Applebee, Constance (1873–1981)

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Applebee, Constance (1873–1981)

English-born coach and promoter of field hockey who founded the U.S. Field Hockey Association, published and edited the first American magazine devoted to women's sports, and advanced the development of women's athletics. Name variations: Connie, "The Apple." Born Constance Mary Katherine Applebee in Chigwall, Essex, England, on June 4, 1873; died in Burley, Hampshire, England, on January 26, 1981; graduated from the British College of Physical Education in London; never married; no children.

Traveled to United States to study at Harvard University (1901); founded the American Field Hockey Association (AFHA, 1901); appointed director of athletics at Bryn Mawr College (1904); founded the U.S. Field Hockey Association (USFHA), superseding the AFHA (1922); edited and published The Sports-woman, the first sports magazine for American women (1922); inducted into the U.S. Field Hockey Association Hall of Fame and the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame; received the Distinguished Service Award of the American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, and the Award of Merit of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.

Fragile health in childhood may have been responsible for Constance Applebee's lifelong dedication to women's athletics. From the time of her birth, in Chigwall, Essex, England, on June 4, 1873, she was considered a delicate child and kept from attending school with other children. Applebee studied privately with a neighboring cleric whose lessons included Greek and Latin. The notion that physical exercise could improve poor health was considered controversial at the time, but as Applebee grew older she took the idea to heart and began to exercise, with such positive results that she became convinced of the importance of physical education to women's well being.

In the summer of 1901, Applebee was 29 years old and a graduate of the British College of Physical Education in London when she came to the United States to study with Dr. Dudley A. Sargent at Harvard University. A fellow classmate, Harriet Ballintine , was director of athletics at nearby Vassar College and asked Applebee to demonstrate the game of field hockey to their class. Although practically unknown in the United States, field hockey had been wildly popular in the British Isles as a women's team sport since the 1880s, not long after Lady Margaret Hall began playing the game. The Moseley Ladies' Hockey Club had been organized in 1887, followed by the Wimbledon Ladies' Hockey Club in 1889 (the oldest women's hockey club still in existence), and the Irish Ladies' Hockey Union (the first women's national hockey union) in 1894. Shortly after Ballintine's request for a demonstration of the game, Applebee took the group out behind the gymnasium, where she explained that field hockey consisted of two teams of 11 members each, and that the object of the game was to knock the ball into the netted goal of the opposing team. Armed with wands and a dumbbell, the only implements available as substitutes for hockey equipment, Applebee then demonstrated the sport.

When Ballintine's enthusiasm for field hockey led her to ask Applebee to remain in the United States to introduce the sport to American college women, an 80-year career that would change the public perception of women on the playing field was launched. In 1901, along with Senda Berenson , and Lucille Eaton Hill , Applebee founded the American Field Hockey Association (AFHA) to promote the game. Berenson was physical education director at Smith College, and Hill held the same position at Wellesley, two of the most prestigious women's colleges in the country. Already a pioneer in American women's sports, having modified Naismith's basketball rules for use by girls and women, Berenson chaired the committee that edited the rules for basketball published by the American Sports Publishing Company in 1901. The three women now teamed up to accomplish the same program for field hockey, drawing up the rules of the game and founding an athletic association to monitor it.

As Applebee began traveling from campus to campus, teaching women to play America's newest competitive sport, her first challenge was to locate equipment. After much searching, she finally found 22 hockey sticks and a cricket ball in A.G. Spalding's New York store, virtually the only field hockey equipment in the country, which she lugged to Vassar, Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, Smith, Mount Holyoke, and Radcliffe, where many signed up to learn to play the new sport. The involvement of women in team sports was still controversial at the time, even among those who considered themselves open-minded. Luther Halsey Gulick, an educational progressive of the era, summed up the typical attitude toward women's participation in team sports:

I believe … that athletics for women should for the present be restricted to sport within the school; that they should be used for recreation and pleasure; that the strenuous training of teams tends to be injurious to both body and mind; that public, general competition emphasizes qualities that are on the whole unnecessary and undesirable. Let us then have athletics for recreation, but not for serious, public competition.

Applebee, however, believed that if competitive athletics taught men teamwork and sportsmanship while building their character, it would do the same for women. Her coaching outlook was always both enthusiastic and innovative. Before she turned her attention to the students of elite New England women's colleges, she had worked with London street urchins and the uneducated. At a YWCA class comprised of factory women, her charges were a loud and undisciplined mob more interested in talking to each other than doing physical exercise. Facing them cheerfully, Applebee would urge, "Come now, I want all to take hands and run as fast as you can to the other end of the gym, shouting as loud as you can!" She then kept the group running and shouting until they were physically exhausted and ready to sit down and be instructed about participating in sports.

