International Women’s Day 2019 – Celebrating the Contributions of the Women of ACSM
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International Women’s Day 2019 – Celebrating the Contributions of the Women of ACSM

Angela Smith, M.D., FACSM | Mar 08, 2019

The International Women’s Day 2019 campaign theme of “Balance for Better” encourages challenging gender bias, considering STEM careers for women and celebrating achievement. The UN Women’s theme of “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change” also promotes women in scientific fields. Both themes resonate with the American College of Sports Medicine’s initiatives from the time ACSM was created in 1954. Let’s explore what women have done for ACSM, and what ACSM has done for women!

A history of leadership 

Josephine Rathbone, Ph.D., a physical educator who was one of the 11 founders of ACSM, pioneered methods for adaptive physical education and the use of exercise for rehabilitation. Her text on physical activity for those with disabilities went into seven editions! An athlete herself, she rowed crew all four years of college, and later studied the usefulness of yoga for relaxation, publishing a significant treatise on this in 1943. Dr. Rathbone and motor control scientist and physical educator Anna Espenschade, Ph.D., were charter members – two women among the 57 original ACSM members. Dr. Espenschade not only played field hockey but studied players’ movement (first published in 1936) and became an umpire. She served as president of the American Academy of Physical Education and was the first woman appointed to the editorial board of ACSM’s flagship journal, then called Medicine and Science in Sports. Her research relating motor performance with growth and maturity in adolescence was considered seminal.

Despite the board’s declaration in 1956 that one of ACSM’s priorities was to include a higher percentage of women on the Board of Trustees (BOT), Dr. Rathbone remained the only female trustee (a position granted to the founders) until 1976. When Barbara Drinkwater, Ph.D., FACSM, was elected to the BOT in 1976, only 12 percent of ACSM members were female. In addition to her research on environmental heat stress and exercising women, Dr. Drinkwater’s leadership skills rapidly became apparent. When her board term was complete in 1979, she was elected vice-president. The next year Sharon Plowman, co-author of Exercise Physiology for Health Fitness and Performance, a textbook currently in its fourth edition, was elected to the BOT when 20 percent of the members were female. Only a year later in 1981, two more remarkable women were elected as board members. Overarm throwing research published in ACSM’s Exercise and Sports Science Reviews by biomechanist Anne “Betty” Atwater, Ph.D., is still cited. Christine Haycock, M.D., a nurse during WWII who then became a surgeon and a Colonel in the U.S. Army Medical Corps Reserves, told me stories of playing all over the country on all-female baseball teams – truly in “A League of Their Own.” She went on to help develop sports medicine for women, and later served as president of the American Medical Women’s Association.

Over the next six years, women’s membership in ACSM grew from 24 to 34 percent, but only four more women were elected to the board during that time. Dr. Atwater and OB-GYN physician Mona Shangold, M.D., who co-authored a book and professional articles on women in sports and on exercise during pregnancy, moved up to the vice-president level. In 1988, more than 30 years after ACSM’s founding, Dr. Drinkwater became its first female president! Women now made up a third of the college membership, and Dr. Drinkwater was an accomplished scientist and leader. She has worked tirelessly to demonstrate that women can exercise in hot environments and how their bodies respond. She was a successful basketball coach early in her career, and she co-founded the organization WomenSport International to optimize the participation and development of girls and women in sport. Creative collaborations that she organized led to the landmark description of the female athlete triad of eating disorders, amenorrhea and osteoporosis that set the stage for the disorder currently recognized as RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport) and examined potential methods for combating the problem.

Working toward balance

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Women’s inclusion in ACSM leadership still increased only gradually, but by 1990 women accounted for 34 percent of the members, and women were elected to leadership roles more frequently. The 1988 and 1989 elections included one new female board member each year; 1990 saw two elected and one appointed to a one-year “at-large” term; and two more women were elected in 1991. Change was beginning. Nonetheless, no other woman was elected to the ACSM presidency until Charlotte “Toby” Tate, Ph.D., FACSM, took the reins in 1997, nine years after Dr. Drinkwater. Tate, known as both a productive exercise physiologist and an astute administrator, served ACSM as president and subsequently as treasurer. Active now as a golfer, she inspires young women in sports medicine. Finally, women were serving ACSM as leaders, as muscle biologist and ballet dancer Priscilla Clarkson, Ph.D., FACSM, began her presidency in 2000, and orthopedic surgeon and masters figure skater Angela Smith, M.D., FACSM, began her presidency in 2001. There then occurred a seven-year gap before Melinda Millard-Stafford, Ph.D., FACSM, was elected to serve in 2008. Beginning then, women have actively engaged in leadership positions, including the presidency almost every other year! ACSM was led by Barbara Ainsworth, Ph.D., MPH, FACSM, in 2011; Janet Walberg-Rankin, Ph.D., FACSM, in 2012; Carol Ewing-Garber, Ph.D., FACSM, in 2014; Liz Joy, M.D., MPH, FACSM, in 2016; and Kathryn Schmitz, Ph.D., MPH, FACSM, in 2018. NiCole Keith, Ph.D., FACSM, will preside beginning in 2020. As of February 2019, 50 percent of ACSM members are female.

