Laura Pappano News

  • USA Today: Florida just expanded school vouchers – again. Here's what it could mean for public education.
    Laura Pappano explains the real world consequences of school choice.
  • New York Times: Back to School and Back to Normal. Or at Least Close Enough.
    Laura Pappano contributes to a collection of stories about the start of the 2022-23 school year. 
  • Washington Post: Pandemic leads colleges to revise, improve mental health efforts
    Writer-in-residence Laura Pappano discusses the issue of mental health among college students.
  • Hechinger Report: More students question college, putting counselors in a fresh quandary
    Laura Pappano writes about different perceptions of success for post-pandemic high school students.
  • Hechinger Report: For adults returning to college, ‘free’ tuition isn’t enough
    Laura Pappano, WCW writer in residence, investigates the unique needs of adult college students.
  • Hechinger Report: ‘Right now is not my time’: How Covid dimmed college prospects for students who need help most

    First-gen and low-income students were already behind their peers in applying to college, but the pandemic has exacerbated to problem. WCW Writer in Residence Laura Pappano covers this story in the Hechinger Report.

  • The Hechinger Report: A regional public university’s identity crisis
    Laura Pappano of WCW discusses the effect COVID-19 has had on regional college campuses in the US in this article featured in The Hechinger Report.
  • Hechinger Report: Quarantine campuses: With dorms shut and class online, students DIY college life
    Laura Pappano, WCW's writer in residence, explores how college students have been keeping their communities connected while they are away from campus during COVID-19.
  • The New York Times: College Is Hard. Iggy, Pounce, Cowboy Joe and Sunny are Here to Help

    Laura Pappano, WCW’s Writer in Residence, discusses chatbots and their evolving role in higher education.

  • The New York Times: Where 4-Year Schools Find a Pool of Applicants: 2-Year Schools
    Writer-in-residence Laura Pappano discusses the rise in transfer students from community colleges, who represent a highly motivated contingent with an important perspective.
  • Hechinger Report: College students try to tame political dialogue

    "Students are forming new clubs, reviving old ones, launching bipartisan journals and organizing events," writes Laura Pappano, WCW Writer in Residence.

  • The Washington Post: Forget the shouting and demonizing: College students organize civil discussions

    Laura Pappano, inaugural Writer in Residence at WCW, highlights civil discourse on college campuses.

  • Washington Post: Book Review of The Privileged Poor
    Laura Pappano, writer-in-residence at WCW, reviews The Privileged Poor by Anthony Abraham Jack.
  • Hechinger Report: America's Colleges Struggle to Envision the Future of Diversity on Campus
    Laura Pappano, WCW writer in residence, highlights the difficulty American colleges have in defining diversity.
  • Christian Science Monitor: Debating an Evolving Definition of Diversity
    Laura Pappano, WCW writer in residence, explores what diversity means when it comes to college campuses and admissions programs.
  • New York Times: The iGen Shift: Colleges Are Changing to Reach the Next Generation

    Laura Pappano, WCW writer-in-residence, writes about college-bound teens transforming the way college administrators and faculty communicate.

  • Washington Post: Is The New Education Reform Hiding in Plain Sight?

    Laura Pappano, writer-in-residence at WCW, explores the future of education.

  • New York Times: At Christian Colleges, a Collision of Gay Rights and Traditional Values

    Laura Pappano looks at the way students, faculty, and administrators at Christian Colleges are responding to the clash of gay rights and traditional values on campus.

  • Christian Science Monitor: Ivy Degree - Now What? Low-Income Grads Struggle with Careers, Status

    First-generation Ivy League graduates struggle to navigate shifting socioeconomic class after obtaining high-paying jobs post-graduation, writes Laura Pappano, WCW writer in residence.

  • Daily Californian: Selection Sadness: Gender Bias Hinders March’s Full Magical Potential

    A WCW study found that for Division I college basketball, tickets to see men’s teams were significantly higher priced than women's teams at every seating and pricing level.

