Sport History Rewind: Review of Women’s Sports

Guttmann, Allen. Women’s Sports: A History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. Pp. Ix+339. Notes, bibliographic notes, index, and black and white photographs.

Reviewed by Russ Crawford

A recent post by Wendy Parker on the Sports Biblio blog argued that Allen Guttmann’s 1991 Women’s Sports: A History (1991) was the best book that she had read on the subject, and that it had held up better than most women’s sport history works. Parker, a journalist who writes about women’s sports for the UK Guardian, was critical of the approach taken by other works in the field, arguing that “they are almost entirely focused on women’s sports in the United States,” and that “they are drenched in some rather strident, even extreme feminist dogma.” Coming on Strong (1994) by Susan Cahn, the subject of a recent Sport Rewind post by Colleen English, was a particular target of Parker’s criticism. Parker argued that “I thought it (Coming on Strong) was pure rubbish, a dreary compendium of how she thinks women are still being held back, including the apparently damnable offense of female athletes looking like women.” Although she errs in claiming that Guttmann’s work was published after Cahn’s, she correctly indicates that Coming on Strong has become a “touchstone in the field.”

Parker’s assertion that Women’s Sports has held up better than other works in the field indicated that Sport Rewind would be a good place to test that claim.


Columbia University Press, 1991

Guttmann divided his work into fourteen chapters, which flow chronologically, although individual chapters are subdivided into thematic sections. The first twelve chapters were historical, and the final two were a survey of the “Present State of Women’s Sports.” Guttmann started with the ancient world of the Egyptians and Etruscans, and progressed through the Greek and Roman periods, Medieval and Renaissance Europe, the Victorian Age, and then concluded his historical section with the twentieth century.

In his introduction, Guttmann was careful to note that his work was not solely historical in nature. For the first chapters, he leant heavily on archaeologists, along with art and literary historians, for his interpretations, and in his final chapters he included a great deal of data from sociological sources.

He was also careful to delineate what could be safely regarded, based on evidence, as being historical likelihood, from that which was more open to alternative interpretations. In his introduction, he asserted that sports can only be claimed to be a masculine preserve if one ignored the historical record. That record, he lamented, was often sketchy when looking for women’s participation in games, and he was careful to note when the available evidence did not seem to support claims that other scholars had made for it.

This is one area of difficulty for the contemporary reviewer. My first exposure to women’s sports was Coming on Strong, which I read during graduate school. Guttmann’s work was written over twenty-five-years ago, a long time in the world of scholarship. The historiographies of fields evolve over time. Theories rise and fall, narratives are created and debunked. So when he wrote critically of other works that were contemporary in his time, the modern reader, lacking exposure to the same corpus that informed his research, can sometimes be lost in the weeds.

Guttmann is particularly careful in his chapters on the ancient world. Since much of the historical record, such as it is, comes from depictions of athletes in artwork, or in fragmentary histories, it might be tempting for scholars to find women athletes where none may have existed. He used the example of women depicted on vases in seemingly athletic pursuits to argue that such images might be of true athletes, or perhaps they are merely dancers, who he argued should not be included in the definition of sporting women. He hammered the point home by writing “To rejoice that men and women are equally involved in sports when the men are engaged in a game of rugby and the women are at an aerobics class is to mislead the unwary reader” (3).

Another problem that Guttmann, and all historians, encounter is that what historical record does exist in ancient times is heavily tilted toward consideration of the upper classes. While we can see Pharaoh Hatshepsut engaged in a symbolic race, we seldom have access to what a peasant or slave woman in ancient Egypt might have done athletically. Likewise, while Greek art depicts the mythological Atalanta and various goddesses engaged in sports, to argue that Greek women engaged in similar activities is problematical. Spartan women were one group of ancient Greeks that Guttmann felt confident in ascribing athletic participation to, since the historical record from various sources, including artwork, as well as writings left by contemporary observers provides numerous instances describing their practices. Likewise, Roman women, particularly during the empire, have also left extensive historical traces.

Lack of extant records, ambiguous images, and the continued focus on the rich and powerful continued to hamper Guttmann’s efforts to construct a record of women athletes during Medieval and Renaissance times. There began to be more sources mentioning women playing games, but just as I lack the context to fully understand Guttmann’s critique of his contemporaries, so to did he lack the context of the time to make sense of what those mentions truly signify. When sources mention an archery contest for women (51), did this mean that women were typically engaged in this sort of sporting activity, or was it the equivalent of the Powderpuff football game of more recent times – an ironic chance for males to enjoy the spectacle of women engaged in “manly” activities?

For the Medieval Period and the Renaissance, Guttmann found an increasing mention of women engaged in sports, including indications of lower class women’s athletic endeavors. However, after writing about a peasant woman’s game called stoolball, a possible ancestor of baseball, he cautioned that “It is difficult to say more than this about peasant women’s sports without expanding one’s definition of sports, which is exactly what many historians are tempted to do” (49). That seems to be a particular point of emphasis from Guttmann – he stated “Now that historians have begun to look for evidence of women’s sports, the evidence has begun to appear” (47). Sometimes though, he suggested, or plainly stated, historians have regrettably given into the temptation to declare any mention of a woman involved in any sort of sporting activity as evidence that women athletes were pervasive.

Beginning with his chapter on the seventeenth trough nineteenth century sport, Guttmann focused most exclusively on games played in England, since records for the continent were so sparse. Women began to play cricket, and female boxing became something of a rage during the latter part of the period. His descriptions of the boxers, who often fought topless, led some scholars to argue that the women were “victims of commercial exploitation” (104). Guttmann disagreed with that contention, which reduces female athletes to objects of masculine desire. When discussing what the women boxers and wrestlers thought of their image, he argued that “It seems reasonable to assume that she (Miss Vulcana – a Welsh stongwoman) and other female athletes had a sense of accomplishment denied to less physically active women. To think otherwise, to insist that her pride came from the deplorable internalization of patriarchal values, is to reduce the complexity of history to a monotonously doleful tale of man’s oppression of women” (105). This is an interesting quote, considering that it is similar to the argument that Parker put forth in her Sports Biblio post.

The records that historians such as Guttmann had access to began to become more available in the nineteenth century. Most of this chapter was devoted to discussing how women, who were increasingly attending college at the time, rebelled against being forced to do calisthenics when they wanted to play competitive sports such as field hockey. In the United States, which largely entered the work in chapter eight, college women began to play new sports such as basketball to satisfy their need to compete. Concerns over the inappropriateness of women engaging in hard competition saw universities recede as centers for women’s sport during the early twentieth century. Some women who were trained academically in physical education believed that competitive sports harmed women’s health, and many also felt that females should avoid the corruption of men’s sports. They joined with men who felt sports should be for men only, and their efforts caused chances for women collegiate athletes to decline markedly in the mid-twentieth century. There were some exceptions, and Guttmann covered the usual suspects – Babe Didrikson, Helen Wills, Gertrude Ederley, and Amelia Earