Biography, General, Women's History

Women’s History Month: Health, Beauty and Physical Recreation – women of the keep-fit world

On 30th December 2010, Prunella Stack, a pioneer in the development and spread of female physical recreation in Britain and around the world, died at the grand age of ninety-six years old.   Mary Bagot-Stack founded the Women’s League of Health and Beauty in 1930 when her daughter Prunella was just fifteen years old, but when Mary died at a tragically young age in 1935, Prunella was called upon to continue the work of the League.  Not only did she continue the work but she watched the League spread from Britain to Canada, Australia and Hong Kong, with a worldwide membership of 170,000 women by 1938.  Around this time, fitness, movement, keep-fit and physical recreation for women was spreading throughout Britain and becoming something of a national phenomenon.  My own research is based upon the growth of physical recreation and fitness movements for women in Scotland and at New Year I was struck by, and impressed with, the various obituaries which chronicled Prunella’s achievements for women’s physical emancipation and the revolutionary way in which the League and similar movements gave women, of all ages and sizes, a comfortable place to get fit and keep fit.  From what I have gathered through oral history interviews with Scottish women who made use of the facilities on offer to them for physical recreation, the physical fitness classes like those provided by the League and other groups (like the local Keep Fit classes and Scottish country dance classes) provided women with a safe haven where they could build friendships, escape their everyday lives, have fun, and of course, enhance their health and general wellbeing.

Whilst researching the history of women’s physical recreation in Scotland, I have come across a number of extraordinary women like Prunella who championed physical recreation and made use of local halls and community centres to voluntarily do their bit to enhance the lives of the women in their community. I recently interviewed an inspiring ninety-seven year old woman, still strong, robust and striding around her home unaided. She had started a Scottish country dance class for women in her Ayrshire town in the 1930s and was still leading classes well into her seventies whilst periodically carrying out chair-aerobics classes for the elderly.  She passed the love for this particular type of recreation onto her daughter, who is a dance class leader to this day.  In the 1940s, as a result of conversations with friends who wanted their children to grasp these social dances early on, she started her own dance classes for toddlers.  Given the lack of smooth-floored suitable indoor facilities in the area, she called upon a friend who had a hardwood floor in her home, and this became the base for the toddlers’ class.  Each year the classes became more and more popular until she found herself running class groups for children aged between 3 and 14 years old. In reference to the adult classes, this woman told me that whilst some members of her classes did compare notes on weight-loss from week to week, the friendships which transpired from the classes were more of a focus, and the social element was key. They gave women their own night out every week, or as it was in some cases, morning out, as the classes were staggered throughout the day to suit women and their own specific childcare or work schedules.  She kept the classes going during wartime and after she gave birth to her children, and was wholly devoted to her members and determined to keep up her involvement with the classes until she was physically defeated by old age. Like Prunella, she is an extraordinary woman who has surely touched the lives of thousands of women (and men) over the years.

Throughout my research I have found it interesting and somewhat frustrating that women in my study, who were born between the 1910s and 1940s, grew up with a relatively restricted degree of options for sport and physical recreation. The Women’s League of Health and Beauty, Scottish Country Dancing and keep-fit were all deemed to be ‘appropriately feminine’ activities which were suited to women and uncontroversial, whilst for years ‘aggressive or violent’ team sports such as football or strenuous athletics were deemed by medics and officials to be inappropriate for women, not only in terms of being unsightly and unusual but for ‘physiological’ reasons.  My research has largely focussed upon these restrictions which were placed upon female physical freedom throughout this time, and yet reading Prunella’s obituaries and hearing the stories of my interviewees who, despite remaining within the acceptable discursive boundaries of appropriately feminine physical behaviour, still managed to devote their lives to female physical recreation and truly enhance the lives of thousands of women throughout Britain. Female bodies were emancipated through the voluntary actions of some keen female leaders, not all of them famous the world-over like Prunella, but all of them determined and devoted to help women enhance their health and enhance their lives.

Further reading

Brown, M., Alive in the 1900s: with Reminiscences of the Scottish Council of Physical Recreation (Edinburgh, 1979)

Hargreaves, J., Sporting Females: Critical Issues in the History and Sociology of Women’s Sports (London: Routledge, 1994)

Skillen, F., ‘When women look their worst’: Women and sports participation in interwar Scotland (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Glasgow, 2008)

Stack, P., Zest for Life: Mary Bagot Stack and the League of Health and Beauty, (London: Peter Owen, 1988)

Eilidh Macrae is a second year PhD student at the University of Glasgow.  She is interested in women’s sport, physical recreation and body culture between the 1930s and 1980s and is currently enjoying listening to and writing about the fascinating life-stories of her oral history interviewees.

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