Adjusting Swedish gymnastics to the female nature: Discrepancies in the gendering of girls’ physical education in the mid-nineteenth century

Johannes Westberg

Abstract


During the nineteenth century, Swedish gymnastics became one of the main models of physical education in the Western world. The purpose of this article is to explore how Swedish gymnastics was adjusted to the female body and mind in the mid-nineteenth century. Using handbooks published by the Swedish educationalist Anton Santesson as an empirical starting point, this article shows how the relationship between gender and gymnastics was complicated and exhibited significant discrepancies. In part, Swedish gymnastics was marked by a one-sex model of gender differences, which meant that gymnastics was perceived as a method for catering to the deficiencies and weaknesses of the feminine nature, in an attempt to make girls and young women more similar to boys. Swedish gymnastics had, nevertheless, vital elements of a two-sex model, according to which gymnastics was supposed to realise the true feminine nature of girls. Following this line of thought, Santesson claimed that, since gymnastics merely followed the laws of the body, it could not make girls more like boys. Santesson’s vision of gymnastics also included disciplinary mechanisms, such as the partitioning of space, which were gender neutral. Apart from presenting insights into the ambiguous and contradictory notions of gender in Swedish girls’ gymnastics, this article thus also raises questions regarding whether other models of physical education were marked by similar discrepancies during the nineteenth century. 


Keywords


Swedish gymnastics; physical education; gender; discipline; history of education

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References


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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14516/ete.162

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