Throwing Like a Girl: Contestations of Power in Women’s Softball

Dear Reader: I wrote the following paper in 1994, my first year of graduate school when I was exploring theories about “performativity”: the ways our actions reflect and create culture and self. In particular, I have always been interested in how bodies in motion perform (reflect and create) gender. During the summer of 1993, I did some preliminary field research on women softball players in Northampton, Massachusetts. Most of the women I observed and interviewed played for the Mary Vasquez Softball League, with the exception of one who played in Connecticut. I ran across the paper while searching for something else but after reading it, I decided it was worth sharing. I like what I had to say. I edited it for length, for clarity, and to remove the unintelligible jargon I had to spit out to demonstrate my theoretical savvy to professors. Well, I had to leave some of it in, but I think you’ll get the point. Keep in mind, also, that this was written nearly twenty years ago and the status of women in sports has improved greatly since then. Read this partly as an historical examination of the subject especially as it pertains to women who did not grow up with the benefits of Title IX. Its a longish paper (6,000 words) so take your time and enjoy the read. (And in case you were wondering, yes, I still throw like a girl.)

THROWING LIKE A GIRL: CONTESTATIONS OF POWER IN WOMEN’S RECREATIONAL SOFTBALL

On a day in the summer of 1991 my partner and I walked to a field near our home to toss around a frisbee.  This was not my first time throwing a frisbee: I used to throw them quite competently  in the early 1970s when they first became popular.  Nor am I unaccustomed to skilled physical activity.  I am a trained dancer having studied, performed, and taught modern dance for 10 years until my “retirement” at age 33.  I was, therefore, horrified on that summer’s day to find myself “throwing like a girl.”  I took a moment to examine how I was throwing this frisbee:  my arm reached across my torso which remained relatively stationary, and, while looking away from my target rather than at it, I flicked the frisbee out of my hand using my wrist and lower arm.  This was more than simply lack of training.  I felt an unwillingness to risk movement and to confront my target.  “Throwing like a girl,” I concluded, is characterized by a lack of commitment to reaching the goal which resulted in a minimum of effort in the motion.  But why was it that this somatic hesitancy should be peculiar to girls?

Most Americans, I suppose, are familiar with the phrase “s/he throws like a girl.”  Although it describes an individual whose poor throwing skill reveals a lack of training, the implication is that the thrower is innately incapable of the task.  Girls, it implies, throw badly because of their nature.  Boys, one then assumes, are naturally suited to throwing, and perhaps by extension to any sport.  I will argue that girls and boys (women and men) are not naturally suited or unsuited to the task of throwing, but rather that cultural conditions preclude the acquisition and performance of sports-related skills.

For more than one-hundred years, throwing has been a distinctively gendered kinesic sign. You may remember the scene in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (first published in 1884), when Huck disguises himself in women’s clothing and attempts to pass as a girl. He gives himself away by his inability to mimic female kinesic codes including closing his knees instead of opening them to catch a dropped object, threading a needle improperly, and by throwing “a lump of lead too well to be a girl.”  Need I say more.

It has been argued that modern organized sports and the skills required to play them have served to constitute and uphold the gendered organization of culture. Michael Messner, a sociologist, contends that dominant modes of masculinity are to a large degree, constructed through sports.  Messner does not argue simply that sports produces men but that it produces a specific kind of masculinity.  He also argues that while sports are “largely shaped by, and in the interests of, those who hold power,” sports history demonstrates that power relations are continually contested on the playing field.  I will argue that women in sports participate in this contestation by appropriating athletics as a technique for achieving power and that, in playing sports, they construct an alternative femininity. 

My argument covers a great deal of ground — perhaps too much for this short paper.  I discuss the social space around women’s bodies (including some of the history of women in sports and the cultural circumstances within which women play); the performativity and parodic power of clothes on the body; the sensation and experience of being in the body; and, most importantly, the body in motion.  All of these places — around, on, in, and through women’s bodies — must be attended to in a discussion of this sort.  Any one of these sites of gendering can and has been the focal point of volumes of literature and debate.  But rather than go deep into any particular site, I try to show how they intersect to produce a particular aspect of an American woman’s experience of her body.

As women appropriate the power of sports they simultaneously contest dominant definitions of that power and challenge hegemonic notions of both masculinity and femininity.  Whether in the simple fact of their athleticism, in their rejection of male competitive forms, or by intentionally parodic performances, women softball players challenge traditional definitions of American femininity and explore participatory styles of power. 