  • Low-Income, First-Generation Students Have — Finally — Established a Beachhead at Ivy League Schools. Now The Real Work Starts.

    Laura Pappano writes about the experiences of first generation students in Ivy League schools. 

  • Hechinger Report: First-Gen Students at Elite Colleges Go from Lonely and Overwhelmed to Empowered and Provoking Change

    Laura Pappano discusses the experiences of first generation college campuses in the Hechinger Report.

  • Wellesley News: It’s March, But Is It Madness?
    Georgia Hall, Laura Pappana, and Lissette DeSouza of WCW are referenced in this article that discusses gender inequality in sports.
  • New York Times: In a Volatile Climate on Campus, Professors Teach on Tenterhooks

    Laura Pappano of WCW writes about a volatile climate on college campuses in this article in the New York Times.

  • New York Times: More Diversity Means More Demands

    Laura Pappano of WCW discusses diversity and cultural identity among students in the New York Times.

  • New York Times: Liberal Lessons in Taking Back America

    Laura Pappano of WCW penned this article in the New York Times.

  • New York Times: Listening In on Portland State Activists

    Laura Pappano discusses "disorientation" and Portland State activists in the New York Times.

  • New York Times: Professors as Targets of Internet Outrage

    Laura Pappano of WCW discusses death threats targeted at college professors in the New York Times.

  • The Atlantic: When a College Degree Isn’t Enough

    Laura Pappano of WCW discusses bachelor's degrees and credentials in regards to college admission and employment.

  • New York Times: Learning to Think Like a Computer

    Laura Pappano of WCW is featured in the New York Times discussing computational thinking.

  • New York Times: Voices From Rural America on Why (or Why Not) to Go to College

    Laura Pappano of WCW is featured in the New York Times and discusses rural students in regards to college.

  • New York Times: Colleges Discover the Rural Student

    Laura Pappano of WCW discusses rural students in the New York Times. 

  • Commentary with Laura Pappano: Olympics Are Gold for Women Athletes

    Research & Action Report, Fall/Winter 2016

    By Laura Pappano

    The Olympics may be—on the surface—about international goodwill, but they are more baldly about political competition. They also offer a report card on gender equity progress. One could credit the rise of women’s athletics in the U.S., not to the passage of Title IX in 1972, but to the Cold War realization that the medal gap between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was essentially the difference in women’s participation.

  • Commentary with Laura Pappano: Olympics Are Gold for Women Athletes

    The Olympics may be—on the surface—about international goodwill, but they are more baldly about political competition. They also offer a report card on gender equity progress. One could credit the rise of women’s athletics in the U.S., not to the passage of Title IX in 1972, but to the Cold War realization that the medal gap between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was essentially the difference in women’s participation.

  • When Is a Girl Not a Girl?

    When Is a Girl Not a Girl?

    Sex Testing: Gender Policing in Women’s Sports

    By Lindsay Parks Pieper

    Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016, 250 pp., $22.50, paperback

    Reviewed by Laura Pappano

    An e-mail arrived recently from a college student I had met several times. Embedded in the electronic signature below the year of graduation, residential college, and major was a quick line of text: “Pronouns: he/him/his.”

    It surprised me. Not because the pronouns were different from what I had expected—I had perceived this student as male—but because he chose to include them. He was proclaiming don’t assume you know what I am. He was reminding me, and everyone else he e-mails, that gender identity is neither fixed nor obvious.

    Ambiguity is a hallmark of our time, from confusion over the sources of extremist danger to the state of race relations, the future of the planet, the purpose of a college degree, or the true healthfulness of so-called healthy foods (must we eat kale?). When it comes to gender and biological sex, we are getting used to a fluid view of “male” and “female,” and overturning old norms. This is not simply a nod to surgery and hormone therapy, or the rising profile of transgender people, but the recognition that biological sex is more complicated than many once believed.

