The Suffragette of Sport: Alice Milliat

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A pioneer of women’s sport, not only in her home nation of France but across the world. She lobbied hard on behalf of female athletes for the same kind of recognition as men, fighting for women’s participation in the Olympic Games. She faced an uphill battle, few would support her and even fewer thought she would succeed. An avid sportswoman herself, Alice became the frontrunner in the struggle for equality, igniting pressure upon those in charge for better female representation. But who was this remarkable woman? And did she win in the end? This is the story of one hell of a fight…


Alice Joséphine Marie Milliat Million was born in Nantes, France, in 1884. She was born into a modest family. As she grew, she worked hard to become a teacher, but her love of rowing, swimming and hockey was as great. She was an active sportswoman at a moment in history where the face of sport was soon to change forever. Whilst she was young, Baron Pierre de Coubertin revived the Ancient Olympic Games. Founded to promote aristocratic values and masculine ideals. The games were inherently sexist and classist. But President Coubertin insisted ever more. These are games for men and men alone.

He begun a programme of systematic discrimination against women all to cement the class structure he wanted for this world. Whilst he banged on about inclusion and philanthropy, he denied women the right to participate. Even working class men were barred from the games. He compared women to other ‘weak’ members of society, from children to the elderly, arguing they were ‘not made for physical activity’. He said:

I do not approve of the participation of women in public competitions. In the Olympic Games, their primary role should be to crown the victors.

Gee, I mean, I really fancy punching him in the face…

The Olympic Dream

For something that was supposed to be inclusive, Baron Coubertin was doing his darndest to alienate women. He just kept digging himself deeper and deeper into a hole of his own making. He argued that, because of ‘biological reasons’, sports were too violent for women. Furthermore, he argued that women’s athletic ‘exhibitions’ would erode society’s morals by arousing the passions of male spectators. I mean… words fail me. As a result, he made sure women were not allowed to compete in the first modern Olympics in 1896.

Whilst some might think this was the prevailing attitude of the day, it was not. Many men of the day argued that this contemptible attitude toward women was despicable… because it was. The public pressure was so great that, in the 1900 Olympic Games, women were allowed to participate, not that President Coubertin was entirely happy about it. Even then, he made sure women only participated in golf and tennis, the ‘only suitable sports for a lady’. Hmm. Women kept at it, pushing for more and more inclusion. In 1904, archery was added for women but removed for women in 1912. Even worse, no events were open to women in the Winter Games until 1924 and even then, only figure skating. Alice, a keen sportswoman, was seething. A mass movement for women in the games was building, and building rapidly. And for Alice, she was to be at the heart…

Coubertin founded the International Olympics Committee, the IOC, in 1894. Meanwhile, Alice was busy studying to be a primary school teacher. She moved to England to study, here meeting Joseph Milliat. The two soon wed. The marriage didn’t last very long as Joseph died in 1908. Alice travelled widely, not entirely sure what to do or where to go next. She learned many new languages, helping her to become a translator, returning to France following the outbreak of World War I.

Whilst the war raged, the Federation of French Female Sports Societies was founded. This was the December of 1917. Alice became the federation’s treasurer, now a young widow, but within 15 months, she had worked her way up to President. Not bad going. Young Alice had only one goal in life… to create a programme of women’s sports to be included in the Olympic Games. She was going up against the establishment. Her opponent? Coubertin. And he was not a man one could best easily.

I came up against a solid wall of refusal, which led directly to the creation of the Women’s Olympic Games.

– Alice.

And that’s just what she did.

The Women’s Games

Alice was a cunning and intelligent woman. She knew she didn’t have a chance at getting women into the Olympics so why not create her own games? She created the Fédération Sportive Féminine Internationale or the FSFI and decided to hold a Women’s Olympic Games, including ALL sports open to men. This was the start of the 1920s, a period of great cultural upheaval. Stuck between two world wars, the rise of the feminist movement was causing tremors across the world. For many like Alice, the fact that women were only allowed to compete in two Olympic sports in the 1920 games in Antwerp – tennis and aquatics – was the straw that broke the camel’s back. And in 1921, Alice launched onto the world the first Women’s Olympic Games. This was seismic. And many were not happy.

