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Breakaway Badgers

What has women’s basketball at the UW looked like over the years?

In 1895, women had their first chance to participate in organized athletics at the UW as rowers. Basketball was their next opportunity. Just a few years after the game was invented, UW women took up the sport and organized a team in 1897 — a year before UW men formed their own varsity basketball team. By 1917, the university’s Women's Athletic Association (the other WAA) also boasted archery, hockey, baseball, swimming, tennis, and track teams.

While promoting athletics for women was relatively progressive more than 100 years ago, today’s female athletes would have a hard time tempering themselves to follow 19th century regulations. Early female athletes had to contend with heavy uniforms, neatly pinned updos, and game rules that discouraged contact and intense exercise. Blanche Trilling, director of Physical Education for Women at the UW from 1912–46, believed that female sports should teach teamwork and promote health in a ladylike manner. Aggression, competitiveness, and overexertion were viewed as masculine, so women often participated in watered down versions of men’s sports.

Kit Saunders-Nordeen
Kit Saunders-Nordeen, UW Archives

Administrators gradually began to encourage fierce athleticism and competition in women’s athletics, but female athletes still did not have the full resources and support on campus that male athletes received. Before the 1970s, women’s athletics at the UW took the form of interclass teams and club sports, with volunteer coaches, little institutional funding, and limited access to practice facilities.

The passage of Title IX on June 23, 1972 — a law that prohibits exclusion from education programs and activities based on sex — changed the tide of women’s athletics at the UW, though it took some time to implement. The UW Athletic Department officially added women’s sports on July 1, 1974. Kit Saunders-Nordeen took her place as the first director of women’s intercollegiate athletics that same year.

Over the next 50 years, Badger women have proven their athletic prowess with conference titles, national championships, and Olympic medals. Today’s student-athletes participate in sport to push their limits, and yes, learn teamwork — as Ms. Trilling preferred to emphasize. “The rules of teamwork which a girl learns in her athletics are lessons which she may apply to the teamwork of life in which she is to take part later. In her play, a girl meets knocks and is subject to discipline that is valuable training that she can never receive elsewhere.”

Keep scrolling to see how women’s basketball players at the UW have pushed the limits over the last 125 years, despite institutional barriers and literally restrictive uniforms. Then, flip through the Women’s Athletic Association’s scrapbook to see what other athletic activities looked like for 20th-century women at the UW.

1897 women's basketball team.
One of the UW’s first women’s basketball teams, pictured in 1897 and sporting decidedly unathletic garb. UW Archives, S15945
1903 women's basketball team.
The 1903 women’s freshman team practices in the original Chadbourne Hall, which housed the students enrolled in the Female College. UW Archives
1906 women's basketball team.
The women of the 1906 basketball team pose for a team photo with soaring hairstyles. UW Archives, S03216
1925 women's basketball game.
Intercollegiate competition wouldn't have been an option for these players in 1925. They were likely playing in teams broken up by class year. UW Archives
1935 women's basketball game.
Uniforms changed drastically by 1935. We're guessing it was a bit easier to jump without the big bloomers. UW Archives
Women's basketball team photo.
By the 1970s, female athletes made an even bigger leap. This 1974-75 team played in the university's first varsity women's basketball home game on January 11, 1975. (The Badgers beat UW-Green Bay, 45–38.) UW Archives, S03218
1981-82 women's basketball team photo.
The 1981-82 women's basketball team won the Midwest Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) Regional tournament and made it to the Elite Eight in the national championship tournament. UW Archives, S03219
Wisconsin women's basketball game.
An unidentified player guards against Kentucky at a 1986 home game. UW Archives, S11489
Barb Franke in a basketball game.
Hall of famer Barb Franke takes it to the hoop in 1995. Franke is the second-highest scorer in Badger women’s basketball history. UW Archives
2021-22 women's basketball team photo.
Members of the 2021-22 women's basketball team link arms to sing "Varsity" in the Kohl Center. Photo by Tom Lynn, Wisconsin Athletic Communications

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