    This wiggly reality has been a stubborn adversary for Olympic and international sport officials, who insist on dividing competition into neat categories: male and female. The desire for certain sex identity—for dichotomy, where nature offers a spectrum—has spurred a costly, complicated, and fraught process to “prove” that female athletes are, indeed, female. (Males require no such proof).

    Questions of why, how, and for what purpose athletic associations have so fervently sex tested female athletes is at the heart of Lindsay Parks Pieper’s Sex Testing. In it, she digs into the history, politics, and mangled logic for sex testing elite female athletes, particularly in Olympic competition. She argues that the process is more about enforcing western ideals of womanhood than about procuring that elusive “level playing field” for competition. Top sport officials, she writes, “found it inconceivable that strong, muscular women could be authentic or natural,” and attempted to enforce a “vision of appropriate female athleticism.” They seemed to believe “that any man could don a wig or a skirt and defeat all women in athletic competition.”

    On-site sex testing was officially instituted during the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 and suspended just this year: there was no sex testing in Rio. However, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), founded as a governing body for track and field, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) sought sex verification as early as the 1920s. Questions arose most often in track and field when an athlete was taller, more muscular, or faster than was deemed possible.

    At the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, for example, when Hitomi Kinue of Japan came in second in the 800-meter event behind Lina Radke of Germany, some in the press speculated that Kinue was a man. The race became famous because six runners fell exhausted to the ground, prompting the cancellation of women’s distance events for years. “Based largely on Hitomi’s athletic success and her unmarried status,” writes Pieper, one reporter “deduced that she was ‘40 or 50 percent male and 50 or 60 percent female.’” Years later, in a 1936 article in the New York Times, reporter Grantland Rice alluded to the 1928 games in which “the investigating committee was out two hours before it decided predominant sex” of a Japanese woman competitor.

    The requirements of femininity have long been at odds with sport. Female athletes who didn’t appear classically feminine fed the myth that sports such as track and field weren’t appropriate for women and, worse, could have a masculinizing effect. The brash, all-around athlete Babe Didrikson was criticized as unladylike. She and the track stars Helen Stephens and Stella Walsh were “lambasted [for] their muscular physiques, unfeminine appearances, working-class backgrounds,” observes Pieper. “Mannish” female athletes threatened a gender order in which men were powerful and women lithe and delicate. “Calls to implement sex testing,” writes Pieper, were not about fair play but about ensuring heterofemininity.

    Over the years, the testing has taken different forms. In the 1920s and 1930s, the only way to tell if an athlete was female was to look. Whenever there was “a definite question as to sex,” explains Pieper, the IOC and IAAF called for an exam. This created problems. For one thing, only muscular women were singled out. Then there was the exam itself. Here Pieper is less than clear. How extensive were the exams? Who performed them? The allusion to the Japanese athlete who left examiners puzzled for two hours is intriguing: visual inspection had limitations. Pressure to verify all female competitors—not just suspicious ones—led the IAAF in 1947 and the IOC in 1948 to require certificates signed by a doctor. Yet these could be easy to obtain.

    During the cold war, Soviet and eastern-bloc female athletes were encouraged to train more aggressively than American women, who feared “unsightly” muscles. This made Russians and Eastern Europeans—excluding the “pixie-like” child-gymnasts Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci—suspect. And indeed, some of this suspicion turned out to be justified: East German female swimmers were subjected to a horrific doping program that led to illnesses and ruined lives.

    As with the East Germans, the separate issues of sex testing and doping are often conflated, writes Pieper. Sports authorities first tested for steroids in 1974 at the Commonwealth Games in New Zealand—although none who failed were penalized—and then at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. At the time, it was acceptable for male athletes, particularly weightlifters, to take steroids: the drugs enhanced their masculinity. “The most serious and dangerous use of drugs by females,” one journalist warned, “is the taking of male hormones.” The press erroneously reported that a “new infamous sex test”—sex chromatin testing, developed in the late 1940s and used at the 1968 Olympics—would offer an ideal scientific solution. But it did no such thing.

