Playing with the Boys: Early Women’s Collegiate Rugby at Vassar College

By Hanna Stasiuk, Vassar '20


In 1895, illustrator Charles Dana Gibson published the latest version of his famous Gibson Girl drawings. This drawing, titled “The Coming Game: Vassar Versus Yale” depicts three strong, athletic-looking Vassar College women charging down a rugby pitch, determined to stop a team of Yale men from scoring. [1]



Although it may sound counterintuitive, a Vassar rugby player was the perfect subject for a Gibson Girl, the embodiment of the ideal late-nineteenth-century woman. Her status as a Vassar student implied that she was intellectual and well-educated, someone who could satisfy an upper-middle-class husband and find personal fulfillment in domestic life. She was also youthful and athletic, qualities considered attractive for a woman of her time. While scholars believe that Gibson’s drawing does not depict a real-life rugby match, its representation of Vassar women playing rugby speaks to the perceived athletic and gender environments of the college. Vassar was a place where Gibson imagined women partaking in sport, even sports as physically demanding as rugby.


Visions of early women’s rugby were also prominent at other colleges. An illustration from the early twentieth-century depicts women from Yale and Princeton squaring off on a rugby pitch, looking free, athletic, and strong. [2] It is possible that, like the Gibson Girl drawing, this illustration does not represent an actual athletic contest. Still though, artists envisioned collegiate women as rugby players, and their visions must have stemmed in part from real-life events and attitudes.


As the twentieth century progressed and attitudes towards women’s athletics evolved, rugby became increasingly accessible to women on their college campuses. The Women’s Rights Movement of the 1960s spurred a feminist consciousness across the United States. In terms of athletics, the movement inspired the formation of several women’s collegiate club teams in a variety of sports. [3] College women at this time longed to show off their athletic skills, or at the very least, viewed athletics as a means of socializing.


The desire to socialize motivated a group of Vassar women to form a rugby team at the college in 1966. As coach and former Professor of History at Vassar Anthony Wohl explained, a group of students in Josselyn House, the dorm where he served as an advisor, longed for a way to meet men. When they turned to him for suggestions, Wohl, an avid rugby fan and former wing at the Rosslyn Park Rugby Club in London, jokingly proposed they invite men from other colleges to campus to play rugby against them. [4] The women took his proposal seriously and hit the pitch, inviting Wohl to be their coach. [5]


After months of learning the rules and scrimmaging, the Vassar team, affectionately named the “Joss Josselers” after their beloved dorm, hosted its first “match” on May 1, 1966 against Williams College men’s rugby. [6] The match proved to be quite the spectacle, drawing a large crowd and taking a unique form.


Coach Wohl, who doubled as the match’s referee, devised a set of bizarre rules in order to account for the gender difference between the teams. As captain of the Vassar team Dorothy Webb explained to Vassar’s student-run newspaper The Miscellany News, the rules “have to be altered greatly for play with boys." [7] Wohl’s rule modifications included allowing substitutions at halftime, eliminating extra points, and ordering that players throw the ball after taking twenty steps. Wohl also advised his players to distract the Williams team with cartwheels and made the Williams men take off their shoes in order to decrease their speed. [8] The match turned out to be fun and slightly absurd as a consequence.


In the end, Vassar came out on top with a score of 22 to 18. [9] The Vassar rugby players also achieved their social goals. Members of both teams went out to a pub for drinks after the match, and spent the night laughing and celebrating together. [10] Some Williams players enjoyed themselves so much that they stayed on the Vassar campus for an entire week. [11]


Vassar remained “undefeated” in its following two rugby seasons, triumphing in matches against various men’s collegiate teams, including Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. [12] The college’s rugby program doubled in size over this short time period despite the disapproval of Vassar’s Dean of Residence of women playing rugby, fielding both a freshmen and upperclassmen squad after its first year. [13] The rugby players on these teams met plenty of men during their matches; one Vassar rugby player even went on to marry a rugby player from Yale. [14]


Vassar 2018-19 Team - Photo Credit: Carlisle Stockton (http://stocktonphoto.com)

Vassar’s rugby team phased out after 1968, because coach Wohl went on a one-year sabbatical and several members of the team graduated. [15] However, a Vassar student named Heather Haaga organized some women’s rugby activities on campus in the 1970s, intending them, like the 1966-68 team intended, as gimmicks for meeting men. [16] It was not until 1980 that Vassar looked beyond this goal and formed a rugby squad with the sole intention of playing the sport. The 1980 team marked the official start of today’s highly successful Vassar women's rugby program.


