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AN: 1428857 ; Susan K Cahn.; Coming On Strong : Gender and Sexuality in Women’s Sport
Account: s7451176

on Strong

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on Strong

Gender and Sexuality in

Women’S Sport

Second edition

Susan K. Cahn

University of Illinois Press
Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield

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First Illinois paperback, 2015
© 1994, 2015 by Susan K. Cahn.
Reprinted by arrangement with the author.
Manufactured in the United States of America
1 2 3 4 5 c p 5 4 3 2 1

8 This book is printed on acid-free paper.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Cahn, Susan K.
Coming on strong : gender and sexuality in women’s sport /
Susan K. Cahn.—Second Edition.
pages cm
First edition title: Coming on strong : gender and sexuality
in twentieth-century women’s sport.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
isbn 978-0-252-03955-3 (hardcover : acid-free paper) —
isbn 978-0-252-08064-7 (paperback : acid-free paper)
1. Sports for women—History—20th century. 2. Sex discrimination
against women—History—20th century. 3. Gender identity. I. Title.
gv709.c34 2015
796.082—dc23 2014035978

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To my parents,
Gretchen and James Cahn

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Preface ix
Introduction 1

1. The New Type of Athletic Girl 7
2. Grass-roots Growth and Sexual Sensation in
the Flapper Era 31
3. Games of Strife
The Battle over Women’s Competitive Sport 55
4. Order on the Court
The Campaign to Suppress Women’s Basketball 83
5. “Cinderellas” of Sport
Black Women in Track and Field 110
6. No Freaks, No Amazons, No Boyish Bobs
The All-American Girls Baseball League 140
7. Beauty and the Butch
The “Mannish” Athlete and the Lesbian Threat 164
8. “Play It, Don’t Say It”
Lesbian Identity and Community in Women’s Sport 185
9. Women Competing/Gender Contested 207
10. You’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe
A “Revolution” in Women’s Sport? 246
Epilogue. “Are We There Yet?” The Paradox of Progress 281

Notes 315
Index 389

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As a sports-minded teenager of the 1970s, I marveled at the
courage and skill of the pioneer female athletes of my generation.
Prompted by new federal legislation against sex discrimination
and, more generally, by feminist demands for female access to
traditionally male realms of society, the sports world seemed to
undergo a rapid, almost instant transformation. Within a few
short years, girls’ and women’s athletic leagues, tournaments,
sports camps, and city, state, and national championships sprout-
ed to serve women at the high school, college, and professional
levels. The media took note as well, giving extensive coverage to
such female tennis and gymnastic stars as Billie Jean King, Chris
Evert, Kathy Rigby, and Olga Korbut. As one of the grateful ben-
eficiaries of these changes, I eagerly joined my high school bas-
ketball team and thrilled at my good fortune—the chance to be
involved in what I assumed was the first-ever interscholastic
sporting opportunity for girls.
Delighting as I did in the chance to play in organized competi-
tion, I was not concerned with the blatantly second-class status
of women’s sport in budget matters and the media; it did not
occur to me that it could be otherwise. And though I had ached
to play Little League baseball as a young girl, I never wondered
why baseball remained off limits to girls. My concerns were per-
sonal and immediate, mostly about jump shots and playing time.
I did suffer twinges of embarrassment knowing that I still har-
bored a secret wish to play halfback on my high school football
team. And though I suspected that what made me “right” in
“jock” circles might be making me all “wrong” in the nonathletic
social scene, I assumed these were the private dilemmas of a girl

