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Women, sports and sexism – has anything changed?

Ria Ledwaba, head of the South African Football Association:”At the moment you sometimes can’t tell if they’re men or women.” Center: South African “lady” footballers; Right: The “Rockford Peaches” of A League of Their Own (1992).

It’s like stepping back in time…to the days of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of the 1940s and 50s (romanticized in the entertaining Penny Marshall flick A League of Their Own). The “girls” were professionally groomed, sent to charm school and expected to be a lady. From the charm school guide:

You should be the best judge of your own beauty requirements. Keep your own kit replenished with the things you need for your own toilette and your beauty culture and care. Remember the skin, the hair, the teeth and the eyes. It is most desirable in your own interests, that of your teammates and fellow players, as well as from the standpoint of the public relations of the league that each girl be at all times presentable and attractive, whether on the playing field or at leisure. Study your own beauty culture possibilities and without overdoing your beauty treatment at the risk of attaining gaudiness, practice the little measure that will reflect well on your appearance and personality as a real All American girl.

These young women, some of them lesbian, were allowed to play pro baseball – but all of them were forced to present a feminine image to the crowd, to assure that only heterosexual energy was radiating on the field. (Reader’s Companion to US Women’s History):

The Midwest-based All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), which drew over a half-million fans annually between 1943 and 1954, adopted a similar approach. The league employed what officials called the “femininity principle,” a shrewd strategy designed to contrast athletes’ “masculine skill” with their “feminine attractiveness.” Dressed in pastel, skirted uniforms and forbidden by league rules to wear their hair in boyish bobs or to dress in masculine garb, AAGPBL players courted public approval with a wholesome girl-next-door image while thrilling their fans with stellar play. Although some players approved of the femininity principle and others found it ludicrous, all agreed that abiding by the rules was a small price to pay for the chance to pursue a dream—playing high-level professional sport before appreciative audiences. Women of color were denied this opportunity, since the all-white league management believed that African American players, in particular, might damage the league’s “feminine” image.

That was history, but apparently nothing much has changed. From today’s headlines: (Pretoria News):

The South African women’s soccer team is to be coached in etiquette and given tighter T-shirts in a drive to soften its image and attract sponsorship ahead of a 2007 World Cup bid. A top official yesterday said female players who dressed and acted like men were giving women’s soccer a bad name and they needed to nurture their feminine side.

“They need to learn how to be ladies,” said Ria Ledwaba, head of the women’s committee at the South African Football Association (SAFA). “At the moment you sometimes can’t tell if they’re men or women.”

The national team would be given a more shapely kit to emphasise their femininity on the pitch and would swap dowdy track suits for skirts and jackets when travelling. “Obviously they can’t wear skirts on the pitch. But they will be given outfits made for women, with female shirts that are shaped for breasts,” Ledwaba said.

SAFA would also hold etiquette workshops to turn the players – often plucked from township streets and with little schooling – into national assets. “We need to teach them etiquette and the importance of being a role model,” said Ledwaba.

“There are mothers out there who won’t let their daughters play football because they think they’ll start acting like boys.”

Before you dismiss this extreme stupidity and knuckle-dragging thinking as a South African problem, it wasn’t that long ago in NY that lesbian fans of the WNBA’s NY Liberty team were carefully avoided when the camera panned the stands. The ardent base of support for the league, the paying customers filling the stands, were considered a liability for marketing the game, as experts chased the “family-friendly” demographic. (Gay City News)

Many lesbians have similar stories of how Madison Square Garden has tried to suppress any indication of lesbians in the arena. In 1999, Jess Dobkin recalls, “I made a banner that said ‘Lesbians For Liberty’ and brought it to the game on Gay Pride Day. I was so excited to be going to the Liberty game where there were so many lesbians.”

At the game, Madison Square Garden personnel demanded that she put the banner completely out of sight under threat of eviction from the arena. “There were other banners and signs” Dobkin says, “They wouldn’t let me have [my banner] open at all. They wouldn’t let me and several other people hold it on our laps. We asked if we could hold it during time-out, and they wouldn’t let us do that.”

Have women made no progress on this front? Thankfully, due to Title IX of the 1972 Educational Act, which forced equal funding of women’s and men’s sports in educational programs that received federal funding, women are getting to pursue their dream of athletic competition as never before. But the above Liberty tale shows us that sexuality and women in sports are still a problematic combination for our culture to digest.

I mean, what on earth explains Anna Kournikova’s endorsements — it’s certainly not her game, it’s her booty. No one begrudges Kournikova for cashing in (at least I don’t), it’s the fact that she hasn’t earned that reward for her athletic abilities, it’s for her looks. Martina Navratilova never had lucrative deals on that scale despite her landmark impact on women’s tennis, in fact, tennis overall.

So where does that leave us? I guess the dollars and cents of women’s sports are still going to be a matter of balancing T&A; for some time to come.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding