Gym Class Blues

Active Bodies: A History of Women’s Physical Education in Twentieth-Century America

Martha H. Verbrugge

New York: Oxford University Press, 2012, 391 pp., $55.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Laura Pappano

Memories of gym class, whether you were athletically inclined or not, stir up uncomfortable images. Many women who attended high school in the sixties and seventies recall lining up as designated captains chose teams and delivered public humiliation to those picked last. Generations of us donned bizarre jumpsuit-style uniforms (what was wrong with tee shirts and shorts?) and spent academic-length school periods on light athletic skills—or more often, on games designed to not be actual sports, like “soccer” played from the crab position with a giant cloth-covered bladderball or contests involving hoola hoops and teeny scooters. Then there was the intrusive requirement that girls report their menstrual cycles to their gym teachers (mine marked students’ “monthlies” in her attendance book).

Gym has been part of school curriculums for a century (before 1915 only three states required it; by 1929, 46 did), but it has always stood as an anomaly in the academic day, an awkward twilight between algebra and after-school sports. Its rules and practices overreached normal classroom boundaries. Lessons did teach skills and rules (I once took a written test on which golf clubs should be used in the fairway), but gym class has always been more about the hard-to-define, aiming to instruct girls on how they ought to be. For impressionable teens seeking clues to womanhood, physical education instructors were powerful figures, communicating what was healthy and hygienic, right and proper.

Not surprisingly, this thrust physical educators into the heart of debates about gender and race, not only in physical culture but in society at large, which is what the historian Martha H. Verbrugge has made the focus of her new book, Active Bodies. While the broader subject of women and sports has been well-covered, especially in recent years, Verbrugge tackles the quieter, yet critical, field of physical education. In her exhaustively researched book, Verbrugge narrates in terrific detail the struggle physical education instructors have faced to maintain and exert their expertise over women’s physical development amid shifting social mores, scientific fashions, and attitudes about race, gender, and sexual orientation.

She probes how leaders in the field as well as individuals working in colleges and high schools struggled with often-contradictory mandates to protect female physical “difference” while seeking equal (or at least better) treatment. Verbrugge illuminates changes in the discourse of physical education from the field’s emergence in the late 1800s through the early 2000s. She picks apart male and female, individual and collective, white and African American actions and responses. She considers the influence of prevailing scientific arguments, health beliefs, and reproductive concerns and records how such thinking framed and justified decisions about women’s physical activity. There is no broad brush here, but a thousand pointillist dots of information. This is both the gift and the drawback of the book. Active Bodies contains 76 pages of endnotes and a 38-page select bibliography that will be valuable to researchers for its catalogue of sources, including manuscript collections, journals, and reports. It also cites 22 tape-recorded interviews conducted by the author. There is a lot of important original work here.

What the book contains in breathtaking thoroughness of research, however, it lacks in sense making. Verbrugge does not step back from the detailed portrait she is constructing to assess the landscape. The reader is left with great appreciation for the nuances and complications of the female physical education instructor’s role (and lots of excellent quotes from primary manuscripts), but confusion over what it all means. How did the course of women’s physical education influence the evolving story of women’s sports and off-the-field social status?

At many points in the book, the march of details drives the narrative. When I read that in 1935, the Washington, DC, school district hired a young, former student-athlete from Indiana State University named Birch Evans Bayh to oversee sports, physical education, and health for white elementary and secondary schools, I was curious. After all, as a line in an endnote explains, he was the father of Birch Evans Bayh Jr., who as a US senator played a pivotal role in the passage of Title IX. It may be coincidence, but the astute reader will wonder about the connection between Bayh Sr.’s work in a segregated and discriminatory district, and his son’s advocacy for gender equity. A stronger narrator would weave this in. Instead, Bayh Sr. is never heard from again.

Nonetheless, Verbrugge’s digging yields interesting finds. Staying for a moment with the segregated Washington, DC, public schools in the early twentieth century, she reports on gross racial inequities and offers information not commonly known or available. Facilities were so substandard, Verbrugge writes, that “by the late 1930s, the average playground space per pupil at some white elementary schools was four times that of black primary schools.” What’s more, spending for white pupils was more than 25 percent higher than for black pupils, and the district made it nearly impossible for black schools to alter that. A key means for raising additional money for sports was through gate receipts from athletic competitions. But not only were the gyms and athletic facilities in black schools so small that gate receipts were limited, but the DC Board of Education in the mid-1930s banned post-season competition—except for white football teams whose championship football games raised $2,000 to $10,000 for the white Interscholastic Athletic Council. This is wonderful, detailed evidence.

Verbrugge observes the differing white and black responses to girls’ athletic participation, noting that girls in black schools had the support of Bayh Sr.’s black counterpart, Edwin B. Henderson. Far from raising concerns about femininity, Henderson held up as role models the black female track stars from the Tuskegee Institute, like high-jumper Alice Coachman, who represented the US in the 1948 Olympic Games. He positioned them as “normal girls,” shooting down fears that competition, particularly in sports that had been gendered male, could make women “mannish.” “I doubt that any of these Tuskegee-trained girls have been the worse for wear as wives and mothers,” he declared, calling on girls to get “out of the bleachers ruining their delicate throats for the boys on the gridiron” and onto “the track, over the hurdles and jumps.” Verbrugge amplifies his point:

"If Henderson’s logic was biological, his message was cultural; since athleticism and femininity were congruent, the black community ‘should not be too squeamish’ about female competition.”

