English coach Constance Applebee (1873–1981) introduced field hockey to the United States. A native of England, Applebee became athletic director at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. Under her direction, the college's athletic program became a model for the rest of the country. She encouraged young women to compete in sports during a time when they were considered too fragile to participate in physical activities. Through her advocacy, the perception of women in sports changed forever.
Constance Mary Katherine Applebee was born in Chigwall, Essex, England, on June 4, 1873. She suffered from poor health as a child and was not allowed to attend school. Instead she was tutored at home by a cleric.
As Applebee grew older, she discovered that her health improved if she remained active. Women were considered too delicate to exercise at the time, but Applebee became convinced that physical activity could improve women's strength and overall health.
Applebee graduated from the British College of Physical Education. In 1901, at the age of 29, she traveled to the United States for a summer course in anthropometry (the measurement of the human body) at Harvard University. While she was there, she used makeshift equipment to demonstrate the sport of field hockey for her classmates. The women's sport had been very popular in England for some 20 years, but it was unknown in the United States, where women's fitness was largely confined to croquet, golf, and bicycling. Classmates were enthusiastic about the new sport and Harriet Ballintine, director of athletics at Vassar College, asked Applebee to remain in the United States and teach field hockey to American women students.
For the next two years Applebee traveled to Vassar, Smith, Wellesley, Mt. Holyoke, Radcliffe, and Bryn Mawr Colleges to demonstrate field hockey to women students. At first, she had trouble even finding equipment. She finally located 22 hockey sticks and a cricket ball in New York and carried it with her as she traveled from campus to campus. Thus began Applebee's 80-year career as a champion of field hockey and other women's sports.
Changed Perception of Women's Sports
Until Applebee introduced field hockey to American colleges, the only team sport for women was basketball, which had recently been introduced by Senda Berenson and quickly became the most popular women's sport.
Sports rules were modified for women because it was believed that the men's rules were too rough. For instance, in basketball, modified rules divided the court into three sections and players had to stay in their designated area to prevent overexertion. Also, players could not grab the ball from another player's hands and could only dribble three times before they were required to pass or shoot.
Women were introduced to basketball and other team sports in the nation's female colleges and seminaries. By the turn of the century, all colleges taught physical education. Initially, students competed on an intraclass and intramural basis. Faculty believed extramural competition would cause young women emotional and physical stress they could not handle.
While many women were enthusiastic about sports, they found it difficult to compete in the tight corsets and long skirts that were the fashion of the day. Janet Woolum quoted a turn-of-the-century athlete in Outstanding Women Athletes: Who They Are and How They Influenced Sports in America: "No girl would appear unless upholstered with a corset, a starched petticoat, a starched skirt, heavily button-trimmed blouse, a starched shirtwaist with long sleeves and cuff links, a high collar and four-in-hand necktie; a belt with silver buckle; and sneakers with large silk bows."
Applebee was one of several women who advocated a change in dress for women's athletics. She required participants to wear shorter skirts (6 inches from the ground). She suggested that petticoats be replaced with knickerbockers fastened at the knee. As women realized the advantages of more comfortable clothing in athletics, they began demanding changes to their everyday clothing as well.
Established Field Hockey Rules
By the turn of the century, when Applebee introduced field hockey, women's sports were beginning to gain acceptance and rules were being standardized. In 1901, Applebee co-founded the American Field Hockey Association to establish rules for the sport and promote it. Applebee worked with Senda Berenson, physical education director at Smith College, and Lucille Eaton Hill, physical education director at Wellesley. The three established rules of field hockey and promoted and monitored its play, just as Berenson had previously done for women's basketball.
In 1904, Applebee was named athletic director at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. Under her direction, the college's athletic program became a model for the rest of the country. She also founded the school's Department of Health. Applebee fought a continuous battle with people who believed women were too frail for participation in organized sports. She believed women could benefit from sports participation in the same way men did. In Women in Sports: The Complete Book on the World's Greatest Female Athletes, Joe Layden reports that Applebee told Bryn Mawr president M. Carey Thomas, "You want all these students to go out and do something in the world, to get the vote. What's the good of their having the vote if they're too ill to use it?"
Applebee founded 25 hockey teams and 50 basketball teams at Bryn Mawr. She also introduced water polo, track, tennis, swimming, fencing, archery, and badminton. She encouraged students to play hard at all levels. Applebee coached at Bryn Mawr until 1971 when she was 97. She was a stern coach, but her students loved her and affectionately called her "The Apple."
Applebee was involved in other campus activities as well. She trained students in dance and served as festival director of the school's Elizabethan May Day program. As director, she organized the event's plays and made sure hundreds of costumes were sewn. She was faculty advisor to the school's College News for five years. She negotiated a compromise among two rival religious groups and encouraged them to form a united Christian Association.
Applebee pulled back from her many campus activities between 1929 and 1936 when her devoted friend and secretary to the Department of Athletics and Gymnastics Mary Warren Taylor became ill. Applebee cared for her friend until her death in 1936.
Women's enthusiasm for field hockey spread beyond Bryn Mawr. By the 1920s, women in several colleges, high schools and junior high schools played field hockey. The sport also attracted some 50,000 club sports players. In 1922, Applebee saw a need for a new organization to promote the game and sponsor tournaments. She founded the United States Field Hockey Association (USFHA), which replaced the American Field Hockey Association. The USFHA promoted the game internationally, but did not recognize champions because Applebee believed such competition "might destroy the friendly atmosphere among players and nations," reported Karin Loewen Haag in Women in World History. The USFHA continues to preside over the sport to this day.
Applebee regularly traveled to her native England to coach field hockey teams there. In 1923, Applebee founded a field hockey camp called The Pocono Hockey Camp in Mt. Pocono, Pennsylvania. She recruited British players and coaches to teach the game to high school and college field hockey players, coaches, and physical education teachers. In 1923, she led a field hockey camp in Peru.
In 1922, Applebee founded The Sportswoman, the country's first magazine for women athletes. The magazine covered women's participation in field hockey, swimming, lacrosse, fencing, archery, skating, and bowling. She published the magazine for ten years.
Close Ties with England
Applebee became a naturalized American citizen but she maintained close ties to England, coaching teams in both countries. During World War II, travel to her native country was restricted. Applebee rallied the United States Field Hockey Association to help her homeland during the Battle of Britain. She spearheaded a fundraising campaign to purchase an ambulance for her homeland. Her efforts were so successful that three ambulances were sent. Written on their doors was "Donated by the Women Hockey Players of the USA."
Applebee remained active as a hockey coach into her 90s. At age 94, during one of her annual visits to Britain, her doctor ordered her to stay because of failing eyesight. She moved to a cottage in Burley. At the end of her life, she was confined to an electric wheelchair, but continued to live alone and care for herself. She died on January 26, 1981, at the age of 107 in Burley, England.
Applebee was recognized many times for her contributions to women's athletics. She received a Distinguished Service Award from the American Association for Health, Physical Education and Recreation; was inducted into the College of William & Mary Hall of Fame; was an Honorary Life Member of the All-England Women's Hockey Association; and received the Award of Merit from the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. She was also inducted into the U.S. Field Hockey Association Hall of Fame and the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame.
Layden, Joe, Women in Sports: The Complete Book on the World's Greatest Female Athletes, General Publishing Group, 1997.
Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, edited by Anne Commire, Yorkin Publications, 1999.
Woolum, Janet, Outstanding Women Athletes: Who They Are and How They Influenced Sports in America, 2nd ed., Oryx Press, 1988.
New York Times, January 28, 1981.
"Constance M.K. Applebee," Biography Resource Center, The Gale Group (November 8, 2003).