    In the chromatin, or Buccal smear test, a small amount of DNA, usually from a scrape inside the cheek, is amplified to reveal an athlete’s chromosomal makeup. The test is difficult to read: in a medical journal, two scientists pointed out that even the scientist who invented it, Murray Barr, read some tests incorrectly. And in a 1956 article in the British medical journal, the Lancet, Barr himself begged “physicians to act with ‘caution and diplomacy’ when labeling sex and to use the chromosomal check sparingly.” He was ignored.

    Biological sex simply cannot be clearly categorized. The chromatin test has humiliated women born with chromosomal differences, such as those with mosaicism, who have cells containing both XY and XX chromosomes, and those with androgen insensitivity, who have Y chromosomes and test as male, yet have many female physical characteristics. These and other intersex states have been common enough to raise questions about the test’s validity or usefulness—but not before many female athletes were publicly shocked by results they never anticipated. The chromatin test also results in a fair number of false positives, reports Pieper:

    From a sample of “normal appearing males,” the Barr body test labeled one out of seven hundred as female. The test also identified one out of two hundred women as male, which was of particular significance for the Olympics.

    Yet, rather than question testing itself, the IOC medical commission in the 1990s embraced a new test: the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which seeks out a specific DNA sequence—the sex-determining region or SRY—to identify the presence of a Y gene, a sign of “maleness.” Because the test was susceptible to contamination, female workers were assigned to take the samples from female athletes.

    In 1999, the IOC announced an end to official sex testing—yet in a nod to old fears, at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, officials required inspectors to visually scrutinize athletes’ genitalia during the urination required for antidoping exams. Such scrutiny, argues Pieper, marks yet another instance of the troublesome conflation of doping and sex testing.

    Pieper makes a powerful case for the folly and pain of sex testing, sharing the case of the Spanish hurdler Maria Patiño. When Patiño forgot to bring her verification card to international competition in Japan in 1986, she underwent and failed a chromatin test—stunning herself and the world. Pieper chronicles the controversy in detail, as Patiño, with the help of a Finnish physician, sparked doubts about the value of sex testing, and its hold began to unravel.

    Although Sex Testing is thorough and well documented, we need more science. Chromosomal abnormalities are explained early on, but later, as we hear about Barr’s doubts about his sex chromatin test and about limitations of PCR testing, we need more. What, precisely, are the tests’ weaknesses? Why do intersex conditions go undetected and unsuspected, even by those who have them?

    The strength of Sex Testing is its detail, though at times the structure seems weak; the book is more a jumble of gems than a necklace. Still, because it is chock full of terrific research from primary sources, it will be useful for academics. And Pieper’s message comes through loud and clear: sex testing is a political act. It is about enforcing gender norms, not ensuring fair play.

    In Pieper’s epilogue, she notes that although sex testing has officially ended, sports authorities have not let go. Instead, they’ve raised a new question: what is biological fairness? Should women with hyperandrogenism, or higher-than-average levels of androgenic hormones––be allowed to compete?

    Just prior to the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, the Indian sprinter Dutee Chand was pulled aside, tested, and deemed ineligible. Although she had always thought of herself as female, the tests showed higher-than-average testosterone levels. Chand was offered medical “treatment,” which she refused. Instead, she appealed to the Court of Arbitration, which decides sports cases. On July 24, 2015, the court permitted Chand to return to competition, ruling that the IAAF had failed to prove the benefit of higher testosterone levels: “There is presently insufficient evidence about the degree of the advantage,” the court wrote, as it suspended the hyperandrogenism regulations for two years.

    “Fairness,” observes Pieper in her conclusion, “is an abstract concept that does not exist in elite sport.” The fact is, birth advantage helps many athletes excel. The Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has a longer-than-average arm span, an elongated torso, short legs, size 14 feet, and double-jointed ankles that enable him to bend fifteen degrees farther than most swimmers. At 6́́ 5́́́́ ́, the sprinter Usain Bolt has a height advantage. While abnormalities and variations give many athletes an edge, women have born an unfair share of scrutiny. As Pieper reminds us, “only sex/gender differences resulted in disqualification.”