That Tuskegee’s stretch of success stirred pride in the black community and offered girls an acceptable outlet for their athleticism is not news. But Verbrugge highlights the significance of this message in a tightly controlled, segregated system, arguing that

"Henderson’s conclusions reflected the double-sidedness of being black and American; while confronting white norms of gender and race, he also depicted female athleticism in the framework of middle-class black values."

Henderson’s support unfortunately seems to have had limited effect in a system in which students’ athletic destinies were rigidly set. “Sports and physical education were especially powerful ways of managing students and institutionalizing inequality,” Verbrugge writes.

"The reach of difference, however, extended well beyond the white/black divide. To mark boundaries of gender and sexuality, the school system also differentiated between pupils deemed talented or unfit as well as between athletic boys, unskilled boys, and all girls."

These designations were not accidental, she writes, but enforced “by specifying who could exercise where, in which ways, and with what resources.”

Athletics was, and is still, a vehicle for exerting political and social control, and enforcing male heterosexual hegemony. Countries today in which females have second-class political status are often the same ones that limit women’s access to athletics. The practice, though, is not straightforward but rather a dance in which earnest individuals—sometimes male, but often, especially in the past, female physical education instructors— play guardian over women by limiting their opportunities in the name of sensible protection. At times, this may be reasonable; at others it’s absurd. We need some reflection and guidance, a moderator to help us evaluate the debate.

For example, in the 1990s, researchers grew alarmed at what they labeled the Female Athletic Triad, a combination of weight loss, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis. There is, as Verbrugge illustrates, lots of disagreement over the triad’s causes and interpretation: is it a scary pathology or a natural and temporary physical response? A reasonable medical worry or yet another means of controlling women’s athletic exertion? Verbrugge presents detailed and thoughtful evidence, and walks us, stride by stride, through the conflicting views and the complications the triad presents for teachers and coaches. But what are we to make of it all? She ends her discussion by pointing out that physical education instructors often use their close relationships with girls to educate:

"[T]he profession has focused on converting scientific information into practical action: What do young athletes need to know about menstruation, bone health, nutrition, and training?"

But this conclusion is cautious, noncommittal, even wishy-washy. If physical educators have become the confidants of young girls and the translators, for them, of medical information—the people who, as Verbrugge says, can “do either the most harm or the most good for young women”—which have they done?

The kind of detail Verbrugge provides about the Female Athlete Triad, to cite just one example, is what makes her work both impressive and frustrating. Throughout Active Bodies, she documents how multiple, competing conversations about women’s bodies frame the way they are controlled. She explains that because male bodies, male athletics, and male physical activity have been the standard, women’s bodies, complicated by their reproductive role, have become “problems” to be “solved.” The challenge has been to consider how girls and women might exercise and play in a way that is healthful and socially, even morally, appropriate. The book details the various ways many have grappled with this question over the past century, but its lacks a voice of authority or even clear guideposts. What are we to make of the tangle, besides the fact that it is contradictory and complicated? Where is the overarching argument?

Certainly physical education instructors have not operated without self-interest. A recurring theme in Active Bodies is how female physical educators have framed and re-framed their view of female physical needs to maintain their jurisdiction over female physical activity (and keep their jobs). Verbrugge notes that as recently as the last quarter of the twentieth century,

"women physical educators revisited old dilemmas. At the forefront was the question of priorities: Should programs emphasize general instruction, intramural activities, voluntary recreation, and/or competitive sports?”

But places like this are exactly where I want more help. Have female physical education instructors truly served the best interests of young women? At times, they have advocated limiting opportunities—arguing for example against the ills of competition and painting women as having “special needs”—which seems, at least by today’s lights, counterproductive. They have claimed jurisdiction over so many issues—reproductive health, propriety, even sexual urges—that athletics sometimes seems an afterthought.

It’s difficult to know, particularly in the years leading up to the passage of Title IX in 1972, or the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s assumption of authority over women’s college sports in 1980, whether physical educators could have fought harder for equity for women athletes. Marginalized, they often seemed to feel they had to argue in ways that denigrated women in order to maintain their authority. Even so, they secured little advantage in power or resources. Female athletes are just now beginning to catch up in terms of performance and while gym teachers and coaches have played a role, the push for access and equity has come more powerfully from other forces, including the rise of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s—think Billie Jean King—and the compounding visibility and success of female athletes—think US Women’s soccer team 1999 World Cup victory. Today it’s not odd for young girls to play soccer; a half century ago it was. I wanted Verbrugge to weigh in on the question of whether women’s late arrival to the athletic table was a matter of poor strategy. Could women’s access to bona-fide sports have come sooner, perhaps closer to suffrage than to the first Super Bowl?

Laura Pappano is writer-in-residence at Wellesley Centers for Women, editor of the FairGameNews blog, and a journalist and author who writes about gender and sport, and education. She is co-author with Eileen McDonagh of Playing With the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal in Sport (2007).

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