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Physical Education for Girls - II

Women’s Callisthenics:
How the Cult to the Body Took Root

Marian Horvat & Elizabeth Lozowski
In our previous article we emphasized that modesty should be the first concern in sports and exercises for women. Unfortunately, shortly after sports for women were introduced into school curriculums, women abandoned modest clothing and adopted the new gym clothing – often culottes and then shorts – that purportedly aimed to allow more freedom of movement.

girls exercising 1900

Scantily dressed boys & girls do pushups on a beach in 1900 as fully dressed parents look on

However, underlying that excuse was the aim to promote the “emancipation” of women from the “restraints” of the past, which was the first glimmering of the Women’s Liberation Movement that eventually liberated women from every boundary – both physical and moral.

To better understand the spirit behind its adoption, we thought it would be helpful to research the origins of physical education (PE) for women.

Roots of PE classes

The first known physical education classes were introduced as a consequence of the “modern” thinking that emerged from the French Revolution of 1789. The French Revolution established committees for everything – including one for the physical education of girls and boys. The implementation and development of these first programs, however, would not become widespread until the mid-1800’s.


GutsMuths gymnastics for youth

It was a German Philantrophist teacher, Johann Christoph Friedrich GutsMuths, who introduced systematic physical education into the school curriculums shortly after the French Revolution, with a focus on gymnastics that included exercises for men. (1) He and all the modern educators of the time were strongly influenced by the revolutionary thinking of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Rousseau proposed man was good in nature (thus rejecting original sin). His Naturalism insisted that the artificial and formal education of the past had deprived youth of the liberty to remain true to his original nature.

GutsMuths followed the late 18th century Philantrophist Movement, which continued the ideas of the Renaissance humanists, rejecting the teachings of the Middle Ages. Religious instruction was to be replaced by the teaching of a universal natural morality, which replaced the divine with nature. GutsMuths described gymnastics as culture for the body, with a primary aim being “to attain the body’s potential beauty and perfect usefulness.” The focus was man, the beauty of the body.

The self-styled “grandfather of gymnastics” only made a few references to exercise for women, but it was the hole in the dam that opened the way for the flood.

early exercise machines for women

Two Victorian exercise machines, encouraging fitness

Because of this rise of interest in gymnastics, teachers and philosophers began to wonder how a woman could benefit from fitness programs. One of the most famous of these teachers was Heinrich Clias, an American by birth who traveled around Europe teaching and promoting gymnastics at schools – primarily in England and France. He was a strong defender of the “right” of girls to take gymnastic classes.

In concession to the thinking of the times, Clias and other early trainers taught that women’s exercises should differ from men’s, being less strenuous with an emphasis on developing gracefulness. Clias was among the first to dare to train a woman coach: The quite famous-in-her-time calisthenics instructor Marian Mason became a popular figure among upper class Protestant English women in the 1820s and ‘30s. (2)

In 1826 Miss Mason – who never married in order to pursue her career in fitness – performed “calisthenics to music appropriate for the softer sex” in a hall filled with men and women to illustrate her teaching methods. For many it was shocking – men watching a woman performing exercises in public. The next year Miss Mason published On the Utility of Exercise, a short monograph that marked another first, making her the first female instructor to publish a text of this kind for women in Britain.

voarino exercises

Pantaloons entered the picture
with Voarino’s exercises

The same year 1827 saw the release of a much more popular manual of exercises for women titled A Treatise on Calisthenic Exercises, Arranged for the Private Tuition of Young Ladies, authored by Signor G. P. Voarino in 1827. Voarino’s calisthenics were highly influential, especially among upper class ladies, to whom he directed his treatise. They were more readily accepted because the exercises were not strenuous, the women wore simple but modest dresses, and the emphasis was on form and grace while building strength.

The popularity of calisthenics for women in this early period was primarily in Protestant countries and the Protestant parts of Germany and France, where the “upper set” followed the “enlightened” thinking inspired by Rousseau and the French Revolution. Alongside the initial calls for greater political equality that suffragettes in England were already demanding in the 1830s, were calls to improve women’s health with regular callisthenic programs for women.