The timeline of early Vassar women’s rugby matches up with the timelines of other colleges, some of which also fielded unofficial rugby squads in the mid-twentieth-century before founding their official programs in the 1970s and 80s. Many of the early squads consisted of the girlfriends of male rugby players, who competed at halftime during their boyfriend’s matches. [17]


Early women’s rugby at Vassar and other colleges reveals the paternalistic roots of the sport. Women could only play rugby if men permitted and supervised them. In the case of Vassar, rugby served as a way for women to meet men, a promotion of traditional romantic relationships rather than women’s empowerment. Vassar’s rule modifications also unintentionally undermined women’s athletic abilities, emphasizing supposed gender limitations instead of women’s skills and talents. Finally, the resistance of Vassar’s Dean of Residence to women’s rugby evidences the efforts of authority figures to undermine the sport. Not everyone supported the idea of a physical, competitive female rugby player.


Oshana Reich '18 - Photo Credit: Carlisle Stockton (http://stocktonphoto.com)

Yet, Vassar’s early rugby team was ground-breaking in many ways. The early Vassar rugby players may have legitimized rugby on campus, helping fellow students to envision themselves as athletes who could compete in a physical game. Their presence may have even played a small part in inspiring the creation of Vassar’s official rugby team. Even if it wasn’t this impactful, Vassar’s team exposed its members to a new game and provided them with a unique opportunity to represent their dorm as athletes. Rugby player Missie Rennie reflected that “I barely remember the ‘meet the boys’ thing... I remember it was just fun to learn about a different sport that most of us knew nothing about. Team sports were limited at that time...and your house… was the center of your world.” [18]


So were the Vassar women and their counterparts at other colleges the pillars of women’s collegiate rugby? Maybe not. However, the interest of these women in the sport reflected a changing athletic landscape in the United States, in which women were not relegated to the sidelines of rugby matches.


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Hanna Stasiuk graduated from Vassar College this past spring with her degree in history and a minor in educational studies. Her historical interests include sports history, Irish history, and twentieth-century American women's history. Hanna hails from Ipswich, MA and plans to earn her secondary school teaching certificate this year. Her goal is to teach high-school history.


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[1] Charles Dana Gibson, “The Coming Game: Vassar Versus Yale,” illustration, 1895.

[2] “The Boston Girls: Yale & Princeton Lady Football Players,” illustration.

[3] Bonnie J. Hultsrand, “The Growth of Collegiate Women’s Sports: The 1960s,” Journal of

Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance 64, no. 3 (1993): 42, https://doi.org/10.1080/07303084.1993.1060672.

[4] Anthony Wohl (former Vassar rugby coach), interviewed by author, e-mail message to author, September 21, 2020.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Joss 22, Williams 18 in VC Rugby Opener,” The Miscellany News (Poughkeepsie, NY), May 4, 1966.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Missie Rennie (former Vassar rugby player), interviewed by author, e-mail message to author, September 21, 2020.

[11] Anthony Wohl (former Vassar rugby coach), interviewed by author, e-mail message to author, September 21, 2020.

[12] “Joss Rugby Team Challenges, Defeats Five Men’s Colleges,” The Miscellany News (Poughkeepsie, NY), May 8, 1968.

[13] Anthony Wohl (former Vassar rugby coach), interviewed by author, e-mail message to author, September 21, 2020; “Joss Josslers Swamp Princeton in Rugby’s First Season Match,” The Miscellany News (Poughkeepsie, NY), October 5, 1966.

[14] Missie Rennie (former Vassar rugby player), interviewed by author, e-mail message to author, September 21, 2020.

[15] Anthony Wohl (former Vassar rugby coach), interviewed by author, e-mail message to author, September 21, 2020.

[16] John Mihaly (former Vassar student), interviewed by author, e-mail message to author, September 22, 2020.

[17] Kerri Heffernan (Chair, Women’s Rugby Coaches and Referees Association), interviewed by author, e-mail message to author, September 22, 2020.

[18] Kerri Heffernan (Chair, Women’s Rugby Coaches and Referees Association), interviewed by author, e-mail message to author, September 22, 2020.


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© 2019 US Women's Rugby Foundation. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2019 U.S. Women's Rugby Foundation. All Rights Reserved.