The athleticism of the women competing in the London Olympics—and their outfits—underscore how dramatically women’s dress and freedom have changed in the century since women like the American tennis great Florence Sutton began trail-blazing.
Sutton’s pioneering sportsmanship—and the achievements of other women in sports like golf and swimming—were striking indications of the liberties that Progressive Era women were intent on claiming. Circa 1900, it was rare for a respectable woman to do anything but walk, ride, or ski, partly because women were expected to be so heavily clad and partly because they were never supposed to go out unaccompanied.
While poking around for more on Florence and early American sportswomen, I made a surprising discovery. The first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal was Chicagoan Margaret Ives Abbott (1878-1955). She won the Olympic competition in women’s golf in Paris in 1900. Two years later, she became the wife of noted Chicago journalist Finley Peter Dunne. Margaret was born in India, where her father had been a merchant, but was raised in Chicago, where her mother (also named Margaret Ives Abbott) wrote for the Trib and had a literary salon.
Apparently the Paris Olympics were run in an off-hand fashion, for during her lifetime Margaret was never fully aware of what she had won. Only after her death did historians realize that her victory in what seemed to be just another golf tournament was actually part of the Olympic competition. And she received a bowl, not a medal.