    Laura Pappano is writer-in-residence at Wellesley Centers for Women. A journalist who writes on education and gender and sport, Pappano is co-author of Playing With The Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal in Sport (2007), was a varsity college athlete, and continues to be an avid sports participant (though has never been sex tested).


  • 89.2 KPCC: Air Talk: How ‘helicopter parenting’ impacts college students entering the workforce
    Lauren Pappano of WCW is featured in this radio segment about how "helicopter parenting" might affect college graduates entering the workforce.
  • The New York Times: Career Coaching for the Playdate Generation

    Laura Pappano of WCW is featured in The New York Times discussing career guidance post-college. 

  • New York Times: First-Generation Students Unite
    This article in the New York Times discusses what it's like to be a first-generation college student in the United States.
  • Ivy League Ups and (Yes) Downs

    The New York Times, April 11, 2014
    by Laura Pappano

  • How colleges are finding tomorrow's prodigies

    Christian Science Monitor, February 23, 2014
    by Laura Pappano

  • The Value in a Free Degree

    The New York Times, November 1, 2013
    Laura Pappano

  • The Boy Genius of Ulan Bator

    The New York Times Magazine, September 13, 2013
    by Laura Pappano

  • SXSWedu: A MOOC Love Fest

    Information Week: Education, March 7, 2013
    David F. Carr

  • Interview: Laura Pappano, Sense-Making and the Year of Disruption
    edtechdigestEdTech Digest December 6, 201
    Victor Rivero
  • The Year of the MOOC
    07-22-11 2The New York Times November 2, 2012
    Laura Pappano

  • Got the Next Great Idea?
    07-22-11The New York Times July 20, 2012
    Laura Pappano
  • One Year into Turnaround: How CCSD Schools Have Performed
    knpr KNPR June 11, 2012
    Lee Hernandez, Producer
  • Are online MBA degrees worth it?
    ksl May 3, 2012
    Ann Whittaker
  • Athletes and Magazine Spreads: Does Sexy Mean Selling Out?
    ontheissues On The Issues Magazine April 19, 2012
    Laura Pappano
  • Women's Sports Refuse to Post Weights On Athletic Rosters
    harvardcrimson The Harvard Crimson April 13, 2012
    Julie M. Zauzmer
  • Commentary: Women’s NCAA Basketball is Too Predictable
    spartandaily Spartan Daily April 3, 2012
    Nina Tabios
  • 40 years on, Title IX still resonating
    10-12-11 February 16, 2012
    Lenny Megliola
  • Wellesley College Panel marks Title IX’s 40th anniversary
    10-12-11 February 14, 2012
    Lenny Megliola
  • Skinner Gets the Scoop
    newhavenindependentNew Haven Independent February 8, 2012
    Allan Appel
  • From Math Helper to Community Organizer
    harvardeducationletter Harvard Education Letter January/February 2012
    Laura Pappano
  • How Big-Time Sports Ate College Life
    The New York Times January 20, 2012
  • Before Signing On: A Checklist
    The New York Times November 4, 2011
    Laura Pappano
  • The Online-College Crapshoot
    The New York Times November 4, 2011
    Laura Pappano
  • Q&A: Co-ed sports benefits female athletes
    news logo The Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ) August 31, 2011
    Julie O'Connor
  • Making the Grade
    MSNBC August 15, 2011
  • How The Debt Ceiling Deal Could Affect Higher Ed And The Job Market
    StateImpact New Hampshire (online) August 2, 2011
    Amanda Loder
  • Q&A with Laura Pappano
    Voices in Education: The Blog of Harvard Education Publishing July 28, 2011
  • The Master's as the New Bachelor's
    The New York Times July 22, 2011
    Laura Pappano
  • A Two-for-One Deal: Bachelor’s Plus Master’s
    The New York Times July 22, 2011
    Laura Pappano
  • What did Cincinnati Public Schools do to close the high-school graduation gap? June 21, 2011
    Joe Nathan
  • School Turnarounds In All Their Complexity
    EducationNext March 29, 2011
    A. Graham Down
  • Chased to the Top
    ASCD Express (online) March 17, 2011
    Laura Pappano
  • A winning streak is a winning streak
    Star Tribune (Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN) December 30, 2010
    Susan Hogan
  • In School Turnarounds, the Human Element is Crucial
    Education Week October 27, 2010
    Laura Pappano
  • To improve schools, stop treating them like businesses
    The Christian Science Monitor January 4, 2011
    Laura Pappano
  • Kids Haven’t Changed; Kindergarten Has
    Harvard Education Letter September/October 2010
    Laura Pappano
  • Scenes from the School Turnaround Movement
    Harvard Education Letter September/October 2010
    Laura Pappano
  • When It’s Woman Vs. Man, Sometimes There’s An Upset