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x p r e F a C e

born on the cusp of a new era. I had some vague images of
women athletes of the past, like the amazing Babe Didrikson or
the lithe Althea Gibson. But if I thought of them at all, it was as
anomalies of an earlier age—athletes who had miraculously done
it on their own in an age when women didn’t play sports. As far as
I knew, no tradition of women’s competitive sport paved the
way for my pioneering generation.
Years later my training in women’s history and feminist studies
has led me to reconsider those suppositions. I know now that his-
tories get buried. Questions deemed insignificant may be worth
asking. And interpretations oblivious to gender are most likely
misguided and incomplete. As a graduate student I began to won-
der about the tradition of women’s athletics in the United States.
Was it a linear story, a steady climb from exclusion to inclusion?
Or had specific time periods, classes, or cultures supported
women’s athletics before the 1970s? Which women played
sports, and what had doing so meant for them? If women had
participated in the past, why had sports remained such a bastion
of male activity and identity?
This book, which began as my Ph.D. dissertation for the
University of Minnesota, addresses these and other questions
designed to recover, and gain insight from, a history that for the
most part has been ignored by both popular and scholarly writ-
ers. It is not a comprehensive histor y of women’s athletics.
Rather, it is a study of how gender and sexuality have been cul-
turally constructed within and through twentieth-century U.S.
women’s sport. Precisely because women in sport crossed into a
“male” realm, both critics and advocates articulated their beliefs
about femininity, the female body, and the meaning of woman-
hood, leaving a rich body of historical evidence on how common-
sense beliefs about womanhood and manhood are made and
altered over time. By looking at how athletes, educators, sporting
officials, promoters, and journalists have clashed and compro-
mised over gender issues in sport, we can learn something about
how ordinary and influential people create society’s gender and
sexual arrangements, and how their actions are conditioned by
the circumstances and beliefs of their time.

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p r e F a C e xi

As I worked on my dissertation and then this book, several
institutions and many individuals provided financial, intellectu-
al, and personal support. I am grateful to the Graduate School
and the History Department of the University of Minnesota for
assisting me financially at the dissertation level. A University of
Minnesota dissertation fellowship, a dissertation special research
grant, and a grant from the McMillan Travel fund provided ex-
tremely helpful support. Subsequently I have received financial
assistance from a Clemson University Faculty Development
Grant and a Julian Park Publication Fund grant from the State
University of New York at Buffalo.
The financial support I received enabled me to travel in several
regions of the country collecting oral histories from athletes who
competed in high-level competition from as early as the 1930s
and as late as the 1970s. A few of these women had been famous
athletes of their day. The vast majority, however, received little
recognition during their playing days and have received even less
attention from historians or other scholars. I owe them a great
debt for sharing their time, stories, and knowledge with me. They
provided me with a level of detail about women’s athletic partic-
ipation that is unavailable in written sources. More important,
they gave me critical insights into the experience and perspectives
of women athletes, information that transformed my own think-
ing about women’s sport history. I would like to thank them for
their great intellectual contribution to this project and at the
same time acknowledge that their interpretations and mine were
not the same in every instance, and that my own questions and
interests have taken this study in directions that may not reflect
their priorities. I would also like to thank them for their hospital-
ity and for the thoroughly enjoyable experience of getting to meet
them and listen to their life stories, which collectively paved the
way for athletes of my and future generations.
I am also grateful for the generous help of archivists, friends,
colleagues, and editors. As I worked with a variety of historical
collections, I benefitted from the knowledge and assistance of
archivists, especially those at the University of Wisconsin,
Tennessee State University, Smith College, Radcliffe College, and

