Sport-Bras and Ponytails
Qualifying Times: Points of Change in US Women’s Sport
By Jaime Schultz
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014, 304 pp., $26.00, paperback
Reviewed by Susan Ware
Is there a more ubiquitous symbol of the contemporary female athlete than the ponytail? And yet step back, as Jaime Schultz does in her spirited and thought-provoking Qualifying Times, and consider how “something as seemingly mundane as a ponytail is actually shot through with substantial and varied cultural significance.” Not only does it reinforce a vision of heteronormative femininity in the context of athletic endeavor, but it privileges white athletes. As she concludes, “[T]hat tidy coiffure is one messy bundle.”
Looking critically at things like ponytails and sports bras is only part of Schultz’s agenda. Her subtitle was inspired by a quote from feminist historian Gerda Lerner, who asked, “What are the points of change in women’s historic experience by which we might periodize the history of women?” Lerner is a tough act to follow, and quoting her sets a high bar: can Schultz tell the story of women’s sport according to points of change specific to women’s experiences rather than the traditional markers used to delineate the history of men? And does this revisioning dramatically change the picture?
It may be helpful for readers to think of this book as a sort of collective biography, except that instead of highlighting individual women, each chapter focuses on a specific topic or element of women’s physical culture. The narrative moves chronologically from the 1880s all the way to the 2012 summer Olympics in London. The intention is for the chapters to build a cumulative momentum that is more than just the sum of the individual parts. But as anyone who has ever tried to write a collective biography knows (and I speak from experience), pulling this off is a tricky business.
The “points of change” profiled offer a wide-ranging and often entertaining survey of various aspects of women’s sporting history over the past century. Schultz begins her story in the 1880s by asking, “[W]hat shall we wear for tennis?” Corsets still reigned, but it wasn’t possible to play tennis or ride a bicycle (another popular craze of the time) encased in whalebone stays. So gradually, almost inexorably, the dresses got shorter, constraining undergarments were loosened and then shed, and limbs were uncovered, showing the links between dress reform and social change, specifically women’s emancipation. In turn, the tennis-playing woman became the model for the modern ideal of the female athlete: attractive, elite, and usually white.
These athletic women didn’t want to sit on the sidelines when they had their periods; plus, as Susan Brownmiller memorably put it, “It’s not easy to play the jock with a bloody cloth between one’s legs.” Enter the tampon—“the world on a string”—first introduced in 1936. Drawing in part on ads from the 1930s through the early 1950s, many of which featured active sportswomen, Schultz charts the increasing acceptance of this new menstrual product, which had the dual outcome of making play possible at all times of the month and making this bodily function disappear from sight.
Whether women should play sports while menstruating was part of a larger discussion about the role of competition in women’s sport, a battle played out from the 1920s through the 1960s in the women’s athletic organizations. As part of Schultz’s larger point that a lot was already changing before the passage of Title IX in 1972, she pays special attention to a series of National Institutes on Girls’ Sports held between 1963 and 1969. She also makes a link, as other historians have done, to the postwar Olympics: specifically, how the all-important medal count spurred initiatives to increase American women’s participation in the service of cold-war politics.
While Schultz explicitly writes that she is interested in women’s actual athletic experiences rather than how sport is gendered, it is impossible not to talk about gender in the context of sex testing, which is premised on the idea that there is a clear and unambiguous correspondence between women’s appearance and athletic ability, and their chromosomal makeup. And yet there is far more variation than the two-sex athletic binary can readily account for. The recent case of the South African sprinter Caster Semenya shows that exceptional women athletes are subject to challenges and penalties that would never be meted out to male athletes.
Schultz does an especially interesting job of juxtaposing the dramatic growth in sports for girls and women as a result of Title IX in the 1970s with the Reagan backlash of the 1980s, which slowed progress practically to a halt. But she tells a more complicated story, simultaneously linking the stalemate in women’s sports to the rise of a new ideal of beauty culture typified by the rise of aerobics and physical fitness. Now women were supposed to exercise in order to achieve a certain kind of physical perfection and fitness rather than to experience the rewards and challenges of competitive athletics. Making this link between beauty culture and the slowdown in women’s sports is an especially important contribution to our understanding of the 1980s.
Schultz’s discussion of the commercialization of fitness segues nicely into a history of the sports bra, which is almost as much a symbol of women’s athletics as the ponytail. The image of Brandi Chastain in her black sports bra at the 1999 Women’s World Cup soccer championship plays a starring role in this chapter (and graces the cover of the book), precisely because a woman athlete in a bra is still seen as inherently sexual and erotic in a way that a shirtless male athlete rarely would be. But there is more to the story than that. Since the sports bra’s “uniboob” effect defied cultural expectations about women’s voluptuousness, even sports bras began to include more definition. What should have been a purely functional piece of athletic clothing became part of the imperative to look good and look feminine at all times, even when playing hard at sports.
The last chapter on so-called competitive cheer surveys a comparatively recent development that has not yet been the subject of much scholarly treatment. Here, Schultz inserts herself into the narrative, telling of watching competitions of team acrobatics and tumbling, a label that puts the focus on athletics, unlike “cheerleading” or “competitive cheer,” with their connotations of women on the sidelines rooting for men. The stunts involve real athletic ability, Schultz explains—but whether they should count toward Title IX compliance remains an open question.
Schultz handles her material well, but in the end the “points of change” she defines do not dramatically reshape how we see women’s twentieth-century sporting history. This isn’t simply a failure of imagination or perspective on the author’s part, but rather a reflection of the state of the historiography of the field as well as the challenges of writing a story that is still unfolding all around us.
What might a new sports history of US women look like? Schultz has provided some clues, even if she doesn’t pull them all together. First, and most obvious, women’s sporting history is social and cultural history. If the recitation is merely of games won and lost, leagues founded, and individual records and moments of glory (which may not be a fair description of traditional male sportswriting but is not that far off the mark), then women and their experiences will continue to be marginalized. But if the history of sport is seen as part of larger cultural and social trends, then women will be central to the story, a goal Gerda Lerner would certainly have endorsed.
This new, cultural approach to women’s sporting history would also foreground questions of gender, sexuality, and the body—because it is impossible to understand the experiences and accomplishments of individual female athletes without addressing the impact of those variables. Foremost is the ongoing tension between femininity and athleticism, with the companion pattern of unease at the undercurrent of lesbianism in sport. A cultural approach would stress change over time, often dramatic, but would also recognize the continuities that still make the juxtaposition between the words “woman” and “athlete” problematic or fraught. And it would link developments in women’s sporting history to developments in the culture at large, such as the emergence of the New Woman in the 1880s and 1890s and the backlash against feminism in the 1980s and 1990s.
Whatever the contours of the new sporting history, the field is certainly likely to grow and expand, as will women’s athletic aspirations and opportunities, which is why books like Qualifying Times are so welcome. Schultz ends her book with the image of watching the London Olympics with her infant daughter, admitting in the last sentence, “I’ll be honest: I hope she plays sports.” So do I, but I also agree with the sentiment tucked away in the final footnote: “But it’s okay if she doesn’t.”
Susan Ware is the general editor of American National Biography. Her most recent book is Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports (2011).