GWU, Girls & Guns:
Women’s Collegiate Rifle Team Dominates League For Decades
Washington D.C. has absolutely seen its fair share of defining moments over the years, but the history major in me can’t help but wonder how many important (yet smaller) historical cliff-notes sail under the radar. Of these many rarely recognized details, my personal favorite is the legacy of George Washington University’s nearly unbeatable women’s rifle team from the 1920s and 1930s. Most would be very surprised to learn that GW had women’s athletics during this era, let alone one involving a gun. Despite their humble beginnings, these local D.C. women ultimately proved pivotal in paving the way for future female athletes and the women’s sport as a whole.
Of course, timing and opportunity is everything. At the time, the nation was heavily divided on the issue of women in athletics; some even argued that physical education for ladies was completely unnecessary. Even though track or tennis may seem more fitting for females of the day, women with marksmanship skills were believed to also have respectable feminine qualities as well. The sport’s popularity spread quickly and within a few years, over 300 girls had learned to shoot at Business High School alone. (Now known as Roosevelt H.S.) Other Washington high schools also caught onto the trend, eventually leading to inter-school competitions. According to the GWU Archives, the women were motivated “by the fact that rifle was ‘the only athletic interest in which the girls of the high schools [were] permitted to compete as an interscholastic activity.'”
Some of these women were especially skilled shooters and went on the be founding members of the GWU rifle team in the 1920s. The rest, is college sports history. These ladies were the Connecticut women’s basketball team of their day. The nearly unbeatable team secured five national championships within ten years and remained a prominent program until the sport’s eventual decline in the 1960s. Most notably, they were also amongst the first females to earn national recognition for their skill and athleticism — ultimately changing the perception of women, sports and physical education.
An Excerpt From The GWU Archives
“Starting from little or no experience, the Central High girls took to the sport with enthusiasm and stuck with it even after most of them were accepted to George Washington University in the early 1920’s. Captain Kay Edmonston and team manager Sophia Waldman, both former Central High shooters, were instrumental in starting the GWU women’s rifle team in 1922. Likely building off of the resources of the newly minted men’s rifle team of 1921, the girls organized practices, recruited fellow Central High graduates and began training the sport within the university. They nourished a competitive spirit in early years when competition of any sort was hard to come by. The first ever intercollegiate women’s match with girls firing shoulder to shoulder was staged between GWU and Maryland University on January 20th, 1923. Later in the same season the GWU team became the first women’s team to travel to Camp Perry, Ohio for the NRA national matches. Kay Edmonston was given the honor of being first to shoot on a team of DC civilians that competed for and ultimately won the NRA’s Caswell trophy. During their first season the team won every match they competed in. The growing popularity of shooting sports and the unprecedented successes of women’s teams like GWU’s led the NRA to create a new championship competition for college women in 1924.
Coach Stokes believed that women possessed just as much talent and potential in handling firearms as men did. The women’s rifle team consistently performed at or above the level of their male counterparts, making even skeptical Army officers witnessing their competitions admit that “it is being daily proved that girls can shoot and shoot exceedingly straight.” They were described as the “clever rifle shots,” “experts,” talented and strong young women. The universal admiration for their athletic skill, the overwhelming support from their audiences and the press, was almost certainly a sign of changing times. The 1920’s were an era of expanding freedoms for women, including the newly won right to vote and increasing opportunities for employment and education.
The GW girls proved themselves again and again. After their big win in 1924, they took second place at the intercollegiate championships two years in a row. In 1927 they made a comeback, taking first place at nationals with the highest score yet fired in the history of the competition – 2,991 points out of a possible 3,000. On top of their game, after five years of competition they had only ever suffered two defeats. Another national championship win in 1928 proved that although the original cohort of shooters had all graduated, the team was still going strong. Walter Stokes, undoubtedly a contributor to the team’s successes over these years, did more than just train an excellent group of shooters; he ultimately taught the girls to teach themselves. After his departure in 1928, coaching was taken over by Betty Clark and Helen Taylor, two former team members and champion shooters in their own right. Two more NRA championship wins for the team in 1929 and 1930 prove that the women were able tutors. After a four year championship winning streak the group became famous nationwide. In 1930 the girls were featured in a Fox Movietone newsreel film that was viewed by millions of Americans.”
[Excerpt + photos via]