Online exhibit documents early history of women athletes at WWU
March 21, 2011
BELLINGHAM, Wash. -
DEAN KAHN - THE BELLINGHAM HERALD
It would be decades before women students at the teacher college on the hill played intercollegiate sports, but that didn't keep them away from the court, the field or the track.
Early photographs of women athletes at Western Washington University make it clear that basketball ruled early, with intramural teams vying in 1904 for the first "Kline Cup," sponsored by Clarence and Valentine Kline, Bellingham brothers in the jewelry business.
Team pictures of early Kline winners are among more than 1,400 images - some of them text, most of them photographs - viewable online. The "Women in Sport at Western" collection is the second of three big digital projects by Special Collections at Western Libraries.
The first one focused on The Campus School, in connection with a 2007 reunion. Work on the sports collection began several years ago and is being fine-tuned with more search options. The next project - digitizing campus newspapers through the decades - is already under way.
"It's really about access, and promoting our collection," said Peter Smith, the staff computer whiz on the projects. "The Western Front is the biggest thing we've done so far."
Grants and donations pay for the projects, said Tamara Belts, special collections manager.
The sports photos came from several sources, including school annuals, the athletics department, campus newspapers and shutterbug faculty members.
Judging by the pictures online, Western women mostly played basketball until the late teens, when other sports appeared, including tennis in 1917 and baseball the year after. The '20s saw an explosion of options, from archery, field hockey and horseback riding to soccer, volleyball and "natural dancing," with more sports added the following decades.
Much of early women's sports were intramural, but the athletes often played high school and club teams, as well as women from other colleges. What people today would recognize as intercollegiate competition for women at Western didn't start until the early '70s.
In 1972, a federal law gave women equal athletic opportunities, but Western was already developing a reputation as a strong school for women's sports. For modern sports fans, perhaps the most significant photo might be one from 1973 showing the women's basketball team in action. What's noteworthy is the background: a big crowd watching the game in Carver Gym.
Before then, women played their games in a smaller court in an older gym on campus. In 1973, the team won 24 games in a row, captured the regional tournament, then traveled to New York for the national tournament, where they won their first game before losing to the eventual champion.
Twenty-five years later, Western's fastpitch team won the national championship, the school's first title in any sport. While groundbreaking, that pales in comparison to Western's women's crew team, which has won six straight national team titles, starting in 2005.
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