The New Woman, Athletically Considered (1896)

This extensively illustrated article by W. Bengough appeared in the January 1896 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book.

The New Woman, Athletically Considered by W. Bengough

Our attention has been called to the “new woman” so frequently of late, and in such indefinite terms, that it is of some interest to inquire whence she came and whither she is going.

We are inclined to suspect that the professional paragrapher, ever upon the alert for some new thing, is to a great extent responsible for the prominent place which she has taken in public attention. He was her discoverer and christener, and in the capacity of advance agent he has created public interest and curiosity, and, without doubt, has made such a fad of her newness that the genuine “new woman” is in danger of being lost amid a myriad of shallow imitators.

Let us not be deceived. The “new woman,” as I mean the term, is not a temporary fad, but, on the contrary, the inevitable product of evolution. She has been slowly developed from carefully scattered seed, which, fifty years ago, amid the jeers and mud-throwing of scandalized conservatism, a small band of determined “new” women started out to plant, making the first efforts to obtain some recognition of the then scouted idea that women were men’s intellectual equals if only given an equal chance. These were the property called “strong-minded” women of our fathers, and results have proved that the name was well chosen, but it has become an honored title instead of a contemptuous one, as originally intended.

Godey’s Lady’s Book— Louis Antoine Godey began publishing Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1830. He designed his monthly magazine specifically to attract the growing audience of literate American women. The magazine was intended to entertain, inform, and educate the women of America.

The “new woman” of to-day represents the first great intellectual harvest which has ripened since that seed-sowing long ago. Old prejudices, one after another, have been overgrown, smothered with the ever-strengthening force of woman’s intellectual power, until there hardly remains to-day an old original obstacle which has not been overcome; and the development, gathering force as it grows, is destined to uplift the race to heights undreamed of. The effects of a cultured mother’s lofty guidance are incalculable.The New Woman, Athletically Considered (Godey's Lady's Book in 1896)

As a necessary accomplishment of woman’s intellectual progress has come the need of a more vigorous physique. The delicate, fragile, and insipid maiden who filled the requirements of good form even a few years ago, has been replaced by a vastly higher type. Instead of the small waist, the milky hue, and lackadaisical manner, we have the robust, sunburned, vigorous, and intellectual girl, who is entering every avenue of activity, self-reliant and well fitted to take up life’s duties and carry forward the development of the next generation; and I am inclined to believe that it is the physical progress even more than the intellectual that has christened her the “new.” It is indeed a new thing to see woman rising superior to the back aches and dyspepsia, headaches and neuralgia, and, donning the distinctive garb which is associated with her name, fly whirling into health and usefulness upon her wheel, or gliding gracefully in the “angel act” toward the same desirable end upon the flying trapeze.

Trunk Exercise

Trunk Exercise

Trunk Exercise

The prominent women’s colleges have already added, or are rapidly adding, physical culture departments. Vassar, Bryn Mawr, and Wellesley have all complete gymnasiums, and the smaller schools are falling into line, while throughout the larger cities ladies’ departments are becoming important parts of gymnastic institutions; and since the necessity for physical culture is now clearly understood, we can safely assume that the universal adoption of some system for the highest development of the body will be merely a matter of growth.

Upper Chest Exercise

For the benefit of those of our readers who are not within reach of a gymnasium, the following instructions are given for a course of exercise which may be followed at home. They are of a simple, yet thorough, character, and bring into action every muscle of the body, and no woman need retain any of the ills which arise from an imperfectly developed body, if she will follow the prescribed course.

Upper Chest Exercise

Upper Chest Exercise

The constant renewing of the tissues of the body must proceed regularly and thoroughly, in order to insure perfect health. Exercise throws off the worn out tissues and causes an active movement of the blood in the particular muscles exercised, thus carrying off the effete matter and replacing it with new and vigorous tissues. “When exercise is irregular the blood works sluggishly, and since the majority of people exercise only parts of the body vigorously, unequal health and unequal development have become familiar sights to us, fat settling upon the muscles which are seldom disturbed.

Too much exercise, on the other hand, causes greater consumption of tissue than the blood can renew, and fatigue is the sign that this is taking place. The quantity of exercise must never be enough to cause fatigue and should be so systematic as to include all the muscles, thus developing equally the whole body.

Interior of the Berkeley Ladies' Gymnasium, New York.

Interior of the Berkeley Ladies’ Gymnasium, New York.


The following exercises are in use in the ladies’ department of one of the physical development institutes of New York, and represent the result of a long and scientific study of the development of the human body; and one of the most interesting signs of the times is the large class of businesswomen who gather twice a week and, under the capable leadership of female assistants, join with evident enjoyment in this series known as the ten points. The illustrations will indicate the correct positions to be taken for each exercise, so that but a brief description is necessary.



