By Peggy Miller Francke
May 10, 2012
The multi-talented sports champion Eleonora Sears died four years before Title IX became law in 1972, but no one better embodied and advanced the idea of this empowering legislation than the woman who earned the nickname of the “Universal Female Athlete.”
Born in 1881, Eleonora “Eleo” Sears burst forth from the Victorian-era constraints that restricted women to lives that were narrow, subordinate and safe. Eleo came to the battle well armed. Her social credentials — the daughter of one of Boston’s founding families and a great-great granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson — were impeccable.
She was blonde and strikingly blue-eyed, and she looked regal in evening dress. These attributes made her habit of disemboweling entrenched standards more palatable to her social circle and to the world at large.
Despite these advantages, Eleo needed a spine of steel to withstand the snipes and jabs directed at her by pockets of self-appointed moralists. Eleo braved condemnation as one of the first women to wear trousers in public and to ride a horse astride. She well knew that riding sidesaddle was unnatural and unsafe and that no man would dream of doing it. After being turned away for years, Eleo Sears became the first woman to play polo on a men’s team, a mission accomplished in California circa 1910.
She was also a long-distance swimmer; she boxed and played golf; she ice skated and raced yachts. Eleo became a nationally-ranked tennis player by rolling up her sleeves and discarding the floppy bonnets and lace that hindered female players early in the twentieth century. In 1928, Eleo became the first female national squash champion, and she badgered Harvard officials until they opened their excellent squash courts to other women players. She excelled in 19 different sports, making her America’s most versatile female athlete.
Her precedent-setting feats were not confined to sports venues. Eleo was one of the first women to fly an airplane and drive an automobile, and she was the first woman on record to fight a speeding ticket. Never one to shy away from controversy, Eleo got herself arrested in 1910 for smoking in the lobby of Boston’s Copley Square Hotel, not because she liked cigarettes, but because the hotel permitted men to smoke there undisturbed.
In 1912, Eleo hiked 110 miles down the California coast. Two men had accomplished this feat in an impressive 36.5 hours and they boasted that no woman could do it in under 55 hours. Eleo completed the trek in 39 hours. During the 1920s, Eleo was celebrated for a series of shorter hikes, which were also inspired by bets against her. These super-marathon walks between Boston, Newport and Providence, RI, brought Eleo national renown and sparked walking contests across the country.
Long-distance walking was not a new female pursuit. Some 40 years earlier, hundreds of
working-class women in the U.S. and Europe earned their living by speed walking around tracks before thousands of enthusiastic, paying customers. Though several of these professional “pedestriennes” were admired for their endurance, most were marginalized as “brazen and immoral burlesque entertainers.”
But by the 1920s, public opinion was more welcoming. It was the heyday for stunts like marathon dancing and flag-pole sitting. The public embraced Eleo’s record-setting walks as beacons of spiritual uplift and healthy living. Her hikes were front page news and radio broadcasts tracked her progress. Eleo’s version of “pedestrianism” moved the New York Times to compare her to the huntress Diana, and the paper’s 1925 Christmas editorial praised her valiant pursuit of “the one universal art to save the world from physical degeneracy.”
Eleo Sears proved to be an ideal champion of female equality. Though her actions spoke for themselves, her public pronouncements in support of athletic opportunities for women were agreeable in tone, but always firm and consistent.
Her abundant athletic skills and emotional daring upended convention and threatened the social order, but those shocks were cushioned by her irreproachable background and by a chorus of sports reporters who rated her “extremely handsome.” Because she could be admired as “a busy and tireless example” of the up-to-date modern woman, Eleo Sears exemplified the type of woman that other women aspired to be, and, thereby, she hastened their demand for resources equal to those awarded to men.
Following her death at age 86 in 1968, Eleonora Sears was elected to many halls of fame, including the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the National Show Jumping Hall of Fame, the Squash Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. Life magazine included Eleo in its list of the most remarkable American women in the nation’s 200 years in a special 1976 anniversary edition. She had never sought inclusion or recognition on the national stage merely because she was a woman, but because she knew she was capable and could get the job done.
On the 40th anniversary of Title IX, Eleo, most certainly, would have applauded its key role in leveling the playing field for women. Then she would have said in her typically blunt fashion that having to make a law about something that was just fair play and common sense was a damn shame.