A HISTORY OF GENDER AND POWER RELATIONS IN SPORTS

Team sports [in Britain], based as they were on the twin values of dominance over others and deference to the authority of leaders…[were used to] socialize boys to a certain kind of ‘manliness’ whose raison d’etre was the administration of domination over (mostly nonwhite) colonized peoples. (Messner 1992:10)

Sociologist Michael Messner argues that the character of competitive team sports that is familiar to us today is the outcome of a socializing process intended to created men who would carry out Great Britain’s colonialist project.  Furthermore, sports as a technique for constructing masculinity became ever more important as economic changes — the industrial revolution or women entering the workplace — forced concomitant changes in gender relations, relations once clearly divided by labor.   As women entered arenas designed to produce men (sports, the work place, or politics), they threatened the power structure which placed men over women.  Indeed, Messner cites historian E. J. Gorn who argues that 19th century “bare-knuckle prize fighting” was a “masculine backlash against feminism” (ibid. p. 15).  (Given this history, increased violence and aggressiveness in today’s professional basketball and the formerly pastoral baseball might be seen as a contemporary backlash in which hegemonic masculinity must be reaffirmed.) 

In addition to threatening masculinity, women’s entrance into sites of masculine construction also threatened femininity.  Athleticism was considered particularly dangerous to women’s health and indeed to her very genderedness.  Stephanie Twin argues that the myth of feminine frailty reached its peak in the 19th century:

“Popular and scientific opinion alike upheld physical inertia as both natural and desirable for women.  Physicians warned that too much activity unnerved females, creating everything from hysteria to dyspepsia.…Women were to conserve the little energy that they had.  By 1850, these notions had crystallized into a cult of ill health in which women proved their femininity with invalidism” (Twin 1979:xviii).

Too much physical activity, it was feared, would turn women into men, an idea which persists in many communities today.  The origins of this dread gender mutation can be traced to earlier conceptions of gender and sex in Europe.  Historian Thomas Laqueur posits that from the Greeks to the Renaissance, sex was singular.  Male reproductive organs represented the normal, “perfect” sex.  Female sexual anatomy was simply the inverse of the male with “the vagina an eternally, precariously, unborn penis, the womb a stunted scrotum, and so forth” (Laqueur 1990:28).  Women’s inverted male organs remained inside her body because her gender didn’t have sufficient “heat” to push them out as did men.  Although “coolness” was her unfortunate flaw, women were warned that “manly exercises” might cause an unnatural excess of heat and thus jeopardize her womanliness (ibid. p. 126).  Laqueur retells asixteenth-century story of Marie-Germain Garnier who reputedly undergoes such a spontaneous sex change.  Marie Garnier was, for all intents, a girl for the first 15-20 years of her life.

“Then once, in the heat of puberty, the girl jumped across a ditch while chasing pigs through a wheatfield: ‘at that very moment the genitalia and the male rod came to be developed in him, having ruptured the ligaments by which they had been held enclosed.’… So puberty, jumping, active sex, or something else whereby ‘warmth is rendered more robust’ might be just enough to break the interior-exterior barrier and produce on a ‘women’ the marks of a ‘man’” (Laqueur 1990:127).

Marie the woman thus becomes Germain the man due to “inappropriate” physical exertion which produces an overabundance of heat in her naturally cold body.

Although ideas of hot and cold humors in the body have long since died, the relationship between physical strain and gender transformation seems to have survived.  Chris Shelton, professor of exercise and sports studies at Smith College, says of playing softball as a girl in the 1950s: “There was a lot of pressure to be more girl-like and so that means leaving the kind of sliding-in-the-mud softball for something that’s a little more genteel.”  In modern times, the rules of women’s games were sometimes modified to limit movement in order to prevent symbolic transgendering.  Twin discusses the 1899 modifications to women’s basketball rules — some of which were retained into the early 1970s — which “allowed only brief, broken movements in a small space with too many people who could not touch one another” (Twin 1979:xxvi).  Competition for girls was restricted on the grounds that “strenuous, highly competitive athletics undermined women biologically and socially” (ibid. p. xxvii).  In the 1930s, critics responded to the first great “wave” of female athletics (occurring in the decades following the turn of the century) by labeling women athletes as “mannish” or “lesbian,” which was intended as a similar pejorative (Twin and Messner).  Over the next thirty years, scientific and medical journals made it clear that physical weakness and frailty defined “natural” femininity (Twin 1979:xix).

