Projects

Project Editor:Aaron Hillyer, English 418/818, Fall 2005


Restrictive Construction:
The Past of the Female Sporting Body at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln

The current relationship between feminism and sport bears the heavy marks of a new cultural criticism surrounding the body (53). Influenced by such postmodern theorists as Michel Foucault, this body of thought carries an "insistence on the body as an historical and culturally specific entity, thus providing a way to conceive of the sexualized body without positing an original sexual difference or fixed biological essence" (Hall 53). This contention reveals how the body is constructed through a "variety of discourses - medical, scientific, technological, sexual, and sporting." And these discourses are, to Foucault, always imbued with power and are institutionalized as practices. It is not the goal of this essay to build upon these positions but rather to historicize their occurrence, to contribute to a genealogy of the female body's construction by examining its manifestation in the first half of the 20th century at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln— an institution that lends itself to this sort of analysis because of its position at the fore of the "women's physical education" movement.

Led by women's physical education pioneer Mabel Lee, from 1924-onward UN-L enacted a program of women's athletic involvement that, while providing increased opportunities for women to exercise and compete with each other, is viewed by some as having reinforced constructed female stereotypes by insisting on a maintaining a "feminine ideal" within the athletic and competitive endeavor. In this view, emphasizing traditional schemas of womanly etiquette and values within sport was particularly damaging to the struggle for gender equity because it inserted artificial limitations into an activity (athletic competition) that depends, for its most fulfilled execution, on the ability of the participant to exert her/himself in an unlimited fashion, at least physically and at least momentarily. Because this sort of full exertion was considered "unwomanly" and was further prevented by the constrictive dress requirements imposed on women during this time, it was simply impossible for a woman to really exhibit her athletic talents (with notable exceptions). And thus it is easy to see how a partially-achieved demonstration of ability was perceived as fulfillment of that ability. Perhaps the lingering effects of this practice have contributed to the secondary status still accorded to female athletics - constructed perceptions that are institutionalized within society, even for short periods of time, bear long-lasting repercussions, as shown by many studies of how marginalized populations are perceived through time.

As I've indicated, it is the goal of this essay to examine exactly how the "feminine ideal" in sport was emphasized in Lincoln and at UN-L. It will be important to first place this local occurrence within the broader context of the state of women's athletics nationally. In her book Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women's Sport, Susan Cahn relates a scene described by University of Wisconsin women's physical education director Blanche Trilling to sportswriter John Tunis in hopes that publicity would curb future instances of what she observed. Tunis reported that the director had recently attended a girls' high school basketball tournament. According to Trilling's account, the "utterly exhausted" girls became so fatigued they "were removed from the floor in a fainting and hysterical condition" (Cahn 55). But the game continued: "Local patriotism knew no bounds, the audiences grew wilder and wilder, all at the expense of these small groups of girls who became every minute more tense and excited...[T]he game became a wild frenzy. The referee was an ogre and victory was all that mattered" (Cahn 55). Relating Trilling's sentiment, Tunis explains the troubling fact that such scenes were not limited to basketball: "The fact is that the women in many branches of sport have begun to ape the athletics of men" (Cahn 55).

As Cahn points out, of the many interesting aspects of this anecdote, among the most fascinating is that it comes from a female point of view: "It seems ironic that by the late 1920s, it was most often women, typically physical educators and recreation leaders, who raised the cry of 'masculinization'"(55). Perhaps most importantly this phenomenon indicates how deeply-ingrained gender schemas were at this time; as a corollary it reveals the burden felt by the (unwitting) female enactors of such an artificially schematized system to defend what they believed to be the last vestiges of femininity against the encroachment of more liberal social values. (From a contemporary standpoint it is hard not to be astonished at the effectiveness of a system that induces the leaders of a movement that they think opposes it [Mabel Lee was a woman and as such would likely not intentionally adopt positions that would increase the systematic oppression of her fellow women] to unintentionally contribute powerfully to its continued existence.)