    National Public Radio’s Only A Game
    Bill Littlefield
    March 6, 2010

  • Soccer hair-pulling fuels debate over sport sexism

    The Associated Press
    David Crary
    November 22, 2009

  • Ponytail Pull Was Bad (But Good for Women's Sports)
    Laura Pappano
    November 19, 2009

  • Even at Elite Programs, Ticket Prices for Women's Basketball Lag Behind Men's, Report Says

    The Chronicle of Higher Education
    Libby Sander
    October 5, 2009

  • Athlete Mom
    Laura Pappano
    October 1, 2009

  • Baseball is War

    Baseball is War


    Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball
    By Jennifer Ring
    Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009, 200 pp., $24.95, hardcover

    Reviewed by Laura Pappano

    With curious regularity, word of a “girl” baseball player notching a no-hitter or otherwise stunning the baseball elite makes national headlines. A few years ago, eleven-year-old Katie Brownell, the only girl in the Oakfield-Alabama Little League near Rochester, New York, struck out all eighteen boys who came to bat. The US media went wild last year when Eri Yoshida, a sixteen-year-old, high-school knuckleballer, was drafted by a Japanese professional baseball team. This spring, twelve-year-old Mackenzie Brown threw a perfect game for her Bayonne, New Jersey, Little League team and was invited by the New York Mets to throw out the first pitch at their new stadium, Citi Field.

    Stories are even more plentiful in the local news: eleven-year-old Emily Moore, of Johnson City, Tennessee, is a commanding Little League pitcher despite being born without a left hand; the Downtown New Jersey Little League matchup between the Tigers and Blue Jays in June featured two twelve-year-old girls as opposing starting pitchers.

    The point: some 37 years after Title IX became law and 35 years after the Little League charter was officially changed to allow females, girls playing baseball is still news. Parents who arrive at a youth baseball game and unfold their portable chairs are still, in 2009, surprised by the presence of a ponytail.

    It is this striking deficit of female players that Jennifer Ring, professor of political science and former director of women’s studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, takes up in Stolen Bases. Unlike so many of the celebratory books for both adults and children that chronicle the suppressed history of female hardballers, Ring charges the mound in search of a bench-clearing confrontation. She does not aim to recall stars such as Jackie “Verne” Mitchell, who struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in April 1931 before her minor league contract was voided, but rather insists on more complicated questions: Why have women been essentially banished from baseball? And how?

    The mother of a baseball-playing girl and a lifelong baseball fan herself, Ring is no dispassionate observer but is rather a witness to the politics of the sport. She’s watched father-coaches with baseball dreams for their sons bench other talented players to give their kids the edge. Frustrated at seeing her daughter ill-treated, Ring quips, “I was playing the wrong game. I naively thought I was playing a game called ‘Kids Play Baseball’”—while the coaches were playing, “My son has a future in baseball and whatever helps him get there is the reason I’m here. The league exists in order to showcase him.”

