100 Years of Girls' Athletics

As we celebrate 100 years of girls' athletics at Wilmington Friends School, here are some highlights from the first three decades.
“Title IX” is a short-hand expression for the amendment aimed to prevent gender discrimination in the U.S. It states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

It applies to a great deal more than sports including libraries, museums, and vocational and rehabilitation facilities. Most often, however, we hear of Title IX in relation to girls’ or women’s sports in education. While it has hardly leveled the playing field between male and female sports participation and spectatorship, it has helped make real progress. 

Title IX was part of the Education Amendments passed in June, 1972, and many folks are celebrating the 50th anniversary of this step toward gender equality. It does not apply to private schools such as Wilmington Friends. But in the fall of 2022, Wilmington Friends School will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of girls’ sports teams, 50 years before Title IX. 

In the fall of 1922, under the guidance of Ruth Koehler, the Friends School field hockey team of 17 girls took to a borrowed field, probably at 9th & Woodlawn, and posted a winning record. They beat a faculty team, Ursuline Academy, Wilmington HS, and crushed Darlington Academy 10-1. They lost twice to Miss Sayward’s School of Overbrook, PA. and Miss Hebb’s School. The star of the team was left wing junior Matilda Van Trump, who scored 10, more than half of the team’s goals. Ellen Adair ’23, who later coached and taught at Friends for many years, was captain, and Anne Phillips, later a Friends’ trustee for 18 years, wrote in the December 1922 Whittier Miscellany, “...after what seems to us ages, we are finally allowed a show in athletics.” 

The girls’ high school had been agitating for years for a basketball team, and that winter the first one took to the court, and with even greater success than they had on the hockey fields: 6-2-1. (Yes, in those days a tie was possible in basketball.) Their games varied in quality; they lost to Wilmington High 38-4 but beat New Castle High 24-2. They avenged their FH loss to Miss Hebbs’ crew by trouncing them 37-7. 
Was there equity between boys’ and girls’ sports at Friends? Definitely not. Our first known “foot ball” team of twelve was photographed in 1894; the first known boys’ “basket ball” team of seven played in 1901-02; there was a “base ball” team in 1905; and young men ran track and relays at least as early as 1901. Girls did not even have any spring sports until the late 1930s-1940s; more on that later. 

Nonetheless, the girls’ field hockey and basketball efforts were generally quite good. The first seven FH teams had only one losing season, and an overall record of 31-21-15. Basketball was far more successful. Though our archive files don’t have all the team photos or records, from 1925-1931, the girls’ boasted a record of 57-26-1. Included in this string was a 15-0 record, due in large part to one of Friends School’s greatest athletes, Frances Hullihen ’28. In 12 games she scored 409 points, an average of 34 per contest! Once she scored 63 against Goldey College. She also netted 51 points against Tower Hill and 58 against Miss Sayward’s School. 

Of Frances Hullihen’s descendants, two sons (Clark ’57 and Vic Woolley ’60), three granddaughters (Laura ’81, Lisa ’82, and Susan Woolley ’88), and one great-grandson (Mike Anderson ’08) have all attended and graduated from Friends. 

Among the other standout hockey and basketball players of the 1920s and early ’30s were the pairs of sisters Frances ’29 and Carolyn Helms ’32, Virginia ’31 and Marjorie Regestein ’32, and Ellen Henderer ’28, who came back to teach German and French at Friends (and later worked for the OSS during WWII). Her nephews Jeff ’86 and Peter ’89 graduated from Friends.

Hard times fell upon the nation as the Great Depression closed in, and the doldrums seemed reflected in the girls’ teams. A girls’ athletics scrap book, which ranges from 1922-1948, contains little information of those years and only a few grainy newspaper team photos. From 1929-34, the field hockey team won only four games; they went three years without a win, and were celebrated in a comment in the Dec, 1934 Whittier: “Our hockey team has finally won a game!” The following year they won two. When the Whittier covered girls’ sports, the articles were slender and emphasized the lack of participation. While fine team photos were professionally taken during the 1920s, for six straight years we have no official team photo for girls’ basketball. 

A few names of players stand out: Fay Lauritsen ’37 was star of both teams, as were, in the late 1930s, twins Leilah Ruth Naylor ’38 and Ruth Leilah Naylor ’38 and sisters Carolyn ’38 and Patsy Mayerberg ’39. Some girls played for more than four years; apparently they were allowed to participate as young as seventh grade.

By the late 1930s girls’ team was winning again. As Ellen Adair resumed coaching, the FH team reeled off six straight winning seasons from 1936-1941; of the 14 seasons from 1936-1949, only three were losing campaigns, and the girls won 58 games and lost 40. 

The new hardwood floors of the Alapocas campus agreed with the girls’ basketball teams to the tune of six of seven winning seasons, including two undefeated winters and an overall record of 56-6 from 1937-1945. Coach Adair gave way to Estelle Smith Naumann and then to Elinor Pennell Briggs and to Elizabeth Cameron. 

Interest in girls’ sports increased greatly. By 1941 there were four field hockey teams, and for the rest of the decade routinely at least three. Coverage in the Whittier increased from scant paragraphs to whole pages with descriptions of individual games. Wilmington newspaper clips remind us that in those days girls’ basketball teams started six players.

Stars of the teams were Ally Bradley ’39, whose five years on FH were rewarded with the captain’s rank in 1939; 1938-39 Basketball Captain Doris Biesterfeld ’39, who passed away in 2019 and kept in touch with Friends School for 80 years; and Frederika or “Freddie” Bancroft ’41, (“the invincible,” declared the Whittier). Coach Adair said of Freddie, “She never has an off-day,” and she was captain of both FH and BB teams. Dolly Mendinhall ’43 was the high scorer in her last two years and captain in 1942. In 1944 Captain Anne Mullikin ’47 led the team to a 6-1 season while Caroline Simmons set a Friends record with six goals in a game. The following season Nancy Marston ’46 broke that record with seven against Westtown. In the late 1940s Faxie Flinn ’50, Betty Burr ’49, Ellie Marsh ’50, Marie T. Berl ’47, Betsy Mitchell ’50, and the Mearns sisters, Alice’48 and Retta ’49, provided much of the teams’ success. 

In the late 1930s-1940s, girls’ spring sports began tentatively. From scant Whittier coverage one gathers that tennis and softball were played by girls but were intramural rather than interscholastic. In the archives we have a photo of the 1939 girls’ lacrosse team--for one year. They went 1-1. The game was resumed a generation later, in 1961. In 1940 modern dance was introduced, and a set of aspiring Isadora Duncans leaped across the lawn--for one year. 

A team of Friends girls played one softball game in 1941 (and lost 10-25). The next year they were 3-0, including a 41-13 score; apparently there were no mercy rules in the early days. The scrapbook notes a few tennis matches with a couple of schools, and tennis letters were bestowed on Harriet Frorer ’42, Alice Gary, and Mary Power ’41. 

Finding hard information about spring sports in the early years of Friends School has been difficult; yearbooks are sent off for printing just as spring teams are beginning to play, and even June Whittiers have not been reliable about season records. It’s not surprising then that we know little about how teams performed in the 1940s. We know, however, that lots of young women, with a combination of sneakers, saddle shoes, and penny loafers, went out to get exercise, compete, and enjoy the spring weather. 

In the next two decades Friends School girls went out for sports on a much larger scale, and achieved remarkable success in all seasons–the subject of the next article that will be release in Winter 2023.

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Wilmington Friends School admits students of any race, color, gender, national and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students of these schools. Wilmington Friends School does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, gender, national and ethnic origin in administration of their educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic and other school administered programs.