In an effort to explain the hostility of both sexes towards female athletic competition in America M. Ann Hall, in her book Feminism and Sporting Bodies, cites a history within the social sciences of "assuming that so-called cross sex behaviors and preferences (e.g. athleticism among females) were indicators of emotional disturbance or sexual deviation. To be a woman and an athlete was to be in conflict and therefore psychologically unhealthy"(19). According to Hall this assumption is rooted in the care/autonomy binary that is at the heart of American conceptions of gender. In this view, masculine fulfillment is exhibited by "autonomy, self-reliance, and achievement requiring an asocial, or even antisocial, stance to the world" whereas femininity is equated with "self-sacrifice and responsiveness to others' needs" (19). As she further traces this history of the female body's construction Hall contends that the conflict between gender and culture is an almost exclusively feminine one because most cultural practices, especially sport and leisure, are defined by traditionally masculine standards.

In order to build upon this theoretical basis of a particular type of "women's sport", and thus offer a full view of the occurrences in Lincoln, it is also necessary to examine the functions sports fulfill abstractly in culture. In an excellent article, "The Dialectic of Woman and Sport", Jan Felshin articulates two premises that are essential to understanding sports in our society: 1) sport is a symbolic formulation of ideal values, and 2) sport is institutionalized in American society. While unpacking the former premise, Felshin cites the history of the Olympic games as an example of how images of masculinity and femininity were clearly delineated to fulfill the goals of a social construction of gender — the domain of the heroic would thereafter be (as it had been before) an exclusively male terrain. The Olympics are one of the earliest extant examples of how sport is used to emphasize gender stereotypes, a phenomenon that Felshin contends still exists in contemporary America:

Sport as an abstraction, however, still contains masculine assumptions. In its social definition it is obvious that sport in the United States serves as a masculine rite of passage. It could not be a vehicle for socialization into manhood except that the idealized values invested in sport symbolically and socially have important masculine connotations. This may be so because men played more important roles in establishing both society and sport, or because men are simply more important in a social view; in any case, the assumption of sport as masculine is a basic aspect of it as a symbolic formulation of ideal values. (182)

From this summary of sport's masculine associations flows the idea that, in order to achieve gender equality in sport, it may be necessary to re-define what sport means in our culture — a daunting task and one that Mabel Lee, Blanche Trilling, and other leaders of the female physical education movement were simply ignorant of as they enacted their blueprint for appropriate female athletic activity in the first half of the twentieth century.

To understand what went on in Lincoln during Mabel Lee's tenure there as head of the women's physical education department, it may be best to begin by examining the conflict between Lee and Louise Pound, a UN-L English professor and prominent female athlete who competed successfully against women and men alike. In her informative MA thesis Mabel Lee and Louise Pound: The University of Nebraska's Battle Over Women's Intercollegiate Athletics, Kristi Lowenthal attributes the feud between Lee and Pound to a larger divide between Victorian values and modern middle-class values in early twentieth-century America. Lowenthal traces Lee's activism for moderate intramural sports for women to a Victorian emphasis on self-control and delayed gratification: "She learned and maintained a Victorian concept of femininity which dictated that women were the "weaker sex" and that improper athletic activities could have grave consequences...Lee insisted that her physical education students maintain their traditional feminine grace and charm while shunning the "mannishness" that she feared could come from excessively competitive sports" (8). Based on these ideas, Lee's carefully planned program for women's athletic involvement consisted of "uniformly moderate, restrained exercises and games led by professionally-trained women physical educators" (8).

Louise Pound, on the other hand, fit perfectly Susan Cahn's description of the "new woman" of the early-twentieth century, one who "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" (7). Possessing an astonishing range of elite athletic skills, Pound became famous throughout the U.S. for her exploits in basketball, tennis, golf, cycling and skating, and often defeated her male competitors in these sports. Her philosophy of women's sports likely derived from her own successful, and personally enjoyable, athletic experiences. As Lowenthal discusses, Pound ignored ideas popularized by prominent physical educators that serious female athletic activity would result in physical, emotional, moral and social damage, and in turn rejected Lee's call for intramural women's sports as "boring and weak". Pound instead advocated a modern view of uninhibited sports for women, a goal her 1958 death prevented her from seeing much progress toward, but which was eventually vindicated (at least partially) by Title IX.

