Optimism for the future of women’s sport has to be tempered by the lessons and continuities of the past

Tags:

Print Friendly

Jean Williams
International Centre for Sports History and Culture, De Montfort University


Jaime Schultz Qualifying Times: Points of Change in U.S. Women’s Sport 280 sidor, hft., ill. Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press 2014 (Sport and Society) ISBN 978-0-252-07974-0

Jaime Schultz
Qualifying Times: Points of Change in U.S. Women’s Sport
280 sidor, hft., ill.
Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press 2014 (Sport and Society)
ISBN 978-0-252-07974-0

This is a welcome and readable addition to the cultural study of sport. Schultz takes various key symbols of women’s sport (the ponytail, sports bras) and female-associated physical activities (cheerlading, tennis fashions) as a way into ‘a partial history of US women’s sports’ according to seven ‘points of change’. This is essentailly a history of US women’s sport in the twentieth century presented in a loosely chronological approach but each chapter focuses on a symbolic theme too, from sex-testing to tampons. Schultz is good on the limits she has set herself within this broad and ambitious research agenda. This is not an integrated or comparative history of gender in sport, such as the seminal work by Erik N. Jensen, Body by Weimar: Athletes, Gender, and German Modernity. Schultz rightly critiques the marginalisation of women’s history and sets out to centre on female experience. Having clearly specified a methodological and thematic agenda, she goes on to skilfully blend archival research, contemporary publications and the secondary literature.

The chapter on tennis was for the most part refreshing. Much has been written about the ‘ubiqitous ponytail’ in US sport, particularly in relation to women’s football and the 1999 World Cup. Though this was an engaging way to begin the book, the analysis did not add much to the existing research agenda. In 1999 the US Women’s National Team had Briana Scurry as the notable African American presence in the starting lineup as goalkeeper between between 1994-2008, winning a record 173 caps for the United States. She started 159 international games, and managed to prevent the opposition scoring in 71 matches. A founding member of the Women’s United Soccer Association, Scurry’s high profile as an athlete, administrator, entrepreneur and commentator nuances some of the comments made by Scultz in relation to ethnicity, gender and ‘othering’ in the opening remarks. Scurry sometimes wore her hair in a ponytail when playing; but sometimes she did not. I was also surprised not to see more coverage of Hope Solo, the present controversial goalkeeper, who has also acted as US Women’s National Team captain and, at 155 caps, has eclipsed Scurry in terms of her media profile. This has included Dancing with the Stars so the ponytail-wearing celebrity arguably has considerable cultural resonance, and not just with the media interested in sport.

The section on tennis has some wonderful photographs and focuses on bodily ‘sites of change’ such as the wrists, ankles, legs and head as women’s tennis clothing became less cumbersome. I do have a few quibbles with how far Jaime Schultz revises the existing historiography. Lottie Dod’s tennis dress, although revolutionary when young, became more staid across her life course as she played to an advanced age. Similarly, there has been a lot of revision about the ‘old guard’ as represented by forty year old Dorothea Lambert Chambers in her losing match at Wimbledon in 1919 against the ‘new age’ Suzanne Lenglen, who was half her age. The match went to 10-8, 4-6, 9-7 over three sets, so it was hardly a pushover, although the media forecast that it would be. In the final set the lead alternated. At 6–5 and 40–15 up, it looked like Lambert Chambers had two match points, but Lenglen went on to take the set 9–7. The following year the pair met again with the same outcome and from then on the older woman competed only in the doubles. As Lambert Chambers wrote in Lawn Tennis for Ladies (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1910), she evolved her game to include the overhead serve after World War One and advocated clothing that allowed for vigorous movement. Nevertheless, Schultz is right that tennis fashions underwent tremendous change between 1880s and 1960 and offers both visual evidence and analysis to indicate key trends.

Women’s magazines and advertising aimed at women have long used sporting images, of real and imagined female athletes, so this is a welcome revision to that orthodoxy.

The section on Commercial Tampons and the Sportswoman contains the most accomplished use of archival data and is entirely original in its use of Duke University papers and contemporary literature from 1936 to 1952. It has become something of a cliché to say that over 40% of US sporting participants are women but only 4 or 5% of the media concerns women’s sports. This generalisation is out of date and needs revising. What do we mean by ‘the media’ and what do we mean by ‘women’s sports’? Women’s magazines and advertising aimed at women have long used sporting images, of real and imagined female athletes, so this is a welcome revision to that orthodoxy. The chapter on the sports bra is also full of new and innovative empiricle evidence.

It is not often that a book on women’s sport receives a New York Times review and in this case it is a spiky and spiteful piece by Elizabeth Weil including the comment:

Amid deadening academic jargon, “Qualifying Times” describes Jane Fonda’s contribution to what one journalist called the “high intensity crotch” (think tightly cut aerobics leotards). She also reports that the sports bra prototype was sewn out of jockstraps. Throughout, Schultz hammers one crucial point: Sports culture has historically defined women as lesser and limited’ (‘More Than A Game’ published 28 March 2014, accessed 24 September 2014).

In spite of the less encouraging history of gendered sporting competition, including the deeply flawed technologies of sex-tests to ‘protect’ female athletes, Schultz ends on an upbeat note, with a comment about watching the 2012 Olympics with her daughter. Celebrating both the increased opportunities for female participation in sport and dance and authoritative role models, the book shows how women who empowered themselves through physical activity, also engaged others. What I would have liked to see more closely analysed was the historical tabloidisation of the sports media since Rupert Murdoch took over the News of The World in 1969, and then The Sun, before developing interests in New York in 1974. Many print and broadcast journalists, like Elizabeth Weil, have adopted a form of tabloid-speak in relation to sport since then. Even broadsheet newspapers are guilty of these attitudes and narratives.

This has been nowhere more evident than in the recent treatment of Hope Solo, who pleaded not guilty to two charges of misdemeanor domestic violence in an alleged assault of her half-sister and 17-year-old nephew in June 2014. Solo will go on trial January 20, 2015. In the wake of several National Football League (NFL) contoversies involving players admitting to using domestic violence (such as Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, Jonathan Dwyer and Adrian Petersen) media pundits who know little about soccer have been quick to condemn Solo. Journalists like Cindy Boren of The Washington Post have claimed that there are clear parallels and Solo should not have been allowed to play while awaiting trial (‘Hope Solo and The Domestic Violence Case No One Is Talking About’ published 19 September 2014, accessed 24 September 2014). Her sponsors, including Nike, and the US Women’s National Team are, for the moment, sticking by their star player. The notion that female athletes are treated more leniently with regard to their civil liberties and are indulged by the sporting authorities is not borne out by the historical examples of Jaime Schultz’s excellent publication. And, as the Hope Solo case indicates, optimism for the future of women’s sport has to be tempered by the lessons and continuities of the past.

Copyright © Jean Williams 2014

Submit your comment

Please enter your name

Your name is required

Please enter a valid email address

An email address is required

Please enter your message