Women's Athletics at Western Illinois
Courtesy: Western Illinois Athletics  
Release: Wednesday 07/01/2009
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Courtesy: WIU Visual Productions Center
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Women have been competing on the campus of Western Illinois University since the early 1900s. President Henninger organized the first athletic board in 1903, and after the first season of women’s basketball, 1904, the team quickly became the most integral part of the athletics program during the early years, gaining the most interest from the student body and playing outside colleges to earn money for the men’s track suits, basketball uniforms and other equipment.

During the early 1920s, shortly after the university obtained national accreditation as a teacher’s college, both the men and women competed equally, with all sports programs using the nickname “The Fighting Teachers.”

Beginning in the 1930s and 40s, female student-athletes organized “play days” and “field days” with other nearby colleges. Groups of women from several colleges would convene for a day of competition. Western’s W.A.A. (Women’s Athletic Association) hosted other colleges in these “sports days” and put on other events for the university’s women. These competitions allowed for Western’s first women’s track and field, tennis, volleyball, gymnastics and baseball teams.

When men and women began returning home from the war in the 1950s, competition levels on college campuses began to change. The men’s teams continued to compete with coaches and intercollegiate schedules while the women were not allowed to play as a collegiate team against other schools. The name of the W.A.A. was changed to the Women’s Recreation Association, but its function remained the same - to provide Western’s women with sports days, intramurals and social events. With the formation of the Extramural Club, sports days changed around this time. Competitions used to be a mixture of girls from each school. They now consisted of 5-6 schools providing teams that competed against each other in softball, field hockey and basketball. The extramural program remained stable between 1957-67. Teams were limited to 6-8 games each season and players were coached. Intramural programs continued to be expanded.

In 1971 the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) was formed and in 1972 Title IX was enacted, enabling women’s athletics to become an official function of the physical education department. With this improvement in governance came many state championships and national tournament appearances for the Western Illinois women. Western’s first Department of Women’s Intercollegiate Athletics was officially established in 1974, but three years later the female student-athletes were still without a nickname.

In July 1977 a county-wide nickname contest was held to establish an identity for Western Illinois’ female student-athletes. From more than 100 entries, women athletes and coaches voted for the nickname “Westerwinds,” helping fuel an increasingly popular national climate of women’s intercollegiate athletics.

Western Illinois became a charter member of the Gateway Collegiate Athletic Conference, a women’s conference in the Midwest, and at the start of the 1982-83 school year, women’s athletics at Western Illinois was granted membership in the NCAA, thus ending their affiliation with the former national governing body Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. As national governing bodies continued to streamline, the Westerwinds athletics department enjoyed accomplishments on a national level.

In the late 1980s, the men’s and women’s athletics departments were unified into one department, and in 1992, the Westerwinds were invited to join their male counterparts as members of the Mid-Continent Conference.

After the turn of the century, with the number of sports offered for men and women being equal, attention turned to creating a gender neutral athletics environment. Significant improvements have been made in recent years to marketing and publicity efforts, salaries, facilities and other resources. In 2009, the men and women again began using a unified nickname, “The Fighting Leathernecks.”

Sources: The Sequel, The Western Courier, The Macomb Journal, The Purple and the Gold by Dr. Victor Hicken, A First Century by John E. Hallwas.

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