UoB celebrates female history at the heart of its campus for Women’s History Month

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Eileen Alexander (Image credit: University of Bedfordshire Archives)

As part of its activity during Women’s History Month, the University of Bedfordshire (UoB) is shining a spotlight on the inspiring women who have given their names to important components of its Bedford and Luton campuses.

In 2020, the University appointed its first ever female Vice Chancellor in Professor Rebecca Bunting and continues to support the paths of women in research, performance and professional practice.

However, women have been making their mark on Bedfordshire throughout history…

The Alexander Sports Centre at UoB’s campus on Polhill Avenue takes its name from Eileen Alexander, Principal of the Bedford Physical Training College (BPTC) from 1951-71.

A revolutionary institute for the area, the BPTC educated women to become teachers in physical training from 1903 until its absorption into the Bedford College of Higher Education in 1976.

The BPTC was located at 37 Lansdowne Road – where the University held a campus until the opening of Polhill in 2007.

Margaret Stansfeld OBE is commemorated at 37 Landsdowne Road with a blue plaque

Founded in 1903 by Margaret Stansfeld, the BPTC was key for removing the stigma of women attending college in the area during the early 20th century.

When Eileen Alexander took over in 1951, she oversaw a huge expansion of both staff and student numbers, as well as the construction of new facilities and the gaining of approval to award degrees, and subsequently honours degrees, all of which was crucial to the institution’s survival.

After retirement, Eileen founded the Alexander Trust which provided generously to individuals, schools and projects that allowed her to continue her passion for physical education and was awarded an OBE in 1973.

Dr Joanne Hill, Senior Lecturer in Physical Education and Sport Sociology, has a particular interest in the socio-cultural issues that face physical education. Continuing to tell the story of history-changing women is of vital importance to addressing this, according to Dr Hill.

She said: “It’s really important to remember pioneering women in physical education, because sport and physical activity still have a bit of an association with being designed and run for boys rather than girls.

“Actually, physical education as a school subject was founded by women for girls; Bedford Physical Training College was one of the first of its kind.”

Eileen Alexander (Image credit: University of Bedfordshire Archives)

Dr Hill said this helped highlight to UoB’s students how physical education began life, and aids their critical examination of the political and social influences on physical education and school sport.

It also provides a basis for analysing innovations in physical education, movement and pedagogy.

“Occasionally, something that is considered innovative has been done before, but it has been forgotten or marginalised,” said Dr Hill.

“It is crucial to remember women physical educators in celebrating how women continue to tackle barriers in participation and leadership. We persist in making that story known.”

The Institute of Sport and Physical Activity Research, the School of Sport Science and Physical Activity, and the School of Teacher Education, all continue to highlight the heritage of Eileen Alexander and other BPTC leaders by hosting an archive of letters and artefacts from BPTC at the library on Bedford campus, and events on the women’s tradition in physical education.

Today, the Alexander Sports Centre is home to eight badminton courts, two indoor tennis courts, two indoor and two outdoor football pitches and a number of other facilities used for academic sessions, competitive training and the University’s Get Active scheme.

In the past, the University has also had facilities bearing the names of other BPTC leaders Margaret Stansfeld, Molly Petit and Phyllis Spafford.

The University is proud to represent such inspirational figures and strives to educate the next generation of women who will shape and revolutionise their respective industries.

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