Despite objections from the dominant society, women became athletes.  In a 1974 article for womenSports, Olga Connolly (winner of the 1956 Olympic gold medal in women’s discus) contends that “physical fitness is the key to woman’s emancipation” and is therefore pleased that “All over the country, women are loosening their girdles and tightening their abdomens” (Connolly reprinted in Twin 1979:215).  Messner argues that as much as sports was wielded as a tool of the ruling class, it has also been an instrument of resistance for the dominated classes and races, and in more recent times, for gender.  From Jack Johnson’s defeat of Jim Jeffries in 1910 (Messner 1992:11) to Billie Jean King’s defeat of Bobby Riggs in the infamous Battle of the Sexes in 1973, sports has been a site for contestations of power.  For women, part of the contest has been over the restricted space they are allowed to move through and who and what determines her motility.

Feminist social theorist Iris Marion Young, through a similar personal experience to mine, was inspired to begin an exploration of the sociological phenomenon of throwing like a girl.  She argues that the metaphorical feminist rhetoric of the “constraint and confinement” of women’s oppression under Western patriarchy also articulates how those women actually experience their bodies (Young 1990:15).  Young frames her argument in the “lived body” theories of existential phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty (and, in applying these theories specifically to women, simultaneously critiques Merleau-Ponty’s inattention to gendered bodies) (ibid.). 

 Young locates “three modalities of feminine motility” each of which relies on the subjectively experienced body.  She names these modalities “ambiguous transcendence,” “inhibited intentionality,” and “discontinuous unity” with one’s environment.  For Merleau-Ponty, the “immanence” of a subject is “transcended” through intentional, directed movement and action in, into, or through the world.  The possibility of completing an intended activity is dependent on a psychologically tendency toward a confident “I can” and a limiting “I cannot.”  The more unambiguous the intentionality of bodily action, the more likely it will be successful in creating a continuum between the body and its environment:  “By projecting an aim toward which it moves, the body brings unity to and unites itself with its surroundings…” (ibid. p. 148-49).  In short, transcending self immanence through motion creates unity between the objective world and the subjective self.

But, because women live under the constraining disciplines of patriarchy — typified for example, by male objectifying gazes and woman’s subsequent self-critical gaze, and by the daily threat of rape or bodily harm — female bodily experience betrays a radical disjuncture from Merleau-Ponty’s existential human.  Young argues that a woman “lives her body as a burden, which must be dragged and prodded along…” (ibid. p. 148).  For her, transcendence is not possible because she lacks the confidence to act in the world: that is, although she “projects an ‘I can’,” her uncertainties cause her to project it as someone else’s possibility thus turning it into an “‘I cannot’” (ibid., original emphasis).  For example, Pat B., who plays recreational softball, told me that when she is assigned to play outfield she often hopes the ball won’t come to her.  This sentiment was expressed by good as well as poor players, indicating that level of confidence may not directly correspond to level of skill.  Young makes the same observation:

“Women tend to wait for and then react to [the ball’s] approach, rather than going forth to meet it.  We frequently respond to the motion of a ball coming toward us as though it were coming at us, and our immediate bodily impulse is to flee, duck, or otherwise protect ourselves from its flight” (Young 1990:146 original emphasis).

It would appear then, that women softball players experience a contradiction between what they want to believe they can do — after all, they are out there playing — and what their fears tell them they cannot or should not do.  Kinesthetically, rather than reach toward an incoming ball with confidence, they may move hesitantly, reaching only partially while they struggle internally with this contradiction.

Mired thus in her own immanence, Young continues, woman cannot transcend the objectified body to become a living subject directing her own person.  She becomes an object which must be “coaxed and manipulated into performing [tasks]” which are discontinuous to her.  The feminine body “is often lived as a thing that is other than it, a thing like other things in the world” (ibid. p. 150).  Her ambiguous intentions combined with her environmental discontinuity limit the space a woman feels comfortable using while also rooting her in place (ibid. p. 152-53).