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xii p r e F a C e

the Chicago Historical Society. My adviser at the University of
Minnesota, Sara Evans, encouraged me throughout and after my
years in graduate school, offering her unwavering support in all
phases of the research and writing of this project. Professors
Mary Jo Maynes and Janet Spector also generously shared their
time and ideas and offered insightful criticisms and challenging
questions as well as personal support along the way. Members of
my dissertation writing group read numerous essays, conference
papers, and chapter drafts from the project’s inception to its
completion. I would like to thank Davida Alperin, Greta Gaard,
Priscilla Pratt, and Diana Swanson for their advice and comrade-
ship. In revising the manuscript for publication, several colleagues
have read chapters and made valuable suggestions. Pamela Mack,
George Chauncey, Jr., Kath Weston, Don Sabo, Wanda Wakefield,
Tamara Thornton, and Liz Kennedy have all given generously of
their time and ideas. Cindy Himes Gissendanner and Mary Jo
Festle, scholars who also study U.S. women’s sport history, have
been especially helpful and gracious in their willingness to share
ideas and sources. Thanks also to Scott Henderson, who provided
invaluable help in the final stages. Finally, I am grateful to Joyce
Seltzer, my editor at The Free Press, who went to bat for this proj-
ect early on and then offered her constant encouragement and
support. Her high standards and excellent advice have made this
a better book.
In addition numerous friends and family members read chap-
ters and/or offered encouragement, helpful criticisms, and laugh-
ter in just the right doses. I owe many thanks to Maureen Hon-
ish, Nan Enstad, Sharon Doherty, Linda Silber, Barbara Appleby,
Betsy Scholl, Robin McDuff, Elizabeth Martín-García, Lotus
Cirilo, Lisa Cahn, Kathleen Duffy, Shelly, Ellen Mamer, my
brothers, Steven and Peter Cahn, and my parents, Gretchen Cahn
and James Cahn. Finally, I would like to thank Birgitte Soland,
who doesn’t even like sports. Her powerful intellect, generous
heart, easy laughter, and abiding love have made this a better
book and enriched my life immeasurably.

In the years since its first publication, there have been many
fine scholars of sport whose work has informed my own. Some of

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p r e F a C e xiii

you are in the footnotes, but there are many others to whom I
also owe a debt of gratitude. In particular, I want to thank Pame-
la Grundy and Jaime Schultz for their critical feedback on my last
chapter. I also want to thank Pippa Holloway and Rita Liberti for
helpful readings and discussions; Hershini Bhana Young for
sharpening my thinking on race and sport; and David Herzberg
and Michael Rembis for many conversations about bodies, fit-
ness, and health as historically situated. Finally, I’d like to thank
my “basketball at the Bob” crew for reminding me that sport is
about enjoyment of many kinds, and Tandy Hamilton for teach-
ing me how much can be observed by looking away from the ball
as well as directly at the action.

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on Strong

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In the early 1980s a talented young Czech immigrant to the
United States took the women’s tennis world by storm. Martina
Navratilova lost only six matches from 1982 to 1984, and by
1985 had accumulated 8.5 million dollars in winnings, more than
any other player in the sport’s history. 1 The refreshingly candid,
lithe, muscular Navratilova symbolized the advances women had
made in the athletic world and, more broadly, in traditionally
male activities involving money and power. As an outspoken crit-
ic of sexual inequality in sport, she represented both the ongoing
struggte and the impressive gains women had made in more than
a decade of challenges to the historic barriers to women’s partici-
pation in sport.

As Navratilova and other female athletes gained celebrity sta-
tus, many observers heralded their accomplishments as proof that
modern women had finally cast off the physical and psychologi-
cal shackles of past centuries. Yet others looked less favorably on
these developments, perceiving women’s entrance into sport as an
unsettling and unwelcome intrusion into the realm of masculinity.
In the tennis world Navratilova’s mounting victory toll invited
subtle condemnation and not-so-subtle ridicule from tennis
experts, fans, and the press.

Some wondered whether Navratilova even belonged on the
women’s tour anymore, given her apparent invincibility. Noting
her high-tech, precision-oriented training methods, they charac-
terized her as a “bionic sci-fi creation” of her training team-a
kind of unnatural, even monstrous “Amazon” who “has the
women’s game pinned to the mat. ” 2 Rather than bask in hard-
earned glory, therefore, Navratilova felt continually pressed to


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counter her public image as some kind of hulking predator who
kept “beating up all those innocent girls. ” 3 This image, reflected
in media comments like “She’s simply too good,” placed her at
odds with, and not within, the women’s tennis circuit. 4

