The Many Trials Of Women Athletes

IN a 1925 poem entitled ``Look Out for the Ladies,'' which compared the athletic accomplishments of women to those of men, sportswriter Grantland Rice concluded: ``If they keep on getting better/ Who will be the weaker sex?''

Susan Cahn recounts this vignette in ``Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women's Sport,'' her articulate and well-researched account of the struggles female athletes have faced and how women's participation in sports has challenged society's concept of womanhood.

``Coming on Strong'' is not a history of women's athletics, but an analysis of how gender and sexuality have been viewed over the past 90 years in women's sports. Cahn, an assistant professor of history at the State University of New York at Buffalo, wrote the book from her PhD dissertation. And while it will interest scholars, it may be a plodding read for others.

The book includes chapters on discrimination against black women in sports and the lesbian stigma attached to female athletes. But the primary question Cahn addresses is: Why did physical educators and recreation leaders object so strenuously to women's involvement in highly competitive sports? Her explanation: Society's preoccupation with preserving feminine beauty limited opportunities for female athletes.

Cahn exposes how, in the news media's coverage of women's athletics, physical appearance almost always overshadowed talent. ``Coming on Strong'' is littered with examples: ``The Baltimore Evening Sun described a 1925 city-wide track meet attended by more than five thousand girls and seven thousand spectators, stating with delight, `It was a girly show if ever there was one.' ''

And the headline for Life magazine's 1940 photo essay on Iowa girls' basketball read ``Pretty Virginia Harris Leads Hansell to Iowa Basketball Championship.''

Cahn's discussion of the regulations that organizations devised to counter the image of female athletes as ``mannish'' or ``amazons'' is poignant. For example, the All-American Girls Softball League, which started play in 1943, was careful that its players convey an image of ``respectable femininity.''

To ensure that players embodied the desired ``feminine mode and attitude,'' the league's first few spring-training sessions featured a mandatory evening charm school, led by experts who coached players on makeup, posture, fashion, and table manners. Guidelines on personal appearance accompanied the beauty tips: Boyish bobs were taboo; players were to keep hair shoulder length or longer; they were to wear makeup and nail polish; and they were never to appear in public wearing shorts, slacks, or jeans. Team owners exercised their right to reject ``masculine'' players and to fine or release players who violated league rules.

As Cahn winds up - after spending too much time on the first half of the century, perhaps - she is quick to point out that while female athletes have seen their glory, signs of institutional resistance are still prevalent. ``College athletic departments allocate twice as much scholarship money to men than to women and budget three times more in operating funds and five times more in recruiting expenses for men than for women.''

``Coming on Strong'' has valuable insights into a subject that has been, for the most part, ignored. It leaves the reader applauding the successes of female athletes who have challenged the system.

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