It is fairly easy to see that Pound's positions and ambitions represented a thoroughly modern feminist view of women and sport, while Lee's philosophy and work signified another contribution to the systemic creation of constructed gender roles that serve to oppress women by installing artificial limitations (which quickly become powerful actual limitations) on their abilities and aims. The intense nature of the actual conflict between these two women (Lee was escorted to and from campus every day by a plainclothes police officer following threats attributed to Pound's influence [109]) may have been a factor in provoking the extremely conservative policies and activities Lee enacted at UN-L, as Lowenthal's work shows a great deal of open animosity and personal spite between the two. Whatever it was that provided the impetus behind Lee's fiercely traditional philosophy, its particular manifestations beg close examination and will hopefully illuminate the type of social construction that Michel Foucault, M. Ann Hall, and others have reacted so strongly against. The remainder of this essay, which is what the narrative has been continually building toward, will focus on specific cultural artifacts from Lincoln and UN-L that reflect the maintenance of an artificial and sexist "feminine ideal" within women's athletic endeavors.



A photograph of the program for the UN-L women's physical education department banquet held on June 8, 1940

The program for the UN-L women's physical education department banquet held on June 8, 1940.


While official UN-L physical education documents and the letters of Mabel Lee, many of which currently reside in the UN-L archives, point clearly towards an intentional emphasis on restraint within women's athletic activities, the most powerful manifestations of this philosophy can be found in the implicit messages of other, seemingly innocuous, texts and artifacts. Among the most striking of these is a poem printed in a program for a UN-L women's physical education department banquet that occurred on June 8, 1940. The banquet, ostensibly held to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the department's creation, was actually designed to honor Mabel Lee and the first woman physical education major at UN-L, as the subheading of the program indicates: "Celebrating the Graduation of the First Woman Major in Physical Education and Honoring the First Director of the Department of Physical Education for Women". As director of the department holding the banquet, Lee's influence would have likely permeated every aspect of it, a notion that is backed by the nostalgic title of the event - "Those Were the Days" - and by the program's cover illustration of a female athlete dressed in extremely exaggerated baggy clothing and wearing a very large hat. The implication of this cover, which promotes a return to the very traditional view of women in sports, points toward the intent behind the poem, entitled "The Sailor Lass", that is printed in the program:

THE SAILOR LASS

Her home is the water
Nor fearful is she
Of the dash and the crash
Of the boisterous seas.

She scorns petty sports
For her joy is the oar;
And the feel of the keel
As it leaps from the shore

She's the bravest and best
Most corageous and sweet,
This pearl of a girl
Who rows on Salt creek.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this poem is the descriptive progression made from the first stanza to the last. The description of the "sailor lass" in the first stanza is one that characterizes her as a daring adventurer, fearless of the "boisterous seas" - a portrayal that is in sharp contrast with the far more gentle one found in the last stanza. At the poem's end we are no longer imagining a brave female sailor; the description has taken a radical turn towards a traditional embodiment of Victorian femininity and the sailor lass is now equated to a "pearl" who manages to maintain her "sweetness" despite her bravery and courage. And where are the stormy seas alluded to in the first stanza? Now, the sailor lass is relegated to rowing on Salt Creek, a slowly meandering stream that flows through Lincoln. The stream is completely dry during certain seasons and even when filled to normal capacity would offer nothing more than a lazy and unchallenging activity to even the most inexperienced rowers.

This poem can easily be read as a microcosm of Mabel Lee's vision, and therefore of the real situation presented to female athletes at UN-L during her tenure. Its initial presentation of a completely idealized and unrealistic description of a "sailor lass" signifies an attempt to disguise the limitations imposed on women in sports at the time by offering a romantic ideal of the woman athlete that could never be fulfilled in Lincoln, as the poem's last stanza awkwardly illustrates. The seemingly progressive vision presented in the first stanza is just a ruse, as Mabel Lee knew the only "sailing" done by the women in her department would be done on the shallow and placid waters of a nearby small creek, if done at all. The unfortunate implication here is that it is enough to merely conceptualize an unbridled woman athlete; the actualization of such of type would endanger the "sweet pearl" of femininity that the poem finally emphasizes. The contrast between the abstract "new" and daring female athlete (which Mabel Lee gives lip service to) and the actual UN-L female athlete who was allowed to compete only intramurally and with strict limitations could not have been lost on the women students themselves. The promise of the opening of a banquet poem would have quickly vanished into the rather dark and repressive reality of the situation and thus this maintenance of an artificial feminine ideal would continue on, ingrained in the minds of the policy-makers and young women alike.

