective citizenship. By participating in physical culture activities at local gymnasiums, it was thought, women could transform from “dispirited and sometimes discouraged working” women to “vigorous, healthy, and happy” women. The fascination with physical culture often drew city officials, medical professionals, teachers, and citizens to public gymnasiums to observe women “perform” various exercises.

The intervention into and interest in the fit female body was of constant concern to government officials, medical professionals and reformers throughout the Twentieth Century. However the types and amounts of exercise, as well as the justifications for intervention, shifted according to the social conditions of the moment. Throughout the Progressive Era exercise for women consisted mainly of gentle exercises such as gymnastics and calisthenics; however, the 1920s witnessed a general acceptance and an increasing call for women’s athletic programs and sports teams. This transition represented a major shift in the form of exercise that would be recommended for women and fitness became, in many instances, integrated with recreational activities. Although the nature of exercise shifted, officials still stressed the importance of ensuring that exercise occur in spaces where the “leadership and environmental conditions” existed in hopes of fostering “health, physical efficiency, and the development of good citizenship.” While the nature of physical fitness for women shifted, the political significance tied to fitness did not diminish moving into the Great Depression. Rather, the global trend toward nationalized physical fitness programs had a large impact on reformers in the U.S. and, as early as 1936, they began calling for legislation that would create a national fitness program at the federal level. By June 1941, prior to America’s entrance into World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented a National Fitness program under the auspices of the Office of Civilian Defense. The program continued throughout the war at both the federal and state level and was also implemented into industrial settings for women who were entering the workforce. In 1946, after the fit female body had helped to produce the materials needed for war, the program was dismantled and defunded along with the remainder of the wartime homefront programs. However, the female body once again became an issue of national security during the Cold War and by 1965 a form of national fitness had become institutionalized in the executive branch as the Presidential Council on Physical Fitness. What made officials so concerned about the efficiency and fitness of the female body and why did the fitness of the female body come to be seen as central to national security in both World War II and the Cold War?

Research Questions and Argument

In the period between 1900 and 1965 changing social conditions led to efforts to create a national physical fitness program. These efforts emerged during the Progressive Era in response to social anxieties caused by increased immigration and urban life. The fitness of the female body emerged as a topic of concern for reformers, medical professionals, government officials, and industry leaders. As the century progressed, the development of National Fitness programs in countries such as Germany, Britain, Canada, and Australia led many to advocate for a national fitness program, funded and regulated by the federal or state entities, in the United States. Calls for national fitness gained traction during World War II when women’s fitness was seen as crucial to the success of the war effort on the home front. State and federal physical fitness programs were widespread during the war but were dismantled after leaders failed to convince congress of their necessity in the postwar environment and, as a result, the physical fitness programs were defunded. However, proponents finally found success in establishing and institutionalizing a physical fitness program when the Presidential Council on Physical Fitness was created under President Dwight D. Eisenhower and then expanded under John F. Kennedy. This dissertation will examine why officials perceived a connection between women’s bodies and national security, as well as what their concerns over women’s bodies conveyed. Although ideas about fitness changed numerous times in response to the social conditions of the moment, what did not change was the focus on and regulation of the female body.

Beginning at the turn of the century and ending during the Cold War, I hope to examine why female bodies were of concern and what the concern about women’s bodies betrayed. My central research question is: why did the fit female body become an issue that industry and government officials saw as crucial to national security and the health of the nation? Additionally, my research will be guided by the following sub-questions: To what extent did increased immigration and the battle of the exercise systems influence concern over physical fitness in urban environments? To what extent was physical fitness related to political fitness and the fitness to self-govern? How did constructions of race, gender, and class influence ideas about the fit body? Lastly, numerous scholars have examined the ways that physical culture programs in countries such as Germany, Russia, and Italy served as a mechanism of social control. To what extent were women’s fitness programs and prescriptions for exercise in the United States a form of social control? Studying the shifts in ideas about physical culture and justifications as to why the fit female body was essential to the nation, by local and federal government entities, and by the medical community I hope to make several contributions to the history of fitness and Twentieth Century women’s history.