By implication these representations also suggested that she
was at odds with her sex; “the bleached blonde Czech bisexual
defector” who “bludgeoned” and “teased” her hopelessly inferi-
or opponents appeared to be something other than a “natural”
female. 5 One of her frustrated “victims” suggested to a reporter
that for Navratilova to play that well, she “must have a chromo-
somic screw loose somewhere.” 6 Navratilova’s stunning accom-
plishments could have been construed as an example of one ath-
lete’s successful attempt to use her natural talents, hard work,
and state-of-the-art training regimen to reach new levels of ath-
letic excellence/ Yet many Americans simply could not separate
the concept of athletic superiority from its cultural affiliation
with masculine sport and the male body. Her startlingly “mascu-
line” accomplishments generated farfetched explanations; con-
temporaries portrayed her as an extraordinary product of sci-
ence, technology, or-worse-chromosomal defect.

Martina Navratilova’s tarnished reputation suggests that even
in this age of apparent progress, the historic association between
athletic prowess and masculinity has endured. Highly skilled
female athletes continue to meet with profound skepticism. At
times, not only their femininity but their biological sex comes
into question. Several enthusiastic young athletes from Lewisville,
Texas, found this out during a girls’ soccer match in the fall of
1990. On watching their daughters’ team go down to defeat, two
irate fathers stomped onto the field and demanded that the
opposing side send its three best players to the bathroom so that
an officially designated parent could verify their sex. These men
could not fathom the fact that girls were capable of such talented
play. After the game one of the aggrieved fathers belligerently
“complimented” the winning team’s nine-year-old star, goalie
Natasha Dennis, by saying “Nice game, boy!” and “Good game,
son.” Nonplussed by the implication that her athletic ability
derived from what might be between her legs, Dennis pluckily

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suggested that someone should instead take her accusers “and
check and see if they have anything between their ears. ” 8

Experiences like those of Martina Navratilova and Natasha
Dennis are as old as women’s attempts to break into the male
sporting tradition. Athletics have long been the province of men.
In the Western world, not only have men dominated the playing
fields, but athletic qualities such as aggression, competitiveness,
strength, speed, power, and teamwork have been associated with
masculinity. For many men sport has provided an arena in which
to cultivate masculinity and achieve manhood.

Consequently women’s very participation in sport has posed a
conundrum that Americans have grappled with for more than a
century. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, American
women made determined collective efforts to break down the
barriers to female athletic involvement. They claimed sport as a
right, a joy, and a signal aspect of women’s emancipation. These
attempts elicited both approval and scorn, generating a series of
controversies that spanned the century. The matter went far
beyond the issue of decorum-which kinds of behavior were
deemed appropriate for the female sex. The controversies sur-
rounding female athleticism broached fundamental questions
about the content and definition of American woman- and man-
hood. Would women engaging in a traditionally male activity
become more manlike? What exactly were “manly” and “wom-
anly” qualities, and did they have to be limited to men and
women, respectively? And if athleticism was not essentially mas-
culine, did this mean that all gender differences were mutable and
not ordained by, and permanently ensconced in, nature?

When women athletes insisted on their right to sport, alarmed
and intrigued observers wrestled publicly with these very ques-
tions. In 1912 the Ladies Home Journal published an article
titled “Are Athletics Making Girls Masculine?” Author Dudley
Sargent, prominent physical educator and director of Harvard
University’s Hemenway Gymnasium, wondered along with many
of his contemporaries whether female athleticism would make
women into masculine facsimiles of the “opposite” sex. 9 Or, con-
versely, they worried that women could “feminize” sport, dilut-

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ing its masculine content and eroding the boundary between male
and female spheres of activity.

