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The history of women’s sports we’d rather forget (but shouldn’t)

October 13, 2009 – 9:53 pm

By Laura Pappano

Word last week that rare film footage of Babe Ruth had been discovered by a New Hampshire man among his grandfather’s home movies provided yet another opportunity to lovingly recall the delightful history of sport, in this case, baseball.

No doubt editors are being deluged with book proposals this week. Surely there is no subject area so worked over as baseball – or football, or men’s basketball, or boxing. Each publishing season brings display tables loaded with new revelations about old times, of fresh twists on familiar historical tales.

Annoyingly, they are overwhelmingly male sagas.

This is not to blame men, but to consider that women’s sports carry a burden: We’d rather forget the past.

In an age when a spectacular WNBA playoff series has record ratings (548,000 – up 73 percent over last year) and thrilling play, who wants to recall rovers and rules against interfering with the shooter? Imagine the scores if no one were allowed to block Cappie Pondexter or Diana Taurasi? How unexciting would that be?

The so-called “milk-and-cookies-era” of women’s athletics (so named for the snacks afterwards) was the Dark Ages of women’s sport. The goal was not winning, but developing social skills. A 1928 book I came across at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, “Field Hockey and Soccer For Women” makes the point. In the intro, Ethel Perrin, Detroit Public Schools health educator advises real cooperation with the opposing team, noting that “the dominant idea of the coach in making arrangements for the game is to ‘take’ every advantage that  the law allows, when a little ‘give’ would be of real social significance to the players.”

Uggh. Really?

Women are clearly tired of playing nice. Maybe that’s why I instinctively shudder when a women’s tennis league in the Northeast states in the RULES that “The home team Captain is responsible for arranging refreshments.”

This is not to say comportment and sportsmanship don’t matter. But the female physical education instructors who fought to keep competition out of sports now look like tragic barriers to the development of high-powered women’s athletics. It feels like progress stalled, seeds buried and left, opportunity cut short.

But this – much as we’d like to let it fade away – is worth grappling with (and reading about).

  1. 2 Responses to “The history of women’s sports we’d rather forget (but shouldn’t)”

  2. You have got to read Barbara Jacobs’s The Dick, Kerr’s Ladies – about English Women’s soccer after WWI. The truly sad thing is when great books like this disappear, as publishers don’t promote them, and bookstores don’t carry them….

    By Jennifer Doyle on Oct 24, 2009

  3. There are reams of subjects ripe for examination in earlier women’s sports and many books which could and I hope will be written about the history of women’s sporting contests. Unfortunately mainstream publishers aren’t interested, but that shouldn’t be a barrier to publication these days. To give just one example, the England women’s [field]hockey team played an annual game at Wembley, when international hockey was still played on grass rather than artifical turf, which was laterly televised. When the old Wembley was knocked down, in all the recollections of the sport that had taken place there, including the 1948 Olympics and the 1966 World Cup final, there was not a word of the three decades of women’s team sport that had taken place there. One of the reasons was that this once a year event was seen as essentially tokenist, and characterized as ‘thousands of screaming schoolgirls’ making up the crowd instead of the supposedly superior, adult comprised football crowds. Yet for many females this would have been their first and perhaps only visit to the iconic national stadium, something which has not been acknowledged in mainstream sporting discourse.

    By Katharine Sinderson on Nov 2, 2009

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