The mother of women’s sports at Penn

In 1921, Margaret Katherine Majer became the first coach of women’s athletics teams at Penn. She is recognized as the founder of women’s sports at the University.

Margaret Katherine Majer circa 1975. (Image: University Archives and Records Center)

Margaret Katherine Majer, then a recent graduate of Temple University, was hired by Penn in February of 1921 as the second instructor in physical education for women at the University’s College for Women, succeeding Ethel Loring. In her role, Majer (pronounced Mayor) taught gym classes for two hours each day at the Kingsessing Playground and Gymnasium at 49th Street and Chester Avenue. Although only given elective credit, 50 young women showed up.

Majer, a standout swimmer at Temple, was also the first coach of women’s athletics teams at Penn. She organized and trained a women’s basketball team and scheduled the University’s first intercollegiate competitions for women.

The basketball team played eight opponents in 1921, including Bryn Mawr College, Drexel, Sherwood, and Temple.

“In our inexperience, we got beaten several times, but we’ve got the material and those teams had better look to their laurels next year,” reported the 1921 edition of the Women’s Yearbook.

The biggest game of the season was the Sophomore-Freshman game, “a scrappy and well-fought” contest that the sophomores won by a few points.

Majer also developed women’s tennis and softball teams at Penn.

Inspired by Majer, women undergraduates at the University formed a Women’s Athletic Association. Membership was $1 and the funds collected went toward the construction of two tennis courts at 34th and Walnut streets.

“We never could have financed them if it had not been for the interest of Miss Majer, who tracked down a contractor to do the work for a sum within our reach,” the Women’s Yearbook said.

The Kingsessing Gymnasium at 49th Street and Chester Avenue, where women students used to play sports. (Image: University Archives and Records Center)

Born in Germany, Majer moved to Philadelphia in her youth and grew up in the Strawberry Mansion section of the city.

In 1924, she married John B. (Jack) Kelly, an oarsman and Olympic goal medalist who went on to become a multimillionaire bricklaying and construction magnate. They resided in Philadelphia’s East Falls section and had four children: Margaret (Peggy), Jack, Jr., Grace, and Elizabeth Anne (Lizanne).

Jack, Jr. graduated from Penn in 1950, was an Olympic medalist like his father, and served on the Philadelphia City Council from 1967-79 (he died of a heart attack in 1985; Kelly Drive is named in his honor). Lizanne graduated from Penn in 1955, where she was captain of the varsity hockey team, and worked in philanthropy. Grace became an Academy Award-winning actress and, later, princess of Monaco. She died in a car crash in 1982.

Majer passed away on Jan. 6, 1990. She was 91.