When Joyce Woolever Deans was growing up, she loved to play. She shot so many baskets at her local playground that her mother frequently had to mend her dresses when she ripped the seams in the sleeve. She attended every practice with the local Little League baseball team even though she wasn’t allowed to play in the actual games, because she was a girl.

Deans ’65 H&HD never got the chance to compete as a kid, not as a girl growing up in Central Pennsylvania in the 1950s. Her tiny high school did have a physical education teacher who introduced Deans to the basics of volleyball and softball, and she loved the games so much that after graduating in 1960, she decided to enroll at Penn State, where she could study to be a phys ed teacher herself.

That, Deans remembers, appeared to be the best option for an athletic, active young woman. But she had a feeling she was missing something.
“I thought, ‘There’s gotta be something better for girls,’” she says.

And at Penn State, there was.

Sort of.

When Deans arrived at University Park, the school had a strong phys ed program for women and an array of opportunities for women to participate in sports—just not compete. The Women’s Athletic Association, founded in 1919, had morphed into the Women’s Recreation Association, which organized intramural games. On a big day, the women would travel to another college for a playday or “sports day.” The women played on randomly assigned teams with women from other schools they’d never met before. Winning wasn’t the goal. Camaraderie was.

“I didn’t feel like it was lacking,” says Deans, who now lives in Billings, Mont. “I thought it was so wonderful that you could do something. It didn’t occur to me, ‘Gee, we are way behind the men.’ But we were really behind the men.”

By the time Deans graduated, the women had made up some ground. She became a part of Penn State history as a member of the 1964 women’s varsity field hockey team—the start of a women’s athletics program that today, with 14 varsity sports and a share of 31 national championships, stands among the best in the nation. Penn State is celebrating the 50th anniversary of varsity women’s sports this fall.

But the program’s start was modest—by design.

For one thing, it wasn’t called “varsity.” Not everyone thought athletic competition was good for women, and some of those skeptics were members of Penn State’s physical education faculty. So the varsity teams were officially called “extramural,” and they were pictured not in the athletics section of La Vie, but the student activity section. The women themselves didn’t use that term, though. They still talk of how excited they were to get the chance—finally—to play “intercollegiate.”

The details of the field hockey team’s first season are sketchy. Some of the women remember boarding a bus at the HUB to drive to away games; others swear they just piled into a couple of cars. The Daily Collegian didn’t cover the team. There aren’t any statistics or box scores (the late Mary Jo Haverbeck ’76g MA Com actually invented the field hockey box score more than a decade later). The official record shows only that Penn State played four games that season, the first a 2-0 victory over Susquehanna on Oct. 13, 1964.


Three black and white photographs of the first Penn State women's field hockey team on the field, by Penn State Archives
GAME 1: Varsity field hockey debuted with a 2-0 win over Susquehanna in 1964. Photos by Penn State Archives.


No rosters from the first season seem to exist, but among the players were Deans; Elise Artelt ’64 H&HD, ’70 MEd Edu; Ginny McMahan ’64 Lib; Rosie Ewan ’64, ’79 MEd H&HD; Donna Martin ’65 H&HD; and Kas Wagenseller ’65 H&HD, who was the unofficial social chair and historian of the women phys ed majors in her graduating class. They came to Penn State from a variety of backgrounds and with a variety of experience—starting with Deans, who had never before played field hockey.

Wagenseller arrived at Penn State with a field hockey background. She grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs playing a game with neighborhood kids that involved hitting half a tennis ball with a broomstick. In the seventh grade, someone handed her a field hockey stick. “A real stick,” she says, laughing. “I was in heaven: ‘Wow. This is terrific.’ From then on it was sports, sports, sports.”

Artelt (whose father Ted ’25 Lib played on Penn State’s 1923 Rose Bowl team) had even more experience. She had played for Philadelphia’s Agnes Irwin School, a program so storied that none other than Constance Applebee herself, who introduced field hockey to the United States, walked up to Artelt at a summer camp and asked whether she’d learned to play there. Artelt was highly skilled, a candidate for regional and national teams. “I went to Penn State fully intending to play field hockey,” she says. “And then I got there and found out all they had was a club team. I was really disappointed.”

Artelt wasn’t the only one.

A 1963 internal memo found in the Penn State archives put it like this: “In recent years, the advanced groups of some of the clubs have shown greater interest in competing against similar groups of other schools on an informal basis.” Even so, this desire was not universal—and within the tight-knit group of women physical educators, even with the caveat of “informal” competition, it was not without controversy. The idea that physical exertion and competitive sport could actually be harmful for women still held sway.

Not until that year did the national governing body for female physical educators—the elaborately named executive council of the Division of Girls and Women in Sports of the American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation—put out this statement: “Competition in and of itself does not automatically result in desirable or undesirable outcomes.”

It was hardly a ringing endorsement. But it reflected the desire of women like Deans and Artelt and Wagenseller to do more than goof around at a playday, and it allowed faculty like Martha Adams and the late Della Durant ’57 MS H&HD to carefully and methodically shepherd Penn State women into varsity competition.

