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

Throughout the 20th century, the notion of a “fit” female body was of constant concern to government officials, medical professionals and reformers: they saw the female body as an important site for intervention. Beginning in 1880 and ending during the Cold War, Shaping Up examines why the fitness of female bodies was of concern and what the concern about women’s bodies conveyed. Although what it meant to be “in shape” or to acquire “shapeliness” changed numerous times between 1880 and 1965, the patriarchal focus on the fit female body remained a constant and served various economic, social, and political purposes. Each chapter focuses on a moment when the fit female body was deemed a necessary component of productive citizenship and illustrates the consistent fascination with overseeing, regulating, and controlling the body through physical culture. Addressing themes such as the anxieties over immigration and suffrage in the Progressive Era, the globalization of sport culture, production in World War II, and gender roles in the Cold War this dissertation provides insight into how the fit female body became essential to the nation.

The first chapter examines the construction and development of municipal gymnasiums in Boston and the attempts to identify the “ideal” female body through anthropometric measurements. Dudley Allen Sargent, a medical doctor and the director of the Hemingway Gymnasium at Harvard, dedicated his career to conducting anthropometric measurements on women in Boston gymnasiums. He devised a set of sixty-five measurements of the female body (height, weight, girth of the head, breadth of the hips, neck, shoulder and waist etc.), and in so doing, developed a rubric for producing quantitative data about contemporary women’s bodies. Over the course of his career, Sargent conducted measurements on thousands of women who attended public and private gymnasiums in Boston. Furthermore, he wrote extensively on the medical and moral benefits of exercise for women, as well as on the role of the gymnasium in combating social ills and in creating healthy citizens. Troubled over a growing immigrant population and changing demographics, a declining birth rate among white women, and deeply influenced by eugenics, Sargent sought to identify the ideal female form and shape the body for the “betterment of the race.” Sargent’s system of anthropometric measurements and prescriptive exercises became the standard for physical directors across the country and under disciples of Sargent’s system, the gymnasium became a space where officials could exert control over the female body.

In the second chapter, I examine the formation of the National Amateur Athletic Federation Women’s Division and the efforts to encourage exercise for women, both in everyday life and in industrial leisure settings, as a response to the perceived unfit state of the nation following the 1918 influenza. The chapter explores the ways that the activities of the NAAF were influenced by suffrage and the link between physical fitness and the fitness to self -govern. Although the nature of exercise for women shifted from work in the gymnasium to athletics in a recreational setting, the desire to maintain control over the physical activities for women remained a constant and officials 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.”1

During the Great Depression, New Deal leisure programs were modeled after European national fitness programs. Seeking to utilize fitness and recreational activities as a means of directing the free time of an unemployed population, the WPA sought to redefine what fitness meant in a period of economic hardship. However, the United States also sought to separate itself from the fitness activities of countries such as Germany and the Third Reich’s focus on Aryan superiority. This chapter focuses on the transnational developments in physical fitness, specifically the 1936 Olympics which was a turning point in American fitness culture, and will examine the New Deal’s recreational policies as a precursor to the fitness programs implements during World War II.

Chapter 4 looks at the Office of Physical Fitness on the home front during World War II and the efforts to promote and organize physical fitness programs for women in industry. Focusing on both federal and state level efforts, this chapter argues that the war provided an opportunity for reformers to institute a national fitness program in the United States in hopes of proving its relevance and the utility of fitness as an element of productive citizenship. Under these physical fitness programs, the fit female body became a site of economic importance and became crucial to the success of the war. Fit women were integral to combating absenteeism and thus maximizing profit and output in industry.

The final chapter focuses on the President’s Council for Physical Fitness which once again made the female body an issue of concern at the highest policy levels. Reinforcing Cold War gender roles, the program stressed the fitness of the female body as crucial to the nation’s success in the Cold War. The Cold War program was still concerned with the fitness of the body however, in the post war environment officials urged “total fitness” which expanded the notion of fitness to include a social and emotional dimension. The concept of total fitness worked to reinforce a patriarchal, heterosexual family structure. For women, fitness was encouraged as a way to not only maintain your figure and health but also to maintain reproductive health thus reinforcing the “domestic containment” that other scholars have discussed.2

  1. Glen Jeansonne, The Life of Herbert Hoover: Fighting Quaker, 1928-1933 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); Monys Ann Hagen, Industrial Harmony Through Sports: The Industrial Recreation Movement and Women’s Sports (University of Wisconsin–Madison, 1990) [return]
  2. Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families In The Cold War Era (New York: Basic Books, 1990). [return]