Alice was not protesting against the establishment, she had taken a sledgehammer to the ideology of equality it professed to hold but did not. Her ‘all or nothing’ approach to women in sport led to the first games specifically for women, held in Monte Carlo in 1921. There was no running track, Alice found support hard to come by so she had to make do with whatever she could get her hands on. If she acquired the use of a stadium or even just land, she had to take it. She might not have got another offer.

So these games took place on a pigeon shooting field instead. Women from France, England, Italy, Norway and Sweden competed. Athletics and a basketball tournament were the star sports of the show, the latter won by the British, much to the French’s chagrin. This was excellent timing, capitalising on the women’s sport movement of the time.

In 1922, the experiment was trialled again and this time, it was even bigger. 300 athletes competed, representing seven nations. In that year, the FSFI agreed to hold the games quadrennially. By that point, 38 countries from five continents were affiliated with the FSFI. Their aim was not a quiet one. They wanted to make a noise. They wanted to be heard. To take on the men’s Olympic model and make it better. Alice firmly believed that sport bred confidence and helped to develop personality, as it did in her.

And soon, Alice announced that the first, official Women’s Olympic Games were set to take place in Paris, starting on August 20th, 1922. This was it for Alice.

Time to make a stand.

The Defiant Chant

Stade Pershing in Paris. This was intentional. The next Olympic Games was due to take place in the same city in 1924. But the women would get there first. The weather was good and so were the crowds. On average, the first Women’s Olympic Games drew in a massive crowd of 15,000 people. Alice made sure to put on special bus services so the spectators could get to the venue. She was basically the puppet master proving was Coubertin thought was not possible. It didn’t get much coverage in the media, but Alice didn’t care. It was a roaring success.

The Times of London could only manage 100 words on the event, under the unremarkable headline, ‘Women Athletes in Paris’. More words were given to half a million herrings descending on Scarborough. They refused to call the games ‘Women’s Olympics’, as did many, trying to discourage the event. It didn’t really work because by 1924, female participation in sport was at an all-time high. And women had managed to get a third event added to the roster of the Olympic Games. Fencing. It was a start.

Later that year, the IAAF, the governing body of athletics, decided to formally recognise women’s athletics. Gee, about time. But it stipulated that women should never be allowed to participate in the Olympics. The FSFI retorted with its plans for the next few Women’s Olympic Games, which only enraged and infuriated the likes of the IAAF. Which is just what Alice wanted. To cause a stir.

The Women’s Olympic Games were hugely popular. Between 1922 and 1934, there were four Women’s Olympic Games, regularly drawing in crowds of up to 20,000 people. Alice started to be compared to Coubertin. Both had started major sporting events, in many ways, a revolution of sport. To say Coubertin did not like being compared to Alice is probably history’s greatest understatement…

Alice and her brethren went all out to promote the women’s games, the FSFI gaining power and influence to the point where the IOC decided to try to shut them down. Alice demanded that women be allowed to participate in the Olympic Games in all events, the IOC, trying to stop the rise of the FSFI, offered to allow women into more sports, but not all. This was their way of stopping the revolution Alice had started. But Alice refused. ALL sports. ALL. All or nothing. Simple as that. Women’s inclusion must be total or you at the IOC can piss off. They did not know what hit them. They had never met anyone with Alice’s steely resolve and boundless courage.

In response, the IOC ordered a cease and desist on Alice’s use of the word ‘Olympic’ for her games. Alice agreed IF the IOC would relent on its sexist position. In principle, the IOC agreed. Women’s athletics would be added to the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. The vote passed in 1926. But things were about to come crashing down for Alice.

Without money, her rebellion could not succeed…

The Dry Well

The second Women’s World Games, as it was now known under the terms of the ceasefire, was held in Gothenburg in 1926. Alice specifically stated that this was the time of women to show a force of strength to prove what should not have needed to be proven, that women can participate in the Olympic Games. And boy, it did not disappoint.

In the Opening Ceremony, 3,000 carrier pigeons were released. A spectacular start to a games in which Alice presented each medal winner with their medals. It all went off without a hitch. The British dominated. They came in with 20 more points than the French, who finished second. The games were so popular there was a massive demand for tickets, selling out in no time at all. It was well-organised and the stadium was packed. For Alice, this was brilliant. This is just what she hoped for. The games were so successful that many at the time said it was only a matter of time before women’s sports will be included in the Olympic Games, not if, but when.

