Shannon L. Walsh

May 19, 2022

Eugenics and Physical Culture Performance in the Progressive Era

Watch Whiteness Workout

Palgrave MacMillan 2020

Today we are joined by Dr. Shannon Walsh, Associate Professor of Theatre History, and author of Eugenics and Physical Culture Performance in the Progressive Era: Watch Whiteness Workout (Palgrave MacMillan, 2020). In our conversation, we discussed the origins of women’s physical culture in the United States, the role that physical culture reformers played in producing femininity and whiteness, and the possibilities for anti-racist and anti-sexist sport to reconceptualize the white supremist roots of American athleticism.

In Eugenics and Physical Culture Performance in the Progressive Era, Walsh traces the beginnings of reform era physical culture, paying special attention to the way that physical culturists attempted to shape women’s bodies. She argues that their efforts hinged on using exercise to produce femininity and whiteness and that they prefigured the larger eugenic movements aimed at perpetuating the white race later in the 20th century. In each chapter she looks at different physical culturists or physical cultural movement. Her second chapter looks at Steele MacKaye and Americanised Delsarte, a physical cultural practice that combined acting, dance and exercise. Her third chapter focuses on Dudley Allen Sargent and mimetic workouts that introduced working class motions – for example wood chopping - to middle and upper-middle class men and women at Ivy League colleges.

The fourth and fifth chapter work together to unpack the complicated position of women’s physical culture, femininity and motherhood. In chapter four, Walsh shows how Abby Shaw Mayhew and the YWCA articulated a genre of motherhood, which Walsh calls “social motherhood,” that reframed women’s exercise as domestic and maternal rather than grotesque and masculine. In the fifth chapter, Walsh examines Bernarr MacFadden – the Barnum of physical culture – to showcases the places where advertising, motherhood, and women’s exercise came into explicit contact.

Relying on a close reading of physical culture through critical theory, these main chapters trace the intersections between exercise, femininity, motherhood, race and social class, to illustrate how debates over these issues helped to produce whiteness. Whether they were in elite educational institutions in the Northeast, Midwestern metropolises like Minneapolis, or travelling around the country these experts helped to code physical culture as specifically as womanly, middle class, white, and ultimately as unremarkable.

He final body chapter, chapter six, looks at physical culture for indigenous women in three sites: the Odanah Mission School, the Model Indian School at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Unlike their white counterparts, indigenous women were not offered significant opportunities for physical exercise and if they were it was only for the purpose of assimilation. Unsurprisingly, many indigenous girls and women challenged those expectations and were successful athletes.

Walsh’s introduction and conclusion not only introduce her argument, methodology, and theoretical assumptions, they also set out the stakes for physical culture today. She asks in her conclusion, “Can the white supremacist roots of physical culture be challenged?” Her introduction raises red flags when she discusses the existence of explicitly white supremist gyms, but in her conclusion, she looks into 21st century and offers hope as community and performance based physical culture groups reimagine the possibilities of exercise in America.

Keith Rathbone is a Senior Lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He researches twentieth-century French social and cultural history. His book, entitled Sport and physical culture in Occupied France: Authoritarianism, agency, and everyday life, (Manchester University Press, 2022) examines physical education and sports in order to better understand civic life under the dual authoritarian systems of the German Occupation and the Vichy Regime. If you have a title to suggest for this podcast, please contact him at and follow him at @keithrathbone on twitter.

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Keith Rathbone

Keith Rathbone is a Senior Lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He researches twentieth-century French social and cultural history.

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