Encyclopedia Womannica

Explorers & Contenders: Alice Milliat

Episode Summary

Alice Milliat (1884-1957) was an incredible athlete. Her advocacy ushered in change for women around the world, when establishment leaders in sports refused to make change themselves. Women who have competed in the Olympics have this steadfast contender to thank for it.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

Follow Wonder Media Network:

Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan, and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today we’re talking about another incredible athlete. Her advocacy ushered in real change for women around the world, when the establishment leaders in sports refused to make change themselves. Women who have competed in the Olympics have this steadfast contender to thank for it: we’re talking about Alice Milliat!

Alice Milliat was born in 1884 and grew up in Nantes, France. There, she started her career as a teacher before moving to England and getting married. But after her husband passed away in 1908, her life changed course.  She traveled the world learning languages and became a successful translator.

The start of World War I drew Alice back to France where she remained after the war’s conclusion. 

The period following World War I was full of great social change. Gender equality and suffrage were the hot topics in France’s national conversation, and around the world. Feminism was on the rise. It was with this backdrop that Alice appeared on the public scene.

Alice was passionate about athletics, especially rowing, and believed that sports were a good method for building confidence in girls. So, in 1919, she officially requested that the International Olympic Committee allow women to participate in track and field. At the time, women could only participate in a small handful of low-impact sports. But the IOC refused. 

After all, the IOC historically had a highly traditional view of women’s role in society. The second president of the organization said:  “I do not approve of the participation of women in public competitions. In the Olympic Games, their primary role should be to crown the victors.”

Frustrated by the rejection and with the momentum of the women’s movement behind her, Alice created the Fédération Sportive Féminine Internationale, or FSFI, in 1921. The following year, the FSFI launched the first Women’s Olympic Games in Paris. Women were allowed to compete in all kinds of competitions, including the 1000-meter race and shot put throw. Thirty-eight countries were affiliated with the organization.

Male-dominated sporting organizations like the IOC and the International Association of Athletic Federations were displeased with Alice’s independent movement, to say the least. In 1926, the FSFI struck a deal where they agreed to follow International Association of Athletic Federations rules in exchange for adding women’s track and field to the next Olympic games.

In those games, women were finally allowed to run an 800-meter race, the longest distance yet -- but the event caused controversy for a reason that feels unheard of today. Spectators were shocked to see the female competitors appear sweaty and out of breath after running their race. One newspaper headline called the racers “Eleven Wretched Women.” The event was perceived to be too strenuous for women, and it was subsequently banned until 1960. This controversy demonstrates the state of women’s sports in the eyes of the world at the time, and exactly what Alice was up against.

The FSFI continued to hold women-only sporting events, drawing thousands of spectators. Between 1922 and 1934, they organized four events involving hundreds of athletes.

At age 52, Alice announced that she intended to retire from her position at the forefront of sports politics by the end of the year. However, the International Association of Athletic Federations was tired of Alice’s competing Olympic events, and proposed that it would ban its members from FSFI events. In a final act of advocacy, Alice traveled to Sweden and addressed the organization, calling once again for women to be fully included in the official Olympic games.

Her speech helped, but in 1936, the International Association of Athletic Federations voted to take over women’s athletics, thereby killing the FSFI. They did agree to add three more women’s events to the Olympics, bringing the total to nine.

Alice Milliat passed away in Paris in 1957. Though the FSFI dissolved in the end, her groundbreaking impact on women’s sports is undeniable. She gave hundreds of women opportunities to live out dreams that otherwise would have been impossible!

All month, we’re talking about Explorers and Contenders. Tune in tomorrow for a status-quo-shattering explorer! For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter, Womannica Weekly. 

You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!