In 1904, Applebee ceased traveling from campus to campus when she was invited to become director of athletics at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, where her program became a national model for the teaching of physical education throughout America. It was a period of profound social change as well as considerable controversy, much of it revolving around the acceptable behavior of women. While it was generally accepted by then that women benefitted from physical exercise, few supported their public participation in sports. Instructions for constructing a high-school playground sum up the prevailing mindset: "The playground of older girls should, if possible, be screened from public view by building, shrubs, or vines." Meanwhile, technology was changing traditional concepts about women and sports. The bicycle craze that began in the late 19th century brought women as

well as men out in the open air; and the Industrial Revolution was funneling more women into factory jobs, creating the notion that women were as capable as men in industry. The introduction of electricity, canned foods, refrigeration, and household gadgets freed women from some onerous household chores, giving many of them time to participate in sports. Constance Applebee began organizing women's field hockey teams at a time when many were ready to be participants.

At the start, however, a great deal of Applebee's energy went into changing accepted norms, particularly regarding women's hockey uniforms. Most of the first women to participate in sports in the 19th century were upper-class and dressed for playing tennis, hockey, or lacrosse with the same elaborate preparations they spent on attending a cotillion; this meant wearing tight corsets, long skirts, and multiple petticoats. Since such garb could make playing more difficult, if not actually dangerous, Applebee began to promote sensible sports clothes for women, first by concentrating on skirt lengths and doing away with petticoats. The field hockey rules she wrote in 1903 mandated that "the hockey skirt should be plainly made and … six inches from the ground all the way round." Furthermore, the rules stated, "Petticoats should not be worn, but knickerbockers … fastening at the knee, [should] be substituted." Eventually knee-length bloomers or baggy pants worn with long stockings and a loose-fitting "middy" blouse with a large, navy-style collar became a standard athletic costume. Freed of physical restraints, women were quick to recognize the physical benefits of comfortable social apparel, and the clothing revolution had consequences that reached far beyond the playing field. Applebee's continual lobbying for sensible sportswear ultimately helped change the way women dressed in everyday life—one of the most profound transformations in the 20th century.

In addition to founding 25 hockey teams, Applebee organized 50 teams to play interclass competitive basketball, and she introduced water polo, track, tennis, swimming, fencing, archery, and badminton to the Bryn Mawr campus. "The Apple," as her students fondly called her, wanted students to play from the "varsity to the lowest class team, with all their heart." Testing strength and skill against the abilities of others was important, and fairness was central to any game. Applebee or another instructor umpired every game, assisted by four students. Three whistles on every foul was the rule, and she expected the whistles of all umpires to sound in unison. Applebee particularly excelled as a hockey coach. Wrote Cynthia Wesson :

It is hard to describe for those who have never experienced it, Miss Applebee's genius as a hockey coach. She can take twenty-two players who have literally never seen a game or a stick. She can teach the rudiments of skill in hitting and stopping the ball, and the fundamentals of how a team works to score goals; and in less than half an hour she has her players playing hockey! … It is impossible to be coached by Miss Applebee without being stimulated to do one's best, without leaving the field wanting to play more and better hockey.

Applebee's activities on campus were not limited to coaching. For Bryn Mawr's annual Elizabethan May Day program, she trained students in the Morris and country dances, and she sometimes served as festival director, supervising the work of putting on the plays and seeing that hundreds of authentic historical costumes were sewn for the event. In 1910, when Bryn Mawr established one of the earliest college health departments, Applebee worked closely with the college doctor in overseeing the general health and well-being of the students. When a group of students founded the College News in 1915, she served as faculty advisor for five years until the publication was firmly established. To resolve the rivalry existing between two religious groups on campus, Applebee became involved in her students' spiritual welfare, encouraging the groups to disband in order to form a united Christian Association.

Constance Applebee never married, but she had many devoted friends. Shortly after Applebee's appointment as athletic director at Bryn Mawr in 1904, Mary Warren Taylor joined her staff, serving as secretary to the Department of Athletics and Gymnastics. Equally enthusiastic about women's sports, Taylor operated as Applebee's assistant and major supporter. When Taylor's health began to fail in 1929, Applebee withdrew from many campus activities to care for her friend until Taylor's death in 1936.

