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Tilden, Winifred R.

Published onJul 30, 2021
Tilden, Winifred R.

(1880 - July 4, 1948)

Quick Facts

The first professionally-trained director of physical education for women at Iowa State, introducing competitive women’s sports. Her efforts led to the creation of the women’s gymnasium, now Forker Hall.


Winifred R. Tilden played an important role in the development of women's physical education at Iowa State Uni­versity. The daughter of George and Lydia Tilden, Ames pioneers, Winifred was born in 1880 and attended Ames schools. She then entered her mother's alma mater, Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts, graduating in 1903.

Always physically active, in 1898 while in high school, Winifred and a friend rode their bicycles to Des Moines. As an adult, Winifred was a proficient golfer and good tennis player.

In 1904, she became the first professionally-trained director of physical education for women at Iowa State College when it was a part of the Depart­ment of Speech. Her title then was "Directress of Physical Culture."

Winifred Tilden brought to the Iowa State cam­pus ideas that she had acquired through travels and observations of physical education programs in coun­tries such as England and France. She introduced the May Day pageant and May pole dances in 1911 that were to become a part of VEISHEA (a campus-wide celebration that would last until 2016) after 1922.

In 1918-1919, she was on leave to direct recre­ational programs for American soldiers in France. She served on a number of national physical education committees where she was a pioneer in advocat­ing competitive sports.

During her tenure she introduced competitive sports which in 1915 were organized as the "Girls Athletic Club." She developed a progressive cur­riculum of developmental and corrective gymnastics. She organized the Women's Athletic Association and the Women's "A" Club, which later became the “I” Club. Hockey, basketball, tennis, swimming, archery and golf were among the activities offered by the department.

Tilden's competent and enthusiastic instruction combined spontaneous recreation with definite physical benefits. Her students numbered less than a hun­dred in 1904 and in the thousands when she retired in 1944.

Until 1938, women's physical education was cen­tered in Margaret Hall, the first women's dormitory at Iowa State. The large dining hall had been converted into a well-equipped gymnasium. In 1913, the basement area was ex­panded for lockers and showers and in 1915 a swim­ming pool was added.

Tilden had presented detailed plans for a new women's building in 1925 during President R.A. Pearson's term. In 1928, President Raymond M. Hughes made the request for funds for a women's gym a priority, only to have Governor Hammill re­move the item from the appropriation.

In April of 1938, Margaret Hall was de­stroyed by a fire.

In 1939, the student enrollment at Iowa State was 7,900; 1,900 of them were women. Hockey, basketball, tennis, swimming and exercise programs had been well established in the daily schedules of Iowa State coeds.

The State Board of Education again requested funding. On April 17, 1939, the Iowa House rejected the request. The senate had acted favorably on the gym request but the house refused to recon­sider. A state representative asserted there were better places to spend the taxpayers' money than a "playhouse” for the girls on the Ames campus.

Word that the legislature was turning down the funds was an unaccept­able development in the eyes of every Iowa State coed. The Cardinal Guild, the student-elected govern­ing body, went to work. Home Economics coeds headed for the women's dorms and sororities with petitions directed to the state legislature. Their message was loud and clear: the girls in Ames were in real need of those facilities. After all, the men had had a modern gymnasium facility since 1913. The facilities that were destroyed in the 1938 fire had been barely adequate as it was.

On April 20, 1939, Tilden, her staff and three Iowa State coeds traveled to Des Moines with stacks of petitions signed by over 1,000 Iowa State women students.

The Senate approved the appropriations for the women's gym on April 21. The bill was revived in the House on April 25. Fourteen representatives spoke against, eleven spoke in favor. There was maneuvering. When the final vote was taken, the $300,000 appropriation stayed in the bill.

Winifred Tilden's dreams finally came true in 1939 when a well-designed, well-equipped women's physical education building be­came a reality. The building, dedicated in 1941, is the south unit of today's much enlarged Forker Building. After addition in the 1970s, a university publication noted,

“[Tilden’s] astute planning allowed the wing to become an integral part of the new facility 33 years later.”

Winifred Tilden died July 4, 1948, having contributed to the lives of ten college generations of Iowa State coeds. In 1997, Winifred Tilden's name was placed in Iowa State University's "Hall of Honor.”

Selected Sources

Winifred R. Tilden Papers, RS 10/7/11, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

lowa State Daily Student, March 9, 1939, p.6 "New Hopes For Women's Gym" by Rachel Roewe.

Iowa State College, Fourth Biennial Report (1915 - 1916) pp. 242-243.

Ames Tribune December 31, 1928, p. 1 "HAMMILL SWATS GYM" (headline).

Mount Holyoke College Quarterly, 1944, "Winifred R. Tilden "03" by Mary Cook Fuller.

Christian Science Monitor, March 10, 1922, “Women at Ames Enjoy Athletics”

Iowa State Daily, March 9, April 18, April 21 and April 26, 1939

Iowa State University Campus and Its Buildings, H. Summerfield Day

Telephone conversation with Gaynold Carroll Jensen, February 13, 1996

Cardinal Tails, online blog from Special Collections “In Honor of Women’s History Month: Winifred R. Tilden”, March 2018.

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