Mount Holyoke’s physical education requirement: Then and now


Exercise has always been a graduation requirement at Mount Holyoke College, as Mary Lyon prioritized her students’ physical fitness. While the general goal of this requirement has not changed significantly over time, the cause for it has.

In 1838, Lyon wrote a letter arguing that students needed to exercise and take breaks from studying in order to stay healthy and prevent being worn out. She did not want anything to get in the way of the college students’ learning, so, she initially had them do domestic work, which included “[carrying] wood and coal [...] washing, ironing, cooking, sweeping, dishwashing and even house cleaning.” Students were collectively doing high-energy chores that required movement for hours. This exercise requirement also mandated that the students “walk a mile a day,” according to Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz in her book “Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women’s Colleges from their Nineteenth Century Beginnings to the 1930s.” Soon the seminary was offering calisthenics, Dio Lewis gymnastics and physiology in the newly built gymnasium of 1863.

Photo courtesy of Mount Holyoke Archives

Photo courtesy of Mount Holyoke Archives

The students took calisthenics to “improve” their femininity and gracefulness. In gymnastics, the students wore a “gym costume,” described in “A Memory Book: Mount Holyoke College 1837-1987,” consisting of a “flannel blouse, a skirt six inches off the floor” and loose trousers. While the exercise-related classes and activities required in the 19th century were put in place to make students more desirable to men, this had changed by the mid 20th century.

In 1950, Kendall Hall was constructed to serve as a dedicated space for physical education. Although the school still offered more traditionally feminine classes, like gymnastics and dance, by the 1970s more strength-related options were introduced. These included weight training, swimming, canoeing, baseball and horseback riding. Instead of being trained to be graceful, students were trained to be fit in various ways. Over time, even the terminology used in physical education syllabi changed. In the 1970s instructions became more about helping individuals realize the potential of their bodies, a concept that some students feel is worth revisiting today.

Today, physical education remains a graduation requirement, though student opinions on it are mixed. “I think we should just have the option of going to the gym,” said Divna Scepanovic ’22. “I wish clocking in hours at the gym was an option so that I could fulfill the requirement [on] my own time.”

Kareena Joshipura ’22 agrees. “I would love it if student orgs counted as P.E.,” she said. “I am a part of Jhumka [the Bollywood-hip-hop fusion team] and we practice for six hours a week. Dancing for so many hours during the week is pretty intense, and this should count as P.E.”

Despite divided opinions, the P.E. helps push students towards Mary Lyon’s original goals. “[The P.E. requirement] is very good because […] it helps me improve [both] my mental and physical fitness,” said Kesshni Bhasiin ’22.