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The History Of Cheerleading: It Was All-Male Until The 20th Century

Sports History | August 24, 2019

Yale male cheerleaders performing a routine, circa 1925. Source: (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)

Today, cheerleading is very much a female-dominated sport. Although male cheerleaders are not uncommon at the competitive and collegiate level, boys who express an interest in cheering in high school are looked upon as an oddity, to put it politely. Maybe that attitude would change if more people knew that the first cheerleaders were men. In fact, cheerleading was an all-male endeavor until the 1920s. Here is a brief history of the macho world of early cheerleading. 

Fans cheering on their football team. Source: (luckyshow.org)

An Offshoot of Football

Football and cheerleading went hand-in-hand in the 19th century as much as it does today, if maybe not so literally. In the mid-1800s, the sport of American football was still in the developmental stages, having split from its rugby roots. For such a new sport, however, it already had plenty of fans, particularly on college campuses. The first college football game was played on November 6, 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton. Students from both schools came to the event to root for their team. The fan base of rowdy, cheering students became a staple of football games. 

Yell leaders, or cheer leaders, were male college students. Source: (theboobirds.com)

The Princeton Cheer

Within a few years of that first college football game, the students at Princeton had developed what came to be known as the "Princeton Cheer," which included the famous "Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Shhhh, Boom, Ahhh!" Fans broke into this string of nonsense to celebrate touchdowns or rally the players to victory, and really, is it any weirder than any other sporting tradition?

Minnesota's Johnny Campbell is credited with being the first officially school sanctioned cheerleader. Source: (triviazoids.wordpress.com)

The Princeton Cheer Moves West

In 1884, a recent Princeton graduate named Thomas Peebles relocated to Minnesota. He brought with him fond memories of the Princeton Cheer, and he was bewildered to find that not only did none of the football fans at the University of Minnesota know the chant, they didn't know about chanting at football games, period. They needed a leader to help them cheer. A cheer leader, if you will.

Although the term "cheerleader" had been used by Princeton folks in the past, Peebles is the one who brought this concept to fruition in Minnesota. In 1898, the University of Minnesota appointed one of its students, Johnny Campbell, to lead the fans is chanting the Minnesota cheer, which went "Rah, Rah, Rha! Shhi-u-mah, Hoo-Rah! Hoo-Rah! Varsity! Varsity! Varsity! Minn-E-So-Tah!" If you can't immediately spot the difference between that and the Princeton cheer, that's fine and normal. Listen, they only had so many syllables to work with.

Cheerleading...a manly sport. Source: (thesocietypages.org)

Cheerleading Is Born

Most sports historians agree that cheerleading was officially born on November 2, 1898 in Minnesota. Realizing the value of having a designated person to direct the crowds' cheers but before completely nailing down their branding, the University of Minnesota appointed six male students to be "yell leaders." Over time, they created more chants and also began encouraging spectators to add gestures such as claps and fist pumps.

Taking cheerleading to new heights. Source: (thesocietypages.org)

A Cheerleader Fraternity

The University of Minnesota formed the very first cheerleading fraternity in 1903. Gamma Sigma was hugely influential to the burgeoning practice, introducing such accoutrements as megaphones, drums, whistles, pom-poms, and pennants that are now standard elements of cheerleading routines. They even helped to organize the first homecoming event, which took place in 1910 at the University of Illinois. Strides were being made in the world of cheerleading, but it was still a man's world. 

It wasn't until the late 1930s that female cheerleaders were commonplace. Source: (library.osu.edu)

Another Innovation From the University of Minnesota

The University of Minnesota continued to act as pioneers of cheerleading when they made the next big step in the field: allowing female participants. In 1923, the university agreed to let female students join the cheer team. This innovation was slow to catch on at other colleges. For nearly a decade, the only female cheerleaders could be found at the University of Minnesota. This is evidenced by the handbooks and other texts of the time, which often referred to cheerleaders as "fellows" and "chaps."

World War II opened more opportunities for female cheerleaders. Source: (blog.ancestry.com)

World War II Created a Shortage of Cheerleaders

When World War II broke out, most college-aged men were drafted into the military, causing a sharp decline in male college enrollment. With few men left in college, traditionally male roles—like that of cheerleader—were assigned to female students. This opened the door for female athletes to take over cheerleading and turn it from a spirit club into a sport. (Although the debate still rages about whether cheerleading should be considered a sport, it should be noted that cheerleading will make its Olympic debut as a provisional sport at the 2020 Tokyo games.)

Competitive cheer combines stunting, dancing, and tumbling. Source: (championcheercentral.com)

Cheerleading: It's a Girl Thing

In the 1940s, there were few women's sports, so cheerleading provided an opportunity for young girls and women to participate in athletics. Gymnastics and dance moves like cartwheels and backflips were added to cheer routines.

Things being what they are, however, audiences were much more interested in these women's legs than the innovative things they were doing with them. Skirts got shorter. Sweaters got tighter. Tryouts were—and still are, in many areas—more about looks, popularity, and sex appeal than skill.

In the last few decades, however, that's begun to change. With the rise of competitive cheerleading and its focus on high-energy dancing, daring stunts, and elite-level tumbling, cheerleaders of every gender have moved from the sidelines onto the competition mats, as will be seen at the Tokyo Olympics next year. 

Tags: cheerleading history | football history

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.