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WOMEN'S SPORTS in New Jersey

The definitive history.

New Jersey’s unique mix of urban, suburban and rural living places has defined the state’s personality and culture for generations. It has also exerted considerable influence on the history and character of women’s sports. Whereas traditional men’s sports—both team and individual—were well-established in the Garden State by the early 1900s, women’s sports took longer to blossom for several reasons.

First, sports participation was largely a function of leisure time. Young women in New Jersey, particularly in working-class homes, did not have much leisure time. The few free hours they might have during a typical week were usually devoted to sharpening their domestic skills, or focused JulietteAtkinsonon artistic or literary interests. Second, athletic women were considered un-feminine—particularly by athletic men, who found them physically (and probably sexually) threatening. Third, women were discouraged from attending most sports competitions because of the foul language, drinking and wagering that went on among spectators. It is difficult to become passionate about playing a sport you have never actually seen.

It is not at all surprising that, given these cultural obstacles, the first great female athletes to emerge from the Garden State came from wealthy families. They had lots of leisure time, they didn’t care much what some imaginary future husband might think of them, and they were exposed to “upper-class” sports such as golf and tennis among the many social events they attended. Girls with extra energy to burn off—and a competitive streak—had ample opportunity to try their hand at serious sports.

Women were playing grasscourt tennis competitively in New Jersey in the 1880s at exclusive clubs and private estates. The 1893 U.S. National Women’s Championships final, held in Newport, RI was contested between Aline Terry and Augusta Schultz, both of whom were born in New Jersey. Juliette Atkinson (right), born in Rahway, described Terry as a “tiger” on the court. Atkinson would win three U.S. singles titles in the 1890s. Her main rival was Bessie Moore, who grew up in Ridgewood. Moore captured four U.S. singles titles. Helen Homans of Englewood was the U.S. singles champion in 1906 and a top player for a dozen years, sweeping all three New Jersey state titles (singles, doubles and mixed doubles) in 1911.

Golf did not require the aggressiveness and physicality of tennis, but it drew more than its fair share of the fairer sex in the early years of the 20th century. Most clubs either set aside specific days where women had the course to themselves, and held annual women’s tournaments. Courses typically had three sets of tees, with white tees providing the shortest distance to the hole. These were created with beginners, junior golfers and women in mind, but became known somewhat derogatorily as “ladies tees.” The Women’s Amateur Championship—the third-oldest golf championship in America—began in 1895 and was held in New Jersey at the Morris County Golf Club in 1896. One of the leading figures in women’s golf during the 1920s and 1930s was Maureen Orcutt, who was runner-up at the 1927 U.S Amateur. Orcutt, who lived in Englewood, won more than 60 titles during her career and was just the second female sportswriter for The New York Times. She lived her later years in Haworth.

Sabie2copyNew Jersey women from more diverse backgrounds became active in significant numbers in a variety of sports during the 1920s. There were several forces at work here. Attitudes toward athletic women had become more liberal and schools in the state began to value physical education for girls. Prohibition had removed alcohol from the equation (in theory, if not in practice) at places like bowling alleys, which had been largely off-limits to women. And, most importantly, the Golden Age of Sports was in full swing, turning athletes like Sonja Henie (figure skating) and Gertrude Ederle (Swimming) into international superstars and creating the first female “sports idols” since Annie Oakley.

Team sports like basketball and softball began forming women’s clubs around the state. Several top players in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League fell in love with the sport growing up in New Jersey during this era. Women’s gymnastics got their start in New Jersey thanks to the German Turvereins in Newark and other cities. Newark also hosted several major track and field events in the 1920s and 1930s. Hometown girl Camille Sabie (left) smashed all kinds of records and drew more than 20,000 fans to a 1922 meet in Weequahic Park. At the 1931 AAU Championships in Newark, a cocky young Texas teenager won three events and became a household name: Babe Didrikson.

The postwar era saw an explosion of sports participation by girls and young women across the country. In the northeast it fueled rapid growth in bowling leagues, competitive swimming and diving, figure skating, field hockey and—with the coming of Title IX in the 1970s—soccer, gymnastics, ice hockey, rowing, fencing and several other college and Olympic sports. No longer a playground for the elite—although some sports can be quite expensive—women’s athletics has become an important element in the diverse, dynamic and ever-changing culture of the Garden State.

Click HERE to browse through 100-plus bios of New Jersey’s greatest female athletes!


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