    Ring uses the bookends of Stolen Bases—its prologue and epilogue—to make intimate her larger argument about the status of baseball as a coveted symbol of masculinity. In them, she describes her parental wrangling—“I find myself wondering, ‘Is she as good as I think she is?’”—and her difficult decision to have her daughter switch high schools so she can to earn a spot on the baseball team, as well as her joy at watching with other parents as their daughters play in an international competition. These sections are thoughtful, and the emotions she describes will be familiar to parents of sports-playing children. While the personal approach is risky—the passages have a different texture than the rest of the book—they give Ring’s argument credibility and the reader a lens through which to understand her sometimes overly emotional prose about bias in the baseball establishment. We can hear her frustration and sympathize with it, even when her writing gets repetitive, as if she is worried that we will miss the point. It is this narrative quality—along with the dearth of original research—which makes the book read more like an extended essay argued from multiple angles than a new, provocative work about a key aspect of American culture.

    That said, the story Ring tells is outrageous. Her title is accurate: baseball has been stolen from girls. First, the history of its founding in the nineteenth century was recast, then softball was created to siphon girls away from the sport, and finally a powerful athletic fraternity framed baseball as dangerous and ill-suited for females. Ring is at her best when she simply reveals what appears to be nothing short of a conspiracy to keep American girls out of the “national pastime,” even as baseball holds a cherished place in American culture that Ring correctly likens to a “civic religion.”

    In her early chapters, Ring picks apart baseball’s creation story. The tale that Abner Doubleday invented the game in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839, she reminds us, is pure mythology. Doubleday wasn’t even in Cooperstown; he was stationed at West Point, and a letter supporting his claim was written years later by a mentally unstable man who would have been only five years old at the time. In fact, a debate rages about baseball’s origins, which some argue is not American at all but rather is descended from the English game of rounders, played by both girls and boys. “Although the Doubleday-Cooperstown story was refuted almost immediately by historians, it is the version of the baseball history that stuck, much like George Washington’s cherry tree is embedded in the American imagination,” Ring writes.

    >She saves most of her criticism, however, for Albert Goodwill Spalding, whose influential history of the sport, America’s National Game (1911), framed baseball as wholly American and wholly manly. He purposefully cast it as out of reach for women, writing,

    Cricket is a gentle pastime. Base Ball is war!...Neither our wives, our sisters, our daughters, nor our sweethearts may play Base Ball on the field…Base Ball is too strenuous for womankind, except as she may take part in the grandstand.

    In a passage that is interesting though somewhat overwrought, Ring psycholanalyzes Spalding. Separated from his mother at the age of twelve, he developed his sense of adult masculinity through baseball. Thus, he cast the game as the embodiment of American male vim, vigor, and virility.

    In one of her more terrific observations, Ring points out that when Henry Chadwick invented the statistical analysis of baseball in the mid-nineteenth century, he gave the sport a history and a mission. Now that fans could track hits, runs, and errors—and distinguish between the successes due to their team’s skill and those due to the other team’s failure—the game had a moral backdrop and an intellectual and even scientific basis. These qualities enhanced baseball’s status and made it appealing to the powerful.

    The problem, observes Ring, is that by the end of the nineteenth century, plenty of women were already playing baseball—and had been for years. She offers photos of women’s collegiate teams of the period and reports from travelling teams such as the Mrs. Jane Duffy Club from Huntsboro, Alabama, which beat a local men’s club, 20-11. In fact, several men who went on to become major stars got their starts on “mixed” teams, including Smoky Joe Wood, who was paid twenty dollars to pitch for the Bloomer Girls—an episode he was “not too keen about talking about,” he admits in his memoir.

    Despite all this, the suppression of women’s history in baseball (the celebrated documentary producer Ken Burns, she points out, gave women 86 seconds of the first 119-minute “inning” of his nine-inning series) is only part of what irks Ring. She is also angry about the invetion of softball as “substitute baseball for girls.” It is politically tricky to criticize softball as less important than baseball, but Ring does it convincingly, noting the diminutive quality of the game—its smaller field and shorter distances between bases. True, she writes, the ball is bigger, but “‛soft’ is not a descriptive name for the little cannonball girls are encouraged to throw at each other because it is supposedly safer than a ‘hard’ ball.” While the game was invented to be played indoors at times of the year when baseball could not be played outside, the restrictions perfectly parallel the habit of confining women athletes to smaller sizes and tighter spaces.

