This post is a part of the series, “Sport History Rewind.” In this series, contributors revisit and reevaluate important texts to determine the degree to which their analyses, arguments, research, and influence resonate in the field today. Of particular concern is how well the works fit into historiographical debates and compare with more recent sport-related scholarship. We hope that these posts will help highlight texts that are sometimes forgotten or overlooked, and help us better understand the field of sport history.
Cahn, Susan K. Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Women’s Sport. New York: The Free Press, 1994. Pp. x+358. Notes, index, and black and white photographs.
Reviewed by Colleen English
Published in 2015, the second edition of Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Women’s Sport, added an epilogue that covered women’s involvement in athletics in the early 21st century. By acting as a continuation of her past arguments on gender and sexuality in 20th century America, this new section helped to solidify Susan K. Cahn’s book’s importance in contemporary sport history. In this review, however, I will look at the original text (published in 1994) and its impact on current scholarship.
Coming on Strong clearly delineates the progresses and pitfalls of the rise of women’s sport during the 20th century. In the book, Cahn ties the narrative of sport for women to relationships between femininity and masculinity, sexuality, and athleticism. She sees the “unsteady tension between female athleticism and male-defined sport” as a “common thread in the history of women’s sport” (p. 6). For her, understanding this tension not only illuminates the cultural and historical underpinnings of athletics for women, but also “provides critical insights into the history of gender relations in American society” (p. 6).
Coming on Strong, which Cahn organizes generally in chronological order (though in some sections, the time periods overlap within chapters to fit thematically), begins in the early 20th century, describing the “new type of athletic girl.” Here, Cahn analyzes the ideology that athletic pursuits increased masculinity, such as the principles that guided the Muscular Christianity movement. These beliefs directly affected women’s health and physical education. Though female physical educators recognized the importance of regular exercise, they designed separate activity spheres for women, to prevent them from becoming too masculine. These activities focused more on health than competition. In addition to physical education, some women (especially wealthy white women) found that sports traditionally associated with leisure, such as archery, golf, horseback riding, swimming, and tennis, could be deemed acceptable. Despite these modest improvements in women’s sport, however, female athletes faced criticism. Many conservatives feared that as women pursued more vigorous athletic endeavors, they would become more masculine, thereby harming and decreasing male dominance.
Cahn next connects the flapper era with new opportunities for women athletes. During the 1920s, athletes, such as Gertrude Ederle (swimming), Suzanne Lenglen (tennis), and Helen Wills (tennis), gained celebrity status. Though these women achieved notoriety for their (acceptably feminine) sport, their sexual attractiveness was often deemed more important than their athletic achievements. At the same time that some women found prominence as athletes, the industrialization of America generated the growth of recreational sport, opening opportunities for more women and girls. Many companies, especially those in the financial sector that employed many women, supported team sports, like basketball and bowling. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) even starting offering national championships for women, adding opportunities for working class individuals who could not afford college education, thus missing the physical education and sport sponsored by universities. With the progress for some women athletes came detractors. Reiterating concerns from earlier in the century, critics worried that women’s participation in traditionally masculine pursuits would lead to a decrease in men’s power. In terms of American gender relations, Cahn argues that women’s sport participation symbolized “the shrinking male hegemony” (p. 54).
Cahn further explores gender relations in sport, particularly issues of femininity and masculinity, by turning to basketball. Soon after the invention of basketball by James Naismith, women took to the game. However, the competitiveness and roughness of the sport alarmed some physical educators, leading to gender specific regulations that limited where the players could move on the court, prohibited obstructing the shooter, and regulated the number of times the ball could be dribbled. These restrictions, first introduced by Senda Berenson, ensured that women’s sport would remain feminine.
One of the strengths of Cahn’s book is her ability to the tell the story of women’s sport in the 20th century not just through the eyes of white, upper and middle class women. Instead, Cahn features race and sexuality as important factors in how female athletes were treated. In terms of race, Coming on Strong particularly focuses on African American women in track and field. The narrative of women’s sport is complicated by race here because, for white women, track and field was seen as a masculine endeavor. With fewer white women participating, African American athletes filled the competitions and dominated the sport. For Cahn, the successes of African American women in track and field points to the disparities between white femininity and black femininity. While white women were discouraged from participating in the sport, African American women found support from black colleges, like the Tuskegee Institute, that sponsored the sport. Despite their successes, however, African American track stars, such as Alice Coachman (the first black woman to win Olympic gold), received little media attention and rarely gained celebrity status. Facing both racism and sexism, African American women athletes were considered primitive and less beautiful than their white counterparts. These athletes escaped neither the criticisms of participating in a traditionally masculine sport nor the prejudices of a racist America.
Cahn also addresses the relationship between masculinity and the association between female athleticism and lesbianism. This association caused much of women’s sport to combat these perceptions of masculinity and lesbianism. For example, the All-American Girls Baseball League (AAGBL) required players to wear pastel uniforms, learn proper etiquette, and style their hair in a non-masculine way. Physical educators and women’s sport leaders “began to orient their programs toward a new feminine heterosexual ideal” to combat the lesbian stigma (p. 184). The media perpetuated this stigma, accusing athletes, such as the multi-talented Babe Didrikson, of mannishness. Didrikson continually faced these accusations throughout her career, eventually attempting to end them by donning dresses and make-up, taking up golf, and marrying the wrestler George Zaharias.
Despite the stigma associated with the lesbian athlete, sport also provided a safe and comfortable space for some lesbians. In the middle of the twentieth century, out lesbians could safely gather on sport teams as an alternative to gay bars. These women could, within the confines of sport, live their true identity. Because athletics allowed all women to veer away from stereotypically feminine conventions, lesbian athletes needed not to conform to traditional standards of femininity while participating in sport.
For Cahn, female athletes in the 20th century created new concepts of womanhood and eschewed traditional notions of masculinity and femininity. When women saw sport as a part of their identity and ignored ideals that marked it as either feminine or masculine, they helped sport flourish and grow. Coming on Strong ends on a somewhat hopeful note, acknowledging the importance of Title IX and the increased participation of women and girls in sport in the 1970s and 1980s. However, Cahn recognizes the problems that continue to plague sport for women, namely the sustained presence of homophobia, the objectification of female athletes, and the overemphasis on specific body types in certain sports (e.g., tininess in women’s gymnastics, like Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci; toned but not bulky muscles in body building). Though the growth of women’s sport can be celebrated, “Ultimately,” Cahn concludes, “women’s efforts to attain meaningful leisure, unrestricted access to sport, and athletic self-determination will be part and parcel of transforming the broader social relations of gender within which sporting life takes place” (p. 279).
Coming on Strong provides a clear picture of women’s sport in the 20th century, including analyses of gender, race, class, and sexuality. Not only does Cahn attend to the importance of female athletes and their role in the world of sport, but also presents sport as a microcosm for viewing gender and social relations in the United States. Cahn shrewdly analyzes and celebrates the progress of women’s sport while also recognizing the problems that follow these advancements. She articulates how questions about femininity and masculinity influenced perceptions of women athletes. She recognizes the significant impacts of objectification, homophobia, and racism on women’s sport in the 20th century. Inherently readable and bolstered with primary sources, Coming on Strong provides clear argumentation that the history of women in sport is complicated and impossible to read with merely a progressive lens.
Although published in 1994, Coming on Strong remains one of the most comprehensive and significant works in women’s sport history. Others have continued to write about issues of gender in athletics (e.g., Jaime Schultz’s Qualifying Times), but Cahn’s book still provides the foundation of knowledge necessary to understand not only the history of female athletics, but also their place within American gender systems.
Colleen English is an Assistant Professor of Kinesiology at Penn State Berks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @colleen_english.