It is interesting to note that the roots of gymnasium exercises for women were deeply rooted in the ever-growing revolutionary clamors for equality of women and men.

Beaujeu’s & Beecher’s introduction of aggressive exercises

In 1828 J.A. Beaujeu and his wife released a physical training book for women in schools, focusing on a much more rigorous gymnastics than Clias’s works. Beaujeu and his wife jointly trained boys and girls in the Royal Hibernian Military School in Dublin. (3)

beaujkeaus dipping exercises

Beaujeu’s dipping exercise for women

Although modesty was upheld in theory, in practice the reality was quite different. For, unlike most advocates for women’s fitness at the time, Beaujeu never recommended caution for the weaker sex overexerting herself nor did he propose exercise as an aid for women to better perform her household duties.

Further, Beaujeu recommended a gymnastics costume that included trousers with shorter skirts overtop (similar to those seen in the pictures of Voarino’s exercises). These were necessary for many of the aggressive exercises he taught to young women. Tendentially, it was a preparation for women donning trousers.

It is apparent by just a few of these pictures that some of the postures required distorting the body and taking immodest poses. For example, some exercises included pull-ups on bars and even punching into the air, in weak imitation of men’s boxing exercises. Although not yet widely accepted, his revolutionary attitude towards women’s athletic abilities was not without its supporters.

beechers exercise book

Weight lifting and callisthenics for girls

Beaujeu’s exercises could be dangerous and injuries were not infrequent. In 1829 Mr. Beaujeau himself broke his neck from a fall while swinging from a rope. In the wake of her husband’s death, Mrs. Beaujeu established herself as an instructor in her own right, using the same radical system.

The very liberal Freemason Horace Mann, so-called Father of American Education, supported Beaujeu and her system. He was joined by prominent Boston preachers who appeased the shocked Protestant conservatives who objected.

Catherine Beecher, our next pre-feminist reformer, came from a family of Protestant abolitionists. In 1823, Beecher and her sister Mary founded the Hartford Female Seminary. In most female schools of the era, students learned primarily fine arts and languages, but Beecher offered a full range of subjects. Her aim to produce an army of women teachers in reality helped to transform teaching into women’s work in America, and, as a consequence reduced the salary, which discouraged men from entering the profession.

An early pioneer of physical education for girls, Beecher introduced calisthenics to improve women’s health and in defiance of prevailing notions of women’s fragility.

As we will see in our next article, if the idea that women must be perfectly fit and muscularly developed is allowed to flourish in the minds of young women, nothing will prevent them from engaging in manly sports. These early reformers perhaps did not realize that their revolutionary gymnastic reforms would later end in competitive sports for women accompanied by immodest displays of the female form. But that is what happened, as can be seen today.

ladies exercising

The poised, demure woman of the past, being replaced by the new active woman;
Above right, a 1908 exercise class

As Prof. Plinio points out in his article on Gradualism, a new model of women began to emerge in the 19th century, a woman who “breathes the taste for adventure, for the battles of a life similar to that of a man, which demands the development of typically masculine qualities” – including a body trained for endurance and sports.

These ground level steps toward compulsory physical education for women were a part of the revolutionary process that led to the masculinization of women, which is ultimately a subversion of the natural order.

charmion strongwoman

Circa 1895: trapeze artist & ‘strongwoman’ Charmion
immodestly flaunts her muscles


  1. GutsMuths published the first book to be written on gymnastic exercises in 1793, Gymnastikfür die Jugend.
Works cited:
  • International Society for Comparative Physical Education and Sport.Sport and Physical Education in Germany.Ed. Roland Naul and Ken Hardman. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.
  • Todd, Jan. “The Classical Ideal and its Impact on the Search for Suitable Exercise: 1774-1830.” Iron Game History 2.4 (1992): 6-16. Print.

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Posted May 27, 2024

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