In 1922, Applebee extended her activities beyond the Bryn Mawr Campus by launching The Sportswoman, America's first magazine devoted to women's athletics. With articles about lacrosse, fencing, archery, swimming, bowling, skating, and field hockey, the magazine was an innovative step in an era when the public had only recently accepted women's participation in sports. During the ten years Applebee edited and published The Sportswoman, it was a thriving publication, reaching a wide audience of college coaches and students as well as women who belonged to sports clubs. Once she no longer had the time to devote to it, the magazine floundered and eventually failed, but not before Applebee had demonstrated that there was a market for sports publications for women.

Throughout her career, Constance Applebee worked to expand field hockey beyond the confines of a few Eastern women's colleges. In 1922, she organized the Pocono Hockey Camp in Pennsylvania, importing coaches from England to teach the sport. This summer camp quickly grew from 300 to include over 1,000 participants. Physical education teachers as well as high school, college, and club players came to learn more about field hockey. During the one or two-week sessions, athletes enjoyed companionship and competition. The Pocono Hockey Camp provided an opportunity for women to create their own sports world and to form important networks. This was especially true for physical education teachers from small, isolated towns. A model for summer sports camps, the Pocono Hockey Camp played an important role in the development of women's athletics in the United States.

By the 1920s, many colleges sponsored women's hockey. Thousands of junior and senior high-school students also played the game, as well as over 50,000 club sports players. By 1922, Applebee decided the expanded number of players required a new organization. She presided over a meeting of 100 women in Philadelphia that determined that the American Field Hockey Association had outlived its usefulness, and replaced it with the United States Field Hockey Association (USFHA). Because the sport had by then gained worldwide popularity among women, the role of the new association was to promote the game both internationally and nationally, as well as sponsor tournaments and monitor games. Applebee's goal was for the new organization to function as a peacemaker as well as a sports organization, fostering international goodwill, and for this reason she decided that the USFHA would recognize no champions because unbridled competition "might destroy the friendly atmosphere among players and nations."

Although Constance Applebee eventually became an American citizen, she returned to England annually, maintaining close ties with her native country. With the onset of World War II in England, her idealistic notion of sports were sorely tested. In 1939, Adolf Hitler's Blitzkrieg swept across Europe, and Nazi troops occupied country after country; only the English Channel saved Great Britain from a similar fate. Determined to conquer the British Isles, Hitler's Luftwaffe began raining bombs on heavily populated cities, killing thousands. In the United States, a strong sentiment for neutrality prevailed as Americans were not anxious to become involved in another European conflict following the experience of World War I. Unwilling to accept this neutral stance for the USFHA, Applebee determined to employ the sport of hockey in defense of her homeland. In the early fall of 1940, she appealed to all American hockey players, past and present, to help the British. Individuals and clubs rallied to her cause. Applebee's fundraising goal had been to purchase one ambulance to aid her compatriots, but her appeal was so well received that three were sent to Britain, focusing attention on the Battle of Britain during a time when much of American public opinion remained neutral.

When World War II ended, Applebee was in her 70s. She remained active as a hockey coach, tirelessly advocating the sport even in old age. At 90, she was still at summer camp, prodding and scolding players. She continued to return to Britain for annual visits, but during a sojourn there in 1967, at age 94, her doctor ordered her to remain because of failing eyesight. She took up residence in a cottage bordering on the New Forest. In advanced age, Applebee continued to live alone. Though largely confined to an electric wheelchair for the last five or six years of her life, she managed to get around her house and garden until her death at 107.

In her late years, Applebee's contributions to women's sports were increasingly recognized. She was inducted into the U.S. Field Hockey Association Hall of Fame and into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame. She received the Distinguished Service Award of the American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, and the Award of Merit of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. When Constance Applebee died, on January 26, 1981, The Times of London summed up her remarkable life: "She had a strong belief in Christian day to day living and the lessons of give and take, working with others, initiative, concentration, endurance, sportsmanship, friendship, fun, and fitness."


"Constance Applebee," in The New York Times. January 28, 1981, sec. B, p. 5.

Davidson, Judith A. "Applebee, Constance M.K." in Sports Encyclopedia North America. Vol. II. Edited by John D. Windhausen. Gulf Breeze, FL: Academic International Press, 1988, pp. 167–168.

Howell, Reet. Her Story in Sports: A Historical Anthology of Women in Sports. West Point, NY: Leisure Press, 1982.

Lee, Mabel. Memories Beyond Bloomers. Washington: American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, 1978.

"Miss Constance Applebee. Pioneer in women's hockey," in The Times [London]. January 28, 1981, p. 16.

Wesson, Cynthia. "Miss C.M.K. Applebee. A Sketch of Forty Years of Service," in Research Quarterly. Supplement, vol XII, no. 3, October 1941, pp. 696–699.

Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia