Ina Gittings: Better Onions Or Better Coeds?

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Ina Gittings was a tomboy and a pioneer of women's physical education. She arrived at the University of Arizona in 1920 and was the first female physical education director. In 1924 she wanted an athletic field for women - where the campus vegetable garden was. The rallying cry became "Do we want better onions or better coeds?" She changed the face and the dress code for women student athletes.

You didn't mess with Ina Gittings. She was tough and outspoken. She graduated from the first women's physical education program in the nation, then went to Germany to provide physical therapy to the wounded Allied soldiers in World War I. She was working with refugees in Turkey when the Unuversity of Arizona asked her to establish its first physical education program for women.

She accepted - and became a driving force on campus for the next 34 years, until she was well into her seventies.

When she arrived in 1920, all she had to offer her students was one room on the second floor in Old Main to exercise in and a dirt tennis field. In 1922 she used the men's athletic field to host tryouts for future female Olympians. By 1924 she decided the women needed their own track field.

The spot she chose was the campus vegetable garden. It was then she began asking regents, faculty and students: "Do we want better onions or better coeds?" The rallying cry had its effect. One spring day students and faculty - both male and female - turned out in force and ripped out the garden. The women's field was completed on that site the next year.

When Bear Down Gym was completed in 1926, Gittings moved her program into the men's former gymnasium - Herring Hall. Now, with both an athletic field and a gymnasium, the young UA program was in position to compete nationally.

Gittings was born in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1885. She told the UA newspaper, "Mother tried to make a lady out of me, but with four brothers, I was usually drafted into a baseball game on the vacant lot. That's how I got my start in physical education."

In high school she played on one of the first female high school basketball teams. In 1906 she graduated from the University of Nebraska, the first university in the nation to create a physical education program for women, and became a teacher there.

Then came the war and her service to soldiers in Germany and refugees in Turkey. The UA contacted her and invited her to establish the women's physical education department. She was offered many positions, but chose the UA. The young woman said she found the rugged Southwest "romantic" and relished the opportunity to create her own program.

It was a time when the world was changing: Suffragettes gained the right for women to vote in 1920. Prohibition led to speakeasies and flappers with bobbed hair and shorter skirts. People were more interested in sports, and universities began to stress the importance of physical education.

From the days when Gittings pole vaulted in her bloomers and her photo was published in the New York Times and national magazines, her hallmark was comfortable attire for women. She told her girls, "Dress for health, then for looks."

She once told the Tucson Citizen, "When I started teaching I had two influences to counter act - the corset and pointed-toe shoe." In a speech she said shoes held "the highest place as troublemakers," the garter "could disrupt the entire circulation" and "brassieres, unless worn property, hamper that vital function - breathing."

Attire actually played a role in getting a women's physical education building approved during the Depression. Many students, faculty members and the community felt it was not appropriate for young women to be running across campus in their swimsuits from Herring Hall to the swimming pool. The Women's Building was one of several facilities on campus constructed through the Works Project Administration. Gittings and her staff moved into their new quarters in 1936.

The new facility and dorm allowed the program to expand. By the 1940s the UA list of sports activities exceeded many other schools in the nation - archery, badminton, modern, folk and square dancing, fencing, golf, swimming and diving, tennis and team sports such volleyball, hockey, baseball and basketball. Swimming and horseback riding helped attract students from the East Coast and other wintry climes.

Gittings was passionate about women's health and children's health. She introduced a six-lecture course for all freshman students on the importance of health and hygiene. Early on she created a teacher-training course for her girls and many went on to teach in local elementary and secondary schools. Her classes were said to guide girls to be fine teachers and leaders, as well as wives and mothers. In 1947 Gittings published a book titled "Fundamentals in Teaching Physical Education."

She also felt it was essential for young children to have a place of their own to play. Even during the Depression she crusaded for playgrounds in the community.

Gittings stepped down as director of physical education in 1952 and retired in 1954. She died in 1966. While she grew this pioneering program from scratch, she also homesteaded 480 acres in northwest Tucson. Ina Road is named for her.

Information for this story came from a research paper written by Marian Smith for History 396, the capstone research class for UA history majors. This year's class, taught by Professor Martha Few, was the "History of the University of Arizona Student Research Symposium." For her research, Smith used the Ina Gittings Collection in UA Special Collections, plus books on the history of physical education and other resources.

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