Schultz, Jaime. Qualifying Times: Points of Change in U.S. Women’s Sport. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2014. Pp. xiv +280. Illustrations, notes, index. $95 cloth back, $26 paperback.
Reviewed by Bieke Gils
Yes, there are things to cheer about when considering the changes in U.S. women’s sport over the past century; however, as Jaime Schultz so brilliantly illustrates in Qualifying Times: Points of Change in U.S. Women’s Sport, the cheering has to be done with reserve. Writing about topics not generally addressed in history books, including tampon use, sports bras, women’s fashion, sex testing, and the right to compete, Schultz disrupts traditional, male-centric sport historiography and addresses the progress made and the setbacks faced by female athletes in the past and present. At stake in her work are these athletes’ continuous confrontations with a host of discriminatory practices and demeaning media discourses in their quest for autonomy over their actions and bodies. Qualifying Times takes the reader, somewhat chronologically, through the history of U.S. women’s sport in the form of seven very readable chapters.
In the introductory pages, the politics of the ponytail set the tone for more elaborate discussions about how gender, sexuality, and, to a large extent, race and class, factor in to the sustained oppression of women playing sport. Throughout her book, Schultz demonstrates the elaborate efforts of several female athletes who pushed boundaries, some more carefully than others, and who carved out several options for generations of sporting girls and women to come.
The first chapter addresses the politics of dress and fashion in the context of the history of female tennis players. Change in dress styles, including Susan Lenglen’s knee-high skirt in the 1920s, Helen Hull’s controversial donning of shorts in the 1930s, and Gertrude Moran’s sexy laced pants in the 1940s, all signified forms of change and emancipation for women–white middle-class women that is. Indeed, notes Schultz, markers of femininity and class were very differently assigned in the context of black tennis players like Althea Gibson, for example, whose main concern in the 1950s was not her clothing but simply being allowed to play. Another “liberating force” introduced in the 1930s was the tampon. While largely promoted to conceal the socially unspeakable fact of menstruation, and as a technology that allowed women to look streamlined in tight shorts or bathing suit at any time during the month, it did contribute to the social acceptance of female athletes, writes Schultz. The fictional women engaging in sport featured in tampon ads and other media espoused values of modernity, fitness, and adventure. However, they tended to celebrate the “modern” white middle-class woman, once again leaving out many black and working-class women for whom tampons were not affordable.
The right to compete is another theme that runs through several chapters of Schultz’s book. In the 1920s and onwards, when the field of sport started to open up to a larger female membership and women wanted to participate competitively, many female physical educators contested the idea and supported “friendly” competitions only, mostly taking place between teams of the same school. Under the motto that there must be “a girl for every sport and a sport for every girl,” female physical educators tried to uphold the belief that women should stick with “female appropriate” and thus non-competitive forms of activities as to not be subjected to masculinizing forces. Many women’s desire to compete, however, as well as America’s felt need to keep up with the impressive athletic performances of the Soviet female athletes during the Cold War, contributed to a growing emphasis on fitness and competitive sport for women in school curricula. Yet, once again, women won and lost. While they eventually gained the right to compete, Schultz points out, the sportification of a once all-female profession also came to mean the end of women’s dominion over female physical activity programs and the adoption of a less inclusive philosophy towards sport for women.
Around the same time, another issue proved contentious; sex-testing. From gender verification in the form of “nude parades” in the 1960s to the scrutinizing of women’s chromosomal indicators, and, more recently to the testing of hormonal markers, the athletic female body, as opposed to the male, continues to be subject to surveillance and suspicion. While the male body with elevated levels of endogenous androgens is often framed as a superior human specimen, female athletes with heightened levels are considered abnormal and their bodies grotesque. Schultz’s viewpoint that sex, like gender, is an unstable concept and should not be used to categorize bodies along lines of social acceptability, certainly has not yet been accepted in most sporting communities or by the public at large.
The passing of Title IX in 1972 in many respects did not generate the hoped–for revolution for women in sport, though the 1970s were nevertheless “an era replete with points of change” (p. 123). Girls’ interscholastic sport participation increased significantly and female athletes organized successfully in many ways and on many levels. Using the covers of Time as a jumping off point to illustrate the different media discourses surrounding athletic women that separated the 1970s from the 1980s, Schultz finds the 1980s marked a backlash from industries more concerned with women’s looks and sex appeal than athletic performance. While the aerobics craze spearheaded by Jane Fonda may have given many women a sense of control over their health and bodies, the accompanying marketing strategies focused on beauty and sex and took away from women’s serious commitment to sports as well as their physical prowess. The same holds true for the past and current marketing of the sports bra, according to Schultz. While this technology has certainly facilitated sport participation for many women, designers’ emphasis on well-shaped breasts and women’s attractive figures has done little to empower its female consumers.
In her concluding chapters Schultz pauses for a moment to consider the so-called “new feminism,” promoted by female athletes demonstrating their strength and fitness while posing naked for the camera, or by women who deem working out or competing in miniskirts highly empowering. Perhaps there is something to cheer about then, writes Schultz with much hesitation, knowing full well that all female athletes sooner or later have to become experts in navigating their personal aspirations and cultural discriminatory pressures. And while Schultz acknowledges that her book mostly addresses the stories and experiences of white, middle-class sporting women, she is persistent in providing examples of black women’s different struggles to gain legitimacy in the field of sport.
Qualifying Times provides a compelling read for everyone interested in the U.S. sporting past and present. Not only is Schultz’s writing rich in source materials, small case studies and illustrative media images, it is also clear, to the point, and (appropriately) witty. While Schultz identifies common themes throughout all parts of the book, each chapter is a study in its own right. For this reason, as well as its clear and contextually rich character, the individual chapters make for perfect teaching material for classes in sport sociology, history, and/or women’s studies. With this book, Schultz, a young academic, firmly establishes herself as an authoritative voice in the still largely male-dominated field of sport studies and becomes a source of inspiration for many athletes as well as young scholars in her field.
Bieke Gils is a historian of sport, gender and the body. She is currently a postdoc with Dr. Patricia Vertinsky at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.