Eleonora R. Sears (1881-1968)

ELEANOR R SEARS

Gender barrier-breaker Eleonora R. Sears, nicknamed “Eleo,” was born in Boston in 1881.  The great-great-granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson, Sears enjoyed all the benefits of an aristocratic upbringing.  In her youth she was part of the social elite that vacationed each summer in Newport, RI, where she learned to play tennis and golf, rode horses, swam, and sailed.  In 1911, Sears began to play tennis competitively, when she and her friend Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman won the United States women’s doubles championship. Over the next five years, Sears won four more doubles championships, scandalizing crowds each time with her rolled up shirt-sleeves.  In 1912, Sears nearly lost her membership to the Burlingame Country Club in Birmingham, CA, when she rode front-saddle into the all-men’s polo arena wearing pants.  Despite receiving criticism for her unfeminine style of dress and her avid participation in athletics, Sears was unfailingly popular among the upper class circles of Boston and New York.  She was a frequent guest at the all-men’s Harvard Club, where she learned to play squash.  She eventually became the first woman squash champion in history.  She frequently topped New York’s “10-best dressed” list, and the Prince of Wales (later King Edward III) said Sears was his favorite dance, squash, and tennis partner.  Sears played and coached women’s squash into her 70s, was famous for her frequent marathon walks between Boston and Newport, and consistently raised blue-ribbon horses for the National Horse Show.  Eleonora Sears’ died in 1968, and her obituary read that her controversial determination to participate in athletics, “paved the way for women’s entrance in sports.”

 

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