    This brings us to the cultural imperative: girls play softball; boys play baseball. “The sexes are segregated and given no real choice about which game to play,” Ring writes. The battle is cultural, not legal. Title IX has not remedied girls’ exclusion from baseball, and since 1973, when the National Organization for Women successfully filed a civil complaint on behalf of Maria Pepe, a twelve-year-old barred from Little League, girls have, at least officially, been allowed to play. Nevertheless, their presence on teams continues to be rare. Some state athletic associations have defined baseball and softball as the same sport, with softball being the “female” version, which has been a barrier to girls, who must petition to play baseball. (Interestingly, the National College Athletic Association this past winter changed its policy, defining college baseball and softball as separate sports.)

    The awkward status of girls who want to play baseball is unmistakable. In the final chapters of Stolen Bases, Ring takes up the structure of college sports and the practical barriers to women players both on men’s teams and on teams of their own. The difficulty of opening up baseball to girls appears all the more absurd as Ring details the rise of women’s baseball around the world, including in baseball-loving countries such as Japan and Cuba. She quotes a Japanese coach who is utterly puzzled about why American girls play softball when “the ball doesn’t even fit their hand.” The answer, according to Jim Glennie, president of the American Women’s Baseball Federation, is simple, political, and maddeningly familiar: “American men really don’t want girls playing baseball.”

    Laura Pappano is writer-in-residence at the Wellesley Centers for Women, where she is working on the Women's Sports Leadership Project, including the blog on gender equity in sports. She is co-author with Eileen McDonagh of Playing With the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal in Sports (2007).

  • FairGameNews: Seeking Gender Equality on and Off the Field

    Starting a blog is a little like trying to find a seat at your favorite coffee shop during primetime. It is where people are at, but if you drape your sweater over a chair, will anyone notice that you’ve claimed this ground? If you post, will anyone read (besides the friends you’ve begged)? Will anyone care?

  • Leveling the Playing Field

    The Wellesley Townsman
    Elana Zak
    May 21, 2009

  • The price gap between men's and women's basketball tickets is madness

    The Christian Science Monitor
    April 3, 2009

  • The Endless School Year

    The New York Times
    Laura Pappano
    July 27, 2008

  • Beating Men At Their Own Games
    Emily Schmall
    May 22, 2008

  • Small Kids, Big Words

    Harvard Education Letter
    Laura Pappano
    May/June 2008

  • The Power of Family Conversation

    Harvard Education Letter
    Laura Pappano
    May/June 2008

  • The Incredibles

    The New York Times
    Laura Pappano
    January 7, 2007


  • Slackers, Beware

    The New York Times
    Laura Pappano
    April 22, 2007

  • Author With County Ties Takes on 'Playing With the Boys'

    Litchfield County Times
    Nancy Barnes
    December 27, 2007

  • 3 New Books Offer Different Views of the Gender Debate in Sports

    The Chronicle of Higher Education
    Libby Sander
    November 30, 2007

  • A Few Questions for Laura Pappano

    Blog: Oxford University Press
    Q&A with Laura Pappano
    October 30, 2007

  • Might Pregnancy be a Boon to Female Athletes?

    The Huffington Post
    Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano
    November 8, 2007

  • Squeeze Play: Why Title IX Is Not Enough

    Q&A with Laura Pappano

    Laura Pappano is the first writer-in-residence at the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW). An experienced journalist, Laura Pappano has been widely published in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Boston Globe Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Working Mother, and The Harvard Education Letter, among other publications. While at WCW, Laura Pappano is working on a book proposal that will combine her more than 20 years writing about education with her interest in women’s issues. Her new book, co-authored with Eileen McDonagh, Playing with the boys: Why Separate is Not Equal in Sports, has just been released by Oxford University Press.

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