Promoting Physical Health for Women at Oregon State College during World War II

Students in Dr. Marisa Chappell’s fall 2023 History 363 “Women in U.S. History” class spent the final three weeks of Fall Quarter 2023 in OSU’s Special Collections and Archives Research Center exploring women in Camp Adair’s history.

By Brooklyn Blair, Grace Matteo, and Ruiqi Zhang

A January 20, 1928 issue of the Oregon State Barometer announces group photos for women’s athletic teams.

One of the expectations of women during World War II, including women at Oregon State College, was that they uphold and promote their own and others’ physical health in order to support the war effort. We discovered that women’s physical health was heavily promoted at OSC, both in the student newspaper and through various clubs and organizations dedicated to 1940s understandings of women’s physical well-being. While participation in athletics had a longer history at OSC, World War II prompted a specific emphasis on women’s physical conditioning.

We first became interested in this topic when we saw a section in the March 1942 issue of the Oregon State Barometer called “Women Leaders, Professor Stress Need for Conditioning.”

Discussion of the need for physical fitness, especially for women, took up nearly the entire fourth page of the March 24, 1942 issue of the Oregon State Barometer.

The section includes personal accounts from four women at OSC, all of whom call on readers to prioritize health and enlist in a new workout program for women. One author, Jean Ford, encourages readers to lose weight and “awaken muscles” and urges them to “sign up for the physical fitness program and stick to it” because “it’s your duty.” Toddy Gates, president of OSC’s Women’s Athletic Association, insists participating was the best way women could serve their country because it would prepare them to work in “emergency positions.” Mortar Board president Kay Serberg argued that a trained mind and body were equally important and that “new-fangled diets” were not an effective way to become healthy.[1] The article was accompanied by a poem celebrating OSC women’s role in fighting the war, which demanded their “strength” as well as courage.

This poem appeared amidst several articles under the heading “Women Prepare for War Work” on page 4 of the March 24, 1942 issue of the Oregon State Barometer.

We soon discovered other examples of women being urged to pursue fitness as an obligation in wartime. A 1943 OAC report on women’s intramural athletics, for example, stressed that athletic opportunities were important to help women maintain what was considered a proper figure. In another Barometer article, Dr. Eva M. Seen insisted that “emergency conditions will demand more vigorous, more strength and toughness of body than has been demanded of us during the past few years of soft living.” This included women, who “may not be drafted and have to face the rigid military tests of physical fitness, but they must face squarely and honestly the fact that they as well as the men must carry their share of the burden of defense.” Specifically, she asked OSC’s women students if they were physically fit enough to “meet the probable demands of long hours of labor in the fields, fruit orchards, vegetable gardens, canneries, canteen work, first aid stations or the strain of long confining hours in defense factories without the danger of physical strain or injury or complete physical breakdown?”[2]

These examples indicate that physical health was highly stressed for women during the war, but there remained conflict over the methods and meaning of women’s physical activity. Many advocated health as necessary for the war effort, but others tended to emphasize conditioning as a way to improve women’s appearance. For example, the historian Rachel Louise Moran notes, for example, that “women’s weights were sometimes a point of contention” in the Women’s Army Corp.”[3] Mark Ellner, meanwhile, has documented resistance to women’s participation in Olympic sports, quoting one leader insisting that the games “should be the sole purview of men,” leaving women to “crown . . . the winner with garlands, as was their role in ancient Greece.”[4]

Discussions of women’s physical health at World War II-era Oregon State College suggest that World War II might have been a historical turning point. The military and industrial requirements of the war seemed to provide new opportunities and promote new understandings of physical fitness and education for women. Did wartime demand for physical fitness affect how women thought about themselves, their bodies, and their roles in society? Perhaps it helped pave the way toward greater equality for women in athletics and the labor market later in the twentieth century.

[1] “Women Leaders, Professor Stress Need for Conditioning,” Oregon State Barometer, March 24, 1942, 4.

[2] Dr. Eva M. Seen, “Women Begin Fitness Program,” Oregon State Barometer, March 24, 1942, 1.

[3] Rachel Louise Moran, Governing Bodies: American Politics and the Shaping of the Modern Physique (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), 69.

[4] Mark Ellner, “A Critical Look at Women’s Role in Physical Education and Sport in the 1930s,” Educational Considerations 45, no. 2 (2020), 5.

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