A Look Back

The Most Perfect Education of Body, Mind & Heart

By Peter Bronski

Vassar—a fortress of intellectualism—also has a proud history of sport and athleticism. Today’s scholar athletes can trace their roots all the way back to the founding days of the college, when Matthew Vassar set out to offer women the “most perfect education of body, mind and heart” (emphasis ours).

A Vassar fencing class

In the earliest days, critics questioned whether Vassar’s women could handle the rigors of higher education, let alone collegiate athletics. “There is serious doubt … whether the female physique could endure the intense work demanded now by those who attain the highest honors in our universities,” wrote a reporter in the June 1, 1873, edition of the New York Times. “The young women break down now incessantly in our female colleges …”

To the contrary, Vassar believed that young women can and should participate in athletics (not to mention education), and the college expected its first students to complete at least an hour of exercise daily. Matthew Vassar’s support for such pursuits was already evident in his June 25, 1867, correspondence with the college’s Board of Trustees, when he wrote: “While we are expending so liberally for the mind, I would urge that some useful additional arrangements should be made for the well-being of the body.”

By the turn of the century, Vassar’s relationship with athletics and sport had been firmly cemented. To wit, Vassar’s gymnasium, built in 1889, was the first at a women’s college, and its department of physical education the first at any American college. Vassar’s field day, which debuted in 1895, was similarly the first women’s field day in the nation.

Batter Up

Some 75 years before the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (immortalized in Hollywood’s "A League of Their Own"), Vassar founded the nation’s first women’s baseball teams. Two club teams—the Laurels and the Abenakis—took to the diamond in 1866. Ten years later, the Resolutes, Vassar’s first intercollegiate team, came onto the scene.

First in Field Hockey

Vassar also produced one of the first women’s field hockey teams in the United States. Taught by Constance Applebee, a player from England, field hockey “jumped into instant favor” at Vassar, noted the New York Times in November 1901. In short order, “the contagion has extended to Poughkeepsie,” throughout the Hudson Valley, and to other women’s colleges, prompting Vassar to join with the other Seven Sisters in founding the American Women’s Hockey Association.

Tennis, Anyone?

Tennis arrived at Vassar in 1879, just five years after it took root in the United States. By 1886, Vassar held its first tennis tournament, an internal event that included six singles and four sets of doubles players. By the 1920s, the college regularly competed against other women’s teams, and Vassar was well on its way to building tennis into one of the college’s most popular, successful, and long-running sports.