Sargent gave voice to the central, underlying tension in
American women’s sport-the contradictory relationship between
athleticism and womanhood. In subsequent years others exam-
ined the same question, often in a harsher light than the relatively
sympathetic Sargent. Journalists responded to Mildred (“Babe”)
Didrikson Zaharias’s stunning athletic accomplishments of the
1930s through the 1950s by mocking her “mannish” appearance.
They described her face as hawkish and hairy, her body as a
whipcord, and her personality as a “conqueror type” that includ-
ed “an unusual amount of male dominance.” 10 Under the weight
of such allegations, even supporters of women’s sport felt pressed
to concede that some female athletes excelled because of their
genetically constituted “android tendencies.” 11

The apprehensions of skeptics did not go unanswered. Over
the course of the century, advocates of women’s sport developed
numerous and often competing strategies to cope with the disso-
nance between masculine sport and feminine womanhood. The
boldest among them accepted the charge of masculinization but
claimed its positive value. They contended that women’s athleti-
cism would indeed endow women with masculine attributes, but
that these qualities would benefit women as well as men, con-
tributing to female emancipation and eliminating needless sexual

Female physical educators responded more cautiously. Several
generations of professionals sought to protect the reputation and
h~alth of female athletes by devising separate, less physically tax-
ing versions of women’s sport. In effect educators created a
respectable “feminine” brand of athletics designed to maximize
female participation while averting controversy. By contrast, pop-
ular promoters of community and commercial sport attempted to
feminize the athlete more than the activity. They touted the femi-
nine and sexual charms of female competitors, making sporting
events into combination beauty-athletic contests. These and other
sport advocates engaged in protracted battles for the control of
women’s sport, each side promising that under its authority
women’s athletics would gain respect and acceptance.

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Individual athletes developed personal strategies to resolve the
tension between their love of sport and the cultural condemna-
tion of “mannish” or “tomboyish” athletes. Some made special
efforts to demonstrate femininity through their dress, demeanor,
and off-field interests. Other, more defiant types refused the com-
promise. With their “tough” manners and aggressive play, they
embraced a style that critics called “mannish” but that they
themselves saw as perfectly consistent with womanhood. Still
others opted for a middle course, claiming allegiance to conven-
tional definitions of femininity while at the same time trying to
stretch their boundaries to include athletic activities.

Ironically, many of the collective and individual strategies ath-
letes and their advocates employed to defuse the tension between
sport and womanhood actually deepened the gender divide in
athletic culture. Efforts to create a separate, distinct women’s
brand of sport effectively defined “feminine” sport as a lesser
version of male sport: less competitive, less demanding, and less
skillful. Commercial promoters were far more willing to com-
mend top-notch athletes for their “masculine” excellence. But by
going’to great lengths to highlight the feminine attractiveness and
sexual charms of female competitors, promoters implied that by
itself, athleticism remained a manly trait, one that must be com-
pensated for by proof of femininity.

Forced to deal with a constant barrage of criticism from diehard
defenders of a male sporting tradition, generations of twentieth-
century female athletes and their advocates successfully carved a
niche for women in a sporting culture whose deep identification
with masculinity nevertheless remained unyielding. With “real”
sport and “real” athletes defined as masculine, women of this
century have occupied only a marginal space in the sports world
and an even more tenuous position in athletic governance.

Consequently many, perhaps even most, women have until
recently been profoundly alienated from sport, and thus from the
physical competence, confidence, and pleasures that sport makes
available. However, those women who persisted in athletics found
in sport a positive, even life-transforming experience. While dis-

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missing, defying, or simply putting up with the societal hostility
toward women athletes, they created a vibrant female sporting
tradition. Generations of women athletes have promoted physical
competence, celebrated the joy of play, developed a deep apprecia-
tion for athletic competition and excellence, and forged loving,
supportive bonds among women in a nontraditional setting.

The persistent but unsteady tension between female athleticism
and male-defined sport forms a central thread in the history of
women’s sport, illuminating not only women’s complicated
standing in the athletic world but the vital interplay between
sport and the surrounding culture. From early-twentieth-century
controversies over the intrepid “athletic girl,” to midcentury
racial politics surrounding African American women track stars,
to more recent legislative struggles over gender equity in school
athletics, women’s athletic history offers a lens through which to
understand both the complicated gender dynamics of sport and
the social experience of women athletes. A century of women’s
efforts to obtain a meaningful place in the sporting world pro-
vides critical insights into the history of gender relations in
American society.