It is best to begin with the Respiratory Exercise, a very valuable means of deepening the lung capacity, consisting of breathing for five minutes at the rate of twelve complete breaths per minute, or five seconds for each. The result of this is that, as the normal number of breaths for a woman is about eighteen or twenty per minute, by reducing the number to twelve, the lungs instinctively draw deeper so as to get the accustomed quantity of oxygen.

The Introductory Exercise is for the purpose of starting a general circulation and consists of a skip step with accompanying movements of the arms. The lower chest is exercised by standing a short distance from the wall with back toward it, and, with hips rigid, raising the arms straight above the head, and bending backward until the hands touch the wall; the upper chest, by supporting the body by the arms held down at the side, as on parallel bars, lowering the whole weight of body as far as possible, and raising again entirely by the muscles of the arms and chest. Two chairs or tables may be made to serve the purpose of the parallel bars.

The General Equilibrium Exercise, while resting the trunk and relieving the heart after the preceding movements, develops the muscles of the whole spinal column. “Walking a tightrope is the most advanced exercise of this kind, but a safe substitute can be made by any narrow foot-hold laid along the floor.

Shoulder blades. The muscles centering here are exercised by any circular movements of the arms, and if lightweights are carried in the hands, it is more effective; Indian clubs or dumbbells are generally used.

Horizontal Abdominal Exercise

Abdominal. This is an exercise of special value to women, as a means to both health and beauty, for it develops and strengthens the organs of the abdomen, and prevents the accumulation of fat, which, being a lazy substance, settles wherever there is least activity. If women would depend upon exercise to reduce the waist to its natural size instead of the deadly tight-lacing, they would save themselves and future generations much suffering. The most gentle exercise for this purpose is the Horizontal Abdominal and is merely the raising and lowering of the knee while lying on the back. A more vigorous movement is throwing back the body gently with arms over the head, while kneeling alternately upon each knee.

Horizontal Abdominal Exercise

Horizontal Abdominal Exercise

Lateral trunk muscles are developed by a movement of the body to the sides while standing with the arms overhead with dumb-bells or stick in hands; this is also an excellent exercise for reducing the size of the waist and abdomen.

The Slow Leg Movement gives strength to the muscles by standing up on tip-toe, keeping body rigid, lowering to a sitting position as far down as possible, and up again slowly; the slower the better.

Quick Leg Movement. This consists of some jumping exercise, such as skipping rope, or horizontal or high jumping.

This completes the course, and beginners should be content to go through each movement three times, gradually increasing as the strength permits to about ten times. Ingenuity will suggest many additions to these simple divisions; series after series may be developed, but this general classification must be observed in order to include the whole body.

In conclusion, I give the rules of a new game called Indoor Polo, which has been recently introduced by Professor Jardine at the Savage Institute. It embodies most of the desirable features of indoor competitions and at the same time eliminates all of the elements of roughness; it can be played by any number at the same time, and is capable of developing skillful teamwork, such as is found in foot-ball, basket-ball, and kindred games.

A goal ten feet wide and seven feet high is placed at each end of the room. The goalkeeper is bounded by an oblong court projecting five feet on either side of the goal and ten feet in front. The ball used may be an Association or Rugby football, the former preferred. The object is to play the ball between the goals of the opposing side from the front.

Indoor Polo

Indoor Polo

Divide the players into equal sides and choose one goalkeeper for each, giving them some distinctive badge or cap, as they have the privilege of handling the ball with both hands, kicking it, or blocking it with either hands or feet while it is in their court. Outside the court they are subject to the rules governing other players, viz., the ball can be played only with one open hand or any part of the body above the knee; all other plays are fouls, and each foul scores one against the side making the false play and the ball goes to the opposite side.

The ball is put in play at the beginning of the game and after every goal is made, as follows: Place it on a spot in the center of the room, equidistant from goals. One player from each side stands over the ball with hands resting on knees; the sides are lined up behind these players and the goalkeepers are at their posts. The ball is put in play at a signal from the referee. If a center player removes her hands from her knees before the signal to start is given, the ball is given to the opposite side.

Following a foul, the ball is taken to the center of the room by the side winning the point and put in play by snapping it off. After each goal, it is put in play as in starting. The score for a goal counts two. A rough player is disqualified, and a new player cannot take her place.

This game is admirably adapted for ladies and children and is being adopted with enthusiasm. It may be played indoors, or in the open air, on any scale, and is an admirable exercise, particularly for the lateral trunk muscles, as most of the play is made while leveling to the front and sides.

Additional Exercises

Additional Exercises

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