Ever wonder who was responsible for the fitness conditioning of Rosie the Riveter? Who was behind the training of 150,000 REAL WOMEN of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) during WWII? Indeed, beyond the iconic image of Rosie was “THE” Mabel Lee–an Iowa native Physical Education powerhouse who was one of the contributors and regional coordinators of the FM 35-20 W.A.C. Field Manual for Physical Training used to train these brave and noble women who answered the call of duty–and Noble Purpose. Even called by some a “maverick dynamo,” it was Mabel Lee and others who crafted the female side of fitness for our Greatest Generation.
“You must have strength. You must be able to perform with ease the heaviest tasks which you may encounter. You must be able to persist for long periods of time. This means neither ‘new’ muscles nor large muscles. It means giving the muscles you have sufficient tone and capacity to do their work. It means balanced muscle control, with each set of muscles helping the others, to make work easier.” -FM 35-20 PT (1943)
“Good posture is the reward of day-in, day-out vigilance.”
-FM 35-20 PT (1943)
Mabel Lee had a background in gymnastics and dance as well as women’s athletics. She like many from the “Golden Era” of Classical Physical Education had a “structure first” approach which began with the restorative content area of PE. The restorative arts was heavily focused on proper posture. Mabel Lee and her generation knew that to move properly, one must have proper postural structure which facilitated building optimal biomechanics. Interestingly, the “functional fitness” trend developing the last decade plus is nothing new–Mabel Lee was doing world-class functional fitness even prior to the WAC training of WWII. Respect your elders–they know something worth learning.
Shero: (she-ro) A woman who respects women’s rights and supports women’s issues (Urban Dictionary)
Mabel Lee was a champion for women’s rights too. She was the one who insisted that women be allowed to wear “knickers” or “bloomers” for exercise and revolted against what was a common practice for men to run around completely nude in male-dominated culture gymnasiums even when the women were present. She was also a driving force behind the early days of women’s basketball.
“We propose to have athletics for American women, but we propose to have them controlled by women, coached by women, chaperoned by women, officiated by women, trained by women, protected by women physicians and we say to those men of America who are not concerned with ideals, men who would like to commercialize this growing force, who seek notoriety through women’s athletics, we say ‘Hands Off!’ and we mean just what we say.”
-Mabel Lee (1925)
*Despite Mabel Lee being one of the contributors of the WAC FM 35-20 Physical Training Manual in 1943 along with other women, no females are mentioned by name. Only two males are listed–Chief of Staff G.C. Marshall, and Major General J.A. Ulio. On page one of FM 35-20, it states, “To condition your body so that it may meet every demand made of it, a course of planned exercises has been developed. It has been planned by women, for women. It recognizes your capacities. it is based upon a knowledge of the tasks you may be called upon to perform.” Mabel Lee was brilliant and a strong woman inside and out, and so were many other women from her era who contributed to the FM 35-20.
Notable Accomplishments for Women: Mabel Lee was the first woman President of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation and the American Academy of Physical Education in 1931. She presided over the women’s Olympics in the Los Angeles Games of 1932. Lee was honored by the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports in 1982 as one of five women in America who meant the most to women’s fitness.
Mabel Lee died in 1985 at the age of 99. She stayed actively engaged professionally her whole life and even wrote four books after the age of 85.
On the morning of December 7th in 1941–everything changed. America’s freedom was on the line. Overnight, the country was quickly called up for duty. Leaders in physical education such as Mabel Lee were required under intense pressure to design and implement sound physical fitness standards to prepare for war. Mabel Lee answered the call for Noble Purpose. When it is all on the line–fitness matters. Just ask Mabel Lee…she’s still speaking…if you listen.
- The Women’s Army Corps (US Army Center of Military History)
- Shaking Things Up with PE Director Mabel Lee (Beloit College Archives)
- Mabel Lee (Coe College Archives)
- Mabel Lee: The Woman (Nebraska University Archives)
- FM 35-20 Physical Training Field Manual (US War Department)
- Interview With Mabel Lee (Ed Thomas, Ed.D)
- My Life as Rosie the Riveter (Valerie Snowden)