The idea was radical enough that the Division of Girls and Women in Sports actually went on to define “competition” as “the participation in a sport activity by two or more persons in which a winner can result.” (Note: “can” result. Official ambivalence was everywhere.) The women administrators then espoused their philosophy: “The educational values are determined by the quality of leadership and participation.”

They also made clear that they didn’t want women’s intercollegiate athletics to become like the men’s, which did not have its roots in academia. (The first men’s intercollegiate competition, a rowing race between Harvard and Yale in 1852, was a commercial venture, set up at Lake Winnipesaukee, N.H., to encourage tourism.) “For the most part, men’s programs differ in purposes and goals from the programs proposed for women,” the DGWS statement said. “Thus new patterns of competition must be developed in programs for women to meet their unique needs and remain within the bounds of good educational practices.”

And so women’s athletics—from recreational to “intercollegiate”—remained under the purview of the women’s phys ed department. The statement further made clear that schoolwork came first: Any competitive programs should “not make excessive demands upon the participants’ academic schedules.”

Not all of the women in Penn State’s physical education program identified as athletes, exactly. They were athletic, certainly, and active. But their focus was on learning to teach. Each semester, they learned to play two or three new sports, and they wrote lesson plans for teaching each sport—in field hockey, for instance, that meant gradually learning the technique for wielding a stick. “You had to teach in an orderly fashion so the kids could do it,” Deans says. “You didn’t just send them out on a field with a stick and expect them to hit it.”

Each sport was worth 1 credit, and each met three times a week—sometimes on Saturday. Penn State’s phys ed program was known as particularly rigorous, and it was entrenched in the academic mindset. That’s why Phyllis Jobson Carroll ’63 H&HD chose to attend Penn State, even though she could have competed as a varsity athlete elsewhere. She turned down the University of Delaware, she says, because its phys ed program was brand new and not as academically strong as Penn State’s.

But that decision curtailed her athletic career. Carroll had grown up roller skating and climbing trees and spending as much time as possible outside—“I didn’t consider myself a tomboy, but I guess maybe I was,” she says—and eventually found her way to a field hockey team that played in suburban Philadelphia, where competition was tough.

But at Penn State, she was relegated to playdays. She remembers afternoon games well: If women were coming from another school to participate, she and her teammates had to make dinner for everyone before the game could begin. The standard menu: sloppy joes. “Someone was chopping onions,” she says. “We had like 10 pounds of hamburger meat in a huge pot. Ketchup. Brown sugar. No Manwich for us.”

The playdays weren’t particularly competitive. “It was, ‘Y’all come over and play and have dinner after,’” Carroll says. “You just don’t do that in competitive sports. I just can’t imagine everyone getting together today after a game and going out for ice cream.”

The women felt they deserved the chance to compete. “But of course,” says Carroll, who now lives in Plano, Texas. “It was a matter of money and whether they were going to invest in this bunch of athletes. And also, ‘intercollegiate’ was becoming big in the East. So naturally, Penn State had to go along with that.”

The eventual program (Carroll, who graduated in 1963, missed it by one year) had the endorsement of the entire women’s physical education faculty. But that required compromise and careful, incremental work by Durant, Adams, and the faculty members who agreed with them.

Varsity, extramural, intercollegiate—whatever it was called, it operated under strict guidelines. The club members themselves had to want to play, to request that an “extramural” team be formed. A faculty member had to agree to coach them, and strictly on a volunteer basis. The teams were permitted to compete in only four or five games per season. And although the extramural program was part of the Women’s Recreation Association, the organization didn’t have financial responsibility.

“The future of the program,” Durant wrote in a 1964 memo to Women’s Recreation Association staff, “depends a great deal upon your careful administration and your cooperation.”

Once Penn State’s program got rolling, it grew quickly. By 1965, Penn State also fielded teams in basketball, golf, gymnastics, fencing, lacrosse, rifle, softball, and tennis. But the early years weren’t easy for the athletes. Artelt made a national field hockey team in the early 1960s but received no publicity or recognition for the accomplishment. She got more attention her senior year for winning the Queen of Hearts, a sorority athletic event that included shooting free throws, swimming, bowling, a softball throw, a long jump, and a sprint.

Artelt and Sarah Williams Hermann ’64 H&HD remember one Saturday afternoon in 1964 when their class went to Beaver Stadium to practice track and field. When it came time to practice the 4x100-meter relay, the class picked the four fastest women. Two physical education professors, Patricia McTarsney and John Lucas ’70 MA Lib, clocked them—and found that the team had come within a second of the U.S. collegiate record. They say McTarsney asked to take the team to the U.S. Olympic trials, but was turned down.

“We could have been good if we were allowed to compete,” Hermann says. “There was frustration—there definitely was. I am still close to the girls I graduated with, and we still discuss it. Of course it wasn’t fair. We deserved an opportunity. They have the opportunity now.”