An Olympian effort for womankind

09:00 21 August 2012


Anna Dubuis tells how the success of female athletes in the Games was built on foundations laid down a century ago by Martina Bergman Österberg.

Madame Bergman OsterbergMadame Bergman Osterberg

The Olympics show we have come a long way to bridge the inequality gap between men and women in sport, though many would say there is still far to go.

But until the late 19th century women hardly took part in organised games. Activities were limited to non-competitive sports and women were discouraged from exerting themselves.

That all changed around 130 years ago and one woman in particular can be credited with pioneering physical education for women, with Dartford at the centre of it all.

Martina Bergman Österberg was born in Sweden in 1849. After finishing school she studied gymnastics.

Later to be an advocate of the suffragette movement, she believed in women’s potential and the power of sport.

In 1881 she was invited to London to train female teachers in how to deliver physical education. This led to the opening of the first physical training college for women, which began in Hampstead and later moved to a large house in Oakfield Lane in Dartford. It became known as the Bergman Österberg Physical Training College.

Here the students had theory lessons, gymnastics, dancing and teaching. It was Österberg who introduced team sports for women – first netball, then hockey, basketball, lacrosse and badminton. Word spread and these games started being played nationwide, with the Dartford students topping the leagues.

Her students also had their own influences on women’s physical education. In 1897 a student named Mary Tait turned up for practice in a gymslip, a shorter version of the impractical ground-length skirts worn by women playing sports. The gymslip later became the standard uniform worn by girls for PE lessons.

Though Österberg played a key role in getting women into sport, her elitism wouldn’t go down so well today.

Believing that the liberators of the female sex were to be found in the ranks of the middle class, she kept fees high and student numbers low and only took on girls with above-average intelligence.

For her autocratic rule over her students’ lives she was known by them as “Napoleon”. She was also famously critical of appearances, giving advice such as: “Your neck is too short, never wear a ruffle”.

Yet however she went about it, she was doing something radical and her students, who were playing sport against their families’ wishes, were doing it too.

The college grew and offered gym classes for local children and clinic for medical gymnastics and massage. The teachers would go to London to give public demonstrations of their work and each year of graduating students went on to become PE instructors elsewhere. By 1908 hundreds of schools had started PE programmes and by 1913 Österberg’s methods were taught in all main training colleges and girls’ schools in England and Scotland.

In 1915 Martina Bergman Österberg died at the age of 65 but her college lasted 70 more years. Today, the Österberg Sports Centre at North West Kent College is a state-of-the-art monument to the woman whose influence has spread across the globe.


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