As "The Sailor Lass" is an example of the social construction of the female sporting body within the university, it is important to look at the factors outside of the campus setting which contributed to this process. Being a Midwestern land-grant institution, community and state-wide values have always been integrated into the UN-L system to a substantial degree; thus, many university phenomena have roots in the larger cultural settings of the city of Lincoln and the state of Nebraska. The examples of such a basis for the university's physical education goals for women are numerous, but two articles from the Lincoln Journal Star — one from 1899 and one from 1929 — illustrate the point in striking ways.

In the 1899 article, titled "Girl Gymnasts: Pretty Exhibition by the University Physical Department", the author describes the "prettiest entertainment" of a dancing exhibition put on by the university women. Not surprisingly, the description focuses far more on the women's attire than their athletic prowess, with descriptions such as this filling the text: "the members of the advanced classes had huge white ties, and the first year classes fluffy pink or blue bows. The effect from the gallery was charming, and the girls seemed like nodding flowers". [Click on this link to access the full text and image of this article] The women are portrayed as being on display more than anything else, a notion supported by their description as "nodding flowers". Flowers, while generally aesthetically pleasing, don't move much naturally and thus the analogy drawn eradicates any possible view of the women gymnasts as actual athletes engaged in complex movements. It is banal to say this article fits the repressive construct of the sweet and charming but physically incapable female athlete, but it is an observation that is key to my argument: this representation of the female athlete at the turn of the century would not evolve at all during at least the next thirty years, if articles in the Lincoln Journal-Star are any indication.

The second Journal-Star piece, from January 9, 1938, is actually just a visual spread with little text attached.

A photograph of a January 9, 1938 Lincoln Journal-Star visual spread titled

Visual spread titled "Evolution of Women's Apparel since 1918"


It is titled "Evolution of Women's Apparel since 1918" and features graphics of women's athletic dress from the years 1918, 1928 and 1938, and a speculative graphic of how such attire may look in 1948. It is important to note that the graphics do not seem to be of UN-L athletes, but rather are attempts to reveal the state of women's athletic clothing in general. The representations from 1918 and 1928 are realistic depictions of the restrictive clothing women wore to play basketball. Both outfits involve long skirts and baggy blouses, with long socks to cover the legs. The photo of 1938 dress is markedly different from the first two; this athletic costume consists of fairly short white shorts and a collared shirt with short sleeves. This attire seems relatively unrestrictive, a quality that the creator of the spread may have bemoaned if the 1948 graphic is indicative of authorial intent (which it seems to be because of its caricature-esque qualities - no other graphic is presented in such a way). The 1948 drawing is an obviously ridiculous likeness of a female basketball player playing in what is either a bikini or simply a bra and panty. The implication here (a clear one it seems given the predictable response to such an outfit in 1938, or today for that matter) is that if women's athletic dress continues on its current (1938) path, absolute decadence and exhibitionism will be the result.

In both newspaper pieces, which span 39 years, there is a clear message that the proper role of women in sports is a very restrictive one that prevents the full development or enactment of athletic talent. This message is clear in the "The Sailor Lass" as well. These three cultural artifacts, when viewed in their historical context and in a contemporary theoretical context, illustrate the surprising degree to which the female athletic body was constructed in the first half of the twentieth century. While progress has occurred in how women athletes are viewed, and are thus able to view themselves, the remnants of the construct remain - a situation that will exist as long as we are reluctant to re-examine the processes of such a construction and thus unable to subordinate these processes to critical judgment and the more natural views that accompany it.

Works Cited

Anonymous. "Evolution of Women's Apparel since 1918". Lincoln, Nebraska:Lincoln Journal-Star, January 9, 1938.

Anonymous. "The Sailor Lass". University of Nebraska-Lincoln Women's Physical Education Department Banquet Program. June 8, 1940.

Cahn, Susan K. Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-century Women's Sport. New York: The Free Press, 1994.

Gerber, Ellen W. et al. The American Woman in Sport. London: Addison-Wesley, 1974.

Hall, M. Ann. Feminism and Sporting Bodies. Champaign, IL: Versa Press, 1996.

Lowenthal, Kristi. Mabel Lee and Louise Pound: The University of Nebraska's Battle Over Women's Intercollegiate Athletics. MA Thesis. Lincoln U of Nebraska: 1999.