Paradoxically, although women’s selves would seem to be trapped in their bodies and to limited, narrowly delineated space and place, one could also argue that this phenomenon causes her to live outside her body.  Laqueur comments that the asexual, highly moral, and passionless woman of the Enlightenment gave some women “the capacity to lead almost bodiless existences” (Laqueur 1990:203).  Perhaps this is simply a different order of transcendence.  Given that the integrity of modern American women’s bodies are subject to physical threat, it seems likely that some kind of psychic disembodiment could serve as self-defense.  The resulting corporeal insensitivity — a disengagement from the lived body — must, it seems to me, result in immobility.[3]

Young’s modalities of women’s relationships to their bodies and their environments — “ambiguous transcendence,” “inhibited intentionality,” and “discontinuous unity” — produce a limited and limiting world for women.  Self-imposed limits are in reaction to a sexually unsafe world produced by misogynist attitudes.  As Young says, “The woman lives her space as confined and closed around her, at least in part as projecting some small area in which she can exist as a free subject” (Young 1990:155).  When something — whether it is a sexual insult or a softball — is coming at women “our immediate bodily impulse is to flee, duck, or otherwise protect ourselves from its flight.”  While throwing like a girl is in part simply a lack of training, it is also a profound narrative of women’s place in American patriarchy.

RESISTANCE IN ACTION

In the summer of 1993, while doing some preliminary field work for this project I began to follow a recreational softball team in Western Massachusetts.  The nature of the Mary V. (Vazquez) Softball League was evident by the team names: the Resisters, Hot Flashes, Common Womon, Incorrects, Prides, Valley Thunder, and Womyn Rising, to name a few of my favorites.  The names (and spellings) alone give an indication of their political agenda but the history of the league sets the stage.  The earliest teams (which included the Hot Flashes and Common Womon) were organized in the late 1970s by a group of lesbian separatists who wanted a league which would be social and cooperative in nature yet competitive as well.  Chris Shelton[4] remembers that in the beginning, they mixed fast and slow pitch rules or developed local ones so that skilled and unskilled players could be included. “In fact the officials understood that if a player got up to bat and the pitcher was pitching too fast, they could ask the umpire to have her slow down and she would slow down.”  In general their attitude could be summed up in a motto Shelton recalls from the Common Womon: “Every dropped ball helps another woman.”

Developing intra-team camaraderie was a political statement.  Unlike competitive, strength rivalries in other recreational leagues, this league attempted to develop a friendly, supportive atmosphere.  I recall one incident when the manager of the Hot Flashes came over to the Resisters bench to say they were short a few player.  The Resisters manager said “Well, if someone gets injured you can use one of our players.  We have extras.”  Indeed, I know of two players who were recruited right off the spectator’s bench mid-season to cover for missing players.  As Shelton said, they were “glad to be playing each other.…No one really cared what the score was; they were just having an evening out.”  Many of the Resisters that I spoke to suggested that it was precisely this group ethos that encouraged them to join.  A number of these players hadn’t played in 15, 20, 30 years while others had never played at all.  I sensed a certain nervousness from them about the risks of attempting this.  As these women return to sports or take them up for the first time “they bring…an unnamed, largely unacknowledged athletic grief, like that of miscarriage, a mourning for something that never had a chance to develop its potential” (Nelson 1991:34).  Playing on a “lesbian-friendly” team (as one player said) with a psychological style of constant affirmation (they have an unwritten team rule stating that a player’s performance was under no circumstances to be criticized), created a safe place for them to confront the embodied contradictions of I can/I cannot.

RESISTENCE IN DRAG

In rethinking softball, players on the Mary V. League challenge dominant assumptions about femininity and how the feminine should look.  Since the release of the film “A League of Their Own” many people are aware of the important place that uniforms have had in women’s sports.  Historically, in addition to the professional baseball players depicted in that film, company-supported women’s softball was once also subjected to strict rules governing feminine dress.  “A very short skirt over brief tights gives the effect of a chorus line when the girls go into action — the ‘New Look in Softball’ ” writes one 1949 commentator (quoted in Gerber, et al 1974:118).  What women can wear in sporting events continues to be debated today.  New Olympic regulations for women ice-skaters, for instance, ban the wearing of unitards as too masculine.  Skirts of some design are required.  And it was not so long ago that female swimmers were finally allowed to remove the old swimsuit panel which covered the pubic area (a vestige of skirted suits?).  With so much attention given to what women wear, it is not surprising that clothing would become another site of resistance.