The IOC and the FSFI continued to butt heads with Alice but she had succeeded. Women were at the 1928 Olympics in Antwerp, alongside the men. Five events was a good show for women, but compared to the 22 events for men, Alice knew it still wasn’t enough. The British women’s team boycotted the games for this very reason. The Times reported:

‘The [800 metre race] may not warrant a complete condemnation of the girl athletic championships, but it certainly suggests unpleasant possibilities.’

The women’s athletics was removed from the next Olympic Games but Alice favoured incorporating the FSFI into the IOC if they made more of an effort. She was growing tired. The French government reduced their funding of the FSFI in 1928 and removed all funding by 1936. By the 1932 Olympic Games, women were back participating in the athletics, but until full inclusion was allowed, the Women’s World Games would continue. And why not?

The 1930 Women’s World Games were held in Prague. Over four days, the event drew a total of 60,000 spectators. Media coverage was a lot more positive too, with no mention of the women’s ‘incapability because of gender’, as was common previously. After the London games of 1934, Alice issued the IOC and the IAAF with an ultimatum. Fully integrate the 1936 Olympics or cede all women’s sports to the FSFI.

The final showdown was dawning…

The Relent

The IAAF appointed a special commission to cooperate with the FSFI, fearing what Alice might do. By this point, her power and influence had never been higher. They reached an agreement. The FSFI would cede control of international women’s athletics to the IAAF in exchange for an expanded program and a recognition of records set in the Women’s Games.

The thing is, the FSFI really didn’t have a choice. The IAAF voted, effectively, to take control of the FSFI with or without their permission. If women would not cede control of their sports federation to the IAAF, they would take it by force. It was a horrible situation. But it was one Alice could not win. There were people far more powerful than her coming after her. The IAAF agreed to add three more events for women in the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, taking the total to nine. Alice had done all she could. The federation she helped to found was now under the control of the IAAF. She had succeeded in reaching nine events for women, out of 22 available. Now 52, she announced her retirement from the frontline.

The IAAF kept their promise. Nine events were held for women in the 1948 London Olympics, by the 2012 London Olympics, that number had risen to 127 events for women, compared to 166 for men. Yes, we still do not have equality in the Olympics, something the IOC would say is because there aren’t an even number of male and female teams able to participate, rather than the historical sexism within the games. But the fact that there were only two when Alice started her revolution, ending with nine and her own games to prove that it was possible for women to participate and for it to be popular, is proof that she ignited the passion for women’s participation in sport that led to the inclusion and acceptance of women in the games that has only risen since Alice’s time.

Hopefully, the day will come when men and women participate in an equal number of games, but if it wasn’t for Alice, women wouldn’t have been accepted in 1936 and the IOC would have carried on believing they could keep getting away with what they were doing…


Alice died in 1957 at the age of 73 and what a legacy she left behind. The battles she fought, along with her colleagues, created the platform that women needed to be seen on the global stage of sport. Alice challenged Coubertin and all those who held his antiquated views, pushing hard for women’s participation in sport regardless of class or ethnicity. Alice Milliat is the activist and visionary from this era that stands above all others. She took the fight to Coubertin. Encouraged tens of thousands of women to take up a sport. And managed to negotiate with the IAAF and the IOC for the inclusion of women’s sports in the Olympics, something that directly led to the 127 sports women are allowed to participate in today. That simply would not have been possible without Alice taking a stand.

She was a true visionary and although her fight carries on to this day, not yet won, it is only a matter of time and when that day comes, it will have been down to Alice and all women like her who said ‘no’ to inequality and shouted for it until someone listened…

Women’s sports of all kinds are handicapped in my country by the lack of playing space. As we have no vote, we cannot make our needs publicly felt or bring pressure to bear in the right quarters. I always tell my girls that the vote is one of the things they will have to work for if France is to keep its place with the other nations in the realm of feminine sport.

– Alice.

Toodle-Pip :}{:
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Image: Alice Milliat.
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