After ACSM had only two female presidents in its first 45 years and two in the next 11 years, seven will have served from 2008-2020. In fact, three of the four current vice-presidents and 17 of the 25 board members are female, a reversal of gender proportions from earlier years! Although leadership gender balance may have even tipped toward women for now, and membership gender numbers are well-balanced, the diversity of people that is seen in the U. S. and around the world has not been achieved. In fact, Keith is the first person of color – male or female – to have been elected president. The need for attention to better balance remains, and ACSM programs and members are dedicated to mentoring and developing a balance of diverse scientists, educators and health professionals.

Countless contributions

In addition to elected leadership, women have made significant contributions to the college though ACSM publications leadership. Especially noted are Deborah Riebe, Ph.D., FACSM, who served as senior editor of ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription 10th edition, and Dr. Clarkson, long-time editor of the flagship review journal Exercise and Sports Science Reviews.

Only three women have received ACSM’s esteemed Honor Award out of 58 awards: Dr. Barbara Drinkwater, Dr. Priscilla Clarkson and Dr. Barbara Ainsworth.

female fellows (1)ACSM’s progress has also relied on critical long-term staff members active throughout the various college programs. Karen Pierce joined ACSM in 1983! She has held many roles, currently serving as the director of professional education. Lori Tobin, a friend and helper to so many, recently retired after more than 30 years of service. Sue Hilt has managed educational programs for 30 years, and Chris Sawyer has overseen membership activities for 25 years. Valerie Bragg, Anne Krug, Jane Senior and Lynn Cunha have each helped ACSM and its members grow for more than 20 years. Each staff member and each ACSM volunteer leader mentioned here, along with so many more, has committed her efforts toward developing women in STEM fields related to sports medicine, to mentoring diverse leaders and to celebrating the achievements of women in the field.

It’s important to also include that ACSM and its members pioneered two very significant areas of research and its translation to improve the health of active women. First, in 1992 Dr. Drinkwater, along with ACSM staff and members, organized the collaborative meeting that led to the description of the female athlete triad of disordered eating, loss of normal menses and bone mass, and possible methods to ameliorate triad occurrence among female athletes. The 1993 ACSM Position Stand titled “The female athlete triad: disordered eating, amenorrhea, osteoporosis” was widely cited and has led to continued research on the interactions of energy deficiency, menses and bone mass. Today ACSM members Dr. Liz Joy and Mary Jane De Souza, Ph.D., FACSM, continue to lead this field. The second area greatly impacting exercising women and women’s health was research on exercise in pregnancy, carried out in large part by Jim Clapp, M.D., and Jim Pivarnik, Ph.D., FACSM.

“Think equal, build smart, innovate for change”: The UN Women’s theme for International Women’s Day 2019 resonates with ACSM and its women. ACSM members strive for gender balance and for diversity not only of members’ professions but of their cultures and backgrounds. Past mentorships have already effected positive changes. Future leaders will harness the power of ACSM’s men and women to innovate and effect change in exercise and health, sports and fitness activity participation and molecular science and its translation. On this International Women’s Day we celebrate the women before us who have served, created and led, and those who will lead next, gently feeling the shadows of those behind them.

Angela Smith, M.D., FACSM, dedicated her career to pediatric sports medicine and has served the American College of Sports Medicine in a numbers of ways during her tenure as a member. She has been active in numerous committee and tasks forces, including the Annual Meeting Program committee, Task Force on Medicine, Youth Clinics in Sports Medicine, and the ACSM American Fitness Index Advisory Board. Dr. Smith has served on the ACSM Board of Trustees and was elected the 45th President of the American College of Sports Medicine, serving in the role from 2001-2002. She is currently the chair of the Consumer and Public Information Committee.