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In the fall of 1911 Lippincott’s Monthly described the modern
athletic woman: “She loves to walk, to row, to ride, to motor, to
jump and run … as Man walks, jumps, rows, rides, motors, and
runs.” 1 To many early-twentieth-century observers, the female
athlete represented the bold and energetic modern woman,
breaking free from Victorian constraints, and tossing aside old-
fashioned ideas about separate spheres for men and women.
Popular magazines celebrated this transformation, issuing favor-
able notice that the “hardy sun-tanned girl” who spent the sum-
mer in outdoor games was fast replacing her predecessors, the
prototypical “Lydia Languish” and the “soggy matron” of old. 2

With the dawning of the new century, interest in sport had
burgeoned. More and more Americans were participating as
spectators or competitors in football, baseball, track and field,
and a variety of other events. At the same time women were
streaming into education, the paid labor force, and political
reform movements in unprecedented numbers. Women’s social
and political activism sparked a reconsideration of their nature
and place in society, voiced through vigorous debates on a wide
range of issues, from the vote to skirt lengths. Popular interest in
sport and concern over women’s changing status converged in the
growing attention paid to the “athletic girl,” a striking symbol of
modern womanhood.

The female athlete’s entrance into a male-defined sphere made


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her not only a popular figure but an ambiguous, potentially dis-
ruptive character as well. Sport had developed as a male preserve,
a domain in which men expressed and cultivated masculinity
through athletic competition. Yet, along with other “New
Women” who demanded access to such traditional male realms
as business and politics, women athletes of the early twentieth
century claimed the right to share in sport. They stood on the
borderline between new feminine ideals and customary notions
of manly sport, symbolizing both the possibilities and the dangers
of the New Woman’s daring disregard for traditional gender
arrangements. 3

The female athlete’s ambiguity created a dilemma for her advo-
cates. Given women’s evident enjoyment of such “masculine”
pursuits, could the “athletic girl” (and thus, the modern woman)
reap the benefits of sport (and modernity) without becoming less
womanly? The Lippincott’s Monthly article was titled “The
Masculinization of Girls.” And while it concluded positively that
“with muscles tense and blood aflame, she plays the manly role,”
women’s assumption of “the manly role” generated deep hostility
and anxiety among those who feared that women’s athletic activ-
ity would damage female reproductive capacity, promote sexual
licentiousness, and blur “natural” gender differences. 4

The perceived “mannishness” of the female athlete complicat-
ed her reception, making the “athletic girl” a cause for concern
as well as celebration. Controversy did not dampen women’s
enthusiasm, but it did lead some advocates of women’s sport to
take a cautious approach, one designed specifically to avert
charges of masculinization. Women physical educators took an
especially prudent stance, articulating a unique philosophy of
women’s athletics that differed substantially from popular ideals
of “manly sport.”

The tension between sport and femininity led, paradoxically,
to educators’ insistence on women’s equal right to sport and on
inherent differences between female and male athletes. Balancing
claims of equality and difference, physical educators articulated a
woman-centered philosophy of sport that proposed “modera-
tion” as the watchword of women’s physical activity. Moderation
provided the critical point of difference between women’s and

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The New Type of Athletic Girl 9

men’s sport, a preventive against the masculine effects of sport. It
was this philosophy, with its calculated effort to resolve the issue
of “mannishness,” which guided the early years of twentieth-cen-
tury women’s athletics.

Interest in women’s athletics reflected the growing popularity of
sport in industrial America. In a society in which the division
between leisure and labor was increasingly distinct, many
Americans filled their free time with modern exercise regimens
and organized sport. It was in the m