Shelton told me that some of the early team rivalries in the Mary V. League “weren’t really rivalries of play, of the skill; they were rivalries of costume.  I remember going to one game where the Hot Flashes tried to out-dress another team.… The Hot Flashes traditionally have had wild uniforms and have really spent a lot of time on their look.  I don’t know how they are now but the [19]80-83 team was quite the trend-setting fashion team [and] would have parades before the game of their costumes.”

Although the Hot Flashes now wear sweats and tee-shirts like other teams, they continue their tradition of playing at least one “costume” game each season.  In 1993, many of the Resisters and the Hot Flashes vied with each other for the most traditionally feminine costume in this yearly parody.  They appeared on the field in cocktail and house dresses, flowered hats, necklaces, gloves, and, of course, cleats.  Wearing dresses on the softball field also gave the players a different verbal license.  The chatter on the field and from the benches, usually supportive and encouraging, became sexualized.  The comments, frequently directed at the batter whose at-bat position especially opposed the proper stance for a woman in a dress, focused on her physical attributes, especially her legs and derriere.  Dresses, it would seem, are sexually charged in a way that shorts — the common uniform — are not. 

 To a knowing audience, these players were in drag, although it may have been invisible to many people.  In a 1990 “fashion” article for Out/Look Kim Klausner describes her Halloween “skirt experience.”  Klausner’s drag consisted of a turquoise lycra miniskirt, pantyhose, and high-heel shoes.  Wearing a skirt and the requisite heels caused her to experience vulnerability (the heels just didn’t “feel safe”) and immobility: “I can hardly bend down to pick up my sixteen-month-old son, his bag, his bottle, and my purse without exposing my crotch for all to see or flipping over backwards in these heels” (Klausner 1990:20).  She also describes her enjoyment in playing a femme even when it elicits catcalls from men (although she confesses her political confusion over that as well).  The deeply encoded skirt engenders an experience Klausner has become unaccustomed to: restricted mobility and public sexuality.

By imitating the dominant feminine mode of dress, the Hot Flashes and the Resisters perform a complex parody.  Hegemonic femininity is dependent on particular performances and sartorial codes associated with powerlessness, immobility, vulnerability, and publicly assailable sexuality.  Lesbian softball players in female “drag” looking at other “cross-dressed” lesbian softball players maximizes the parodic possibilities.  Catcalling between them is a parody of male scrutiny of women and disrupts male dominance of female sexuality; stepping into the swing from an at-bat stance, running the bases, and throwing a caught ball all while wearing dresses ridicules normative feminine comportment.  Costume games, I suspect, are in keeping with a political agenda revealed in the team names: to resist, to be incorrect, to change the “spelling” of woman.

CONTESTS AND CONTESTATIONS

Women in America continue to search for safe ways to live in their bodies: safe from domestic violence, safe from a rape-prone society, safe from mass media’s sexually-explicit objectification. The freedom to move through space “as a free subject,” to unite with the environment, and to have “control over my body and its connection to power” — in short, the freedom to recreate their lives and bodies — may explain, in part, why women are turning to softball.    As women gain power in political and economic spheres, perhaps they are seeking physical power through sports.  Baseball, bodybuilding, volleyball, football, and basketball as traditional American sites of male prowess have become arenas in which women appropriate techniques for constructing power.  But, what kind of power does it become in the hands of women?  As Mariah Burton Nelson’s subtitle to Are We Winning Yet? reminds us, sports are changing women, but women are also changing sports.

Nelson and Twin show that alternative sports philosophies for and by women are not new.  Twin discusses debates over the suitability for women of “do-or-die” competition versus egalitarian “play for play’s sake” which took place throughout the 1920s and 1930s (Twin 1979:xxxi-xxxiv), debates which Nelson argues are “resurfacing.”  Nelson contrasts the development by women of a “partnership model” with the traditionally male “military model.”  The later, she posits, is characterized by authoritarian hierarchies, antagonism, battles which are won, and opponents who are defeated (which is in keeping with Messner’s imperialist-training-school model of British team sports).  The partnership model values compassion and egalitarianism.  Oppressive power is overturned : “Power is understood not as power-over (power as dominance) but as power-to (power as competence)” (Nelson 1991:9).  Power-to establishes a relationship in which opponents becomes partners who challenge each other to play their best.  In the military model, power lies in statistically measurable and quantifiable qualities such as speed, height, or distance.  Winning (scoring higher) is thus a measure of power.  A woman pitcher striking out a batter takes hold of some of this power.  Certainly, how hard and how far a woman can hit or throw a ball is an important part of the allure of softball and is celebrated and cheered.   Nevertheless, some women athletes are contesting male competitive forms in which dominance of the opponent defines the goal.  They are developing cooperative forms of play and are rethinking the process and outcome of the game.

Competition, performance, and sociality are all ingredients in a team’s sense of purpose, though one or another may take front seat.  Although winning is downplayed in the Mary V. League, by the end of the ‘93 season when the Resisters hadn’t won a single game, they began to voice doubts over whether simply playing was enough.  Even though winning wasn’t the ultimate and all-consuming goal, it is one of the rewards of play that they felt they were missing out on.  Competition as a dynamic force need not be completely abandoned in order for women to play non-militaristic sports.  Indeed competition, in some opinions, is the very soul of athletics (Twin 1979:xxxi).  And Nelson argues that taken too far, cooperative play can “[deprive players] of the rich experience of playing the best they can, as hard as they can” (Nelson 1991:189).  Cooperative play, therefore, should not be seen as the only kind of softball which disrupts gender order. 

PLAYING BALL

Leslie, a 44 year-old player (pitcher and, formerly, first base) and team manager, plays “serious” competitive recreational softball.  Nelson says that “For every man with a baseball story…there is a woman with a couldn’t-play-baseball story” (ibid. p. 11).  Here is Leslie’s: 

“I discovered baseball as a girl.  I don’t remember how — maybe from my mother or from TV.  Mom and Mr. T. used to shag balls for us when we played ball in the street.  There was Tom, Gary, Donnie, Phil, Mary, and me.  Mary’s mother didn’t make [playing ball] as accessible as my mother did for me so she didn’t play much.

Then Gary [her brother] joined Little League.  That’s when they told me I couldn’t play anymore.  I would have been eleven or twelve.  [Did someone actually say that to you?]  No, but Gary got to join Little League and I didn’t.  [What did you do about that?]  I became a cheerleader.  That was the only outlet for girls.  Then I quit that and turned to food.  I didn’t play ball again for fifteen years.”

Leslie recalls that it was probably her mother who taught her to throw and hit: “She was an athlete too.  As much as she could be.”  When I asked her why she liked playing first base, she responded that “At first base you see lots of action. Its a very exciting and challenging position [involving] very exciting kinds of plays.”  Although her personal history is a common one — I heard similar stories from players on the Resisters — Leslie’s response to the social prohibition is different.  Even though the “best years of ball playing went by ten years before I was even able to play ball again” when Leslie returned to sport she returned for the competitive excitement, for the “sense of power” playing gives her, and for the sense of pride she gets from knowing that she does not throw like a girl.  “When you pull a good play off, you make a hell of a throw and its right on the mark, that took a lot of good mechanics; good head thinking; and it feels great!”  

Leslie also expressed a sense of pride in having overcome “social difference.”  Perhaps knowing that her mother was a repressed athlete made the struggle for women’s athletic rights especially important to her, for we spoke of it several times.  She feels that women of her generation had to endure tremendous obstacles in their fight to play.  Their work had repercussions only a half a generation later: “opportunities became available to girls because a lot of us were willing to push for that.”  It was a battle the new generation doesn’t “understand or appreciate.”  Recently she sent me a news report on Ila Borders, the “first-ever woman to pitch in a college baseball game” (Baseball Weekly, issue unknown, Feb 1994).  She a-penned this note: “Notice [the Borders quote] ‘I don’t see it as any big deal.’  There you go — she has no idea of the previous struggle — like we talked about.”

For Leslie, softball is “a total expression of who you are.…a freedom of action”  Sports allows her to express an essential self which is inexpressible at home or at work.  She told me once that softball is a visceral experience having something to do with how it “feels” to play: how it feels to throw a ball hard and accurately, how it feels to catch a ball, to perform a play correctly and strategically, and especially to hit the ball — to swing with all your strength and to connect.  It has to do with being outdoors in the air and the elements; with socializing at the bench, with the spectators, or with the base coaches.  Its the cleats, the uniform, the belonging, the strategy, the game.

OVERTIME

Since the 1972 passage of Title IX, a set of regulations which dramatically increased sports opportunities for girls and women, a whole generation of girls has grown to womanhood as sports participants rather than its cheerleaders.  This generation gap may present a problem for theories of female bodily comportment and embodied experiences, many of which were produced in the 1970s and 80s.  We might expect that young women experience their bodies differently given the more wide-spread access to sports (not to mention a host of other educational and career opportunities or the fact that many of them grew up in pants!).  Nevertheless, in her 1990 introduction, Young stands by her original argument and asserts that “girls and women still live a confined and inhibited experience of space and movement, which both expresses and reinforces a continuing confined and inhibited right to assert themselves in the social world” (Young 1990:15).  And Nelson worries that “the flashiness of Florence Griffith Joyner [and] the power of Steffi Graf…tend to obscure the fact that women as a group still lack fundamental movement skills.  Can your women friends — even the ones who lift weights — throw a ball?”  She is deeply concerned that even with the better opportunities available to girls it is still boys who “take up space” in the streets and playgrounds while girls are “inside playing with their Flo-Jo dolls” (Nelson 1991:30-31).

Young argues that “The relatively untrained man nevertheless engages in sport generally with more free motion and open reach than does his female counterpart” (Young 1990:146).  As my interviewee Leslie reminded me, boys are gifted on their first birthday not by nature with talent but by relatives with baseball mitts or footballs.  Their training in sports is part and parcel of their training as little men.  Michael Messner writes that by age ten he had already “develop[ed] a pretty deadly shot in basketball” and was worrying himself with his “inability to hit the fast ball in Little League” (Messner 1992:1).  Sports training for girls is still not automatic nor generally an important piece of their education as little women.  Opportunity may well depend on her own talent and initiative, supportive parents or siblings, or the presence or absence of Little Miss or Ponytail leagues in her hometown.  And she may not be given these options until she is six or seven, if she is given them at all. 

Women still have to fight to live freely in public spaces.  Nelson tells the story of Lauren Crux, a Santa Cruz, Californian athlete who offers free bodysurfing lessons to women through her organization “Wild Women in Free Places” (also known as “Free Women in Wild Places”).  On the beach or in the ocean, Lauren and her students are regularly harassed and threatened by boys and men who “are defending what they perceive to be male territory” (Nelson 1991:176-195).  It would seem that men have laid claim not only to baseball diamonds but to the entire ocean!  Nevertheless, it ought be clear to everyone by now that girls can throw like competent people.  Why, given the right training she can even pitch college baseball.  Southern California College Coach Charlie Phillips pays Ila Borders what he thinks is the ultimate compliment: “If you cut her hair off and look at her out there, you wouldn’t know she was a girl…” (Baseball Weekly, Feb 1994).

Women athletes contest cultural prohibitions which limit the “feminine” to a comportment of confinement.  To swing a bat effectively, a female softball player must take up space: legs spread wide, body upright, arms reaching across the body in anticipation.  With her eye on the ball, her focus on her target, she swings with all the conviction her body can muster.  In this single act, a woman violates the restricted role to which she has been assigned.  She calls attention to her body and insists that it is hers to live in as she chooses.  She is socially dangerous: she invades masculine territory and threatens American ideals of feminine order and sexuality.  The act of playing softball resignifies the female body and constitutes a female self unambiguously and intentionally united to the world.


[3]  For reasons different than the ones I articulate, male athletes may also experience a kind of distance from their experiencing bodies.  Messner argues that the masculine sports body is a tool, weapon, or machine used by the self to achieve “success, status, fame” either locally or nationally.  Sports training, which requires that men ignore and forego any expression of pain, results in an “alienated, violent embodiment of masculinity” (Messner 1992:61-79).
[4]  Shelton did not play on this league but was an early spectator.  Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to interview any of the founding players.

 

Works cited:

Connolly, Olga.  1990.  “Last Word.” in Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Gerber, Ellen W., J. Felshin, P. Berlin, and W. Wyrick, eds.  1974. The American Woman in Sport.  Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Henley, Nancy M.  1977. Body Politics: Power, Sex & Nonverbal Communication.  NY, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Laqueur, Thomas.  1990. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Messner, Michael A.  1992. Power at Play: Sports and the Problem of Masculinity.  Boston: Beacon Press.

Nelson, Mariah Burton.  1991. Are We Winning Yet?: How Women are Changing Sports and Sports are Changing Women.  New York: Random House.

Twin, Stephanie L.  1979. Out of the Bleachers. Old Westbury, NY: The Feminist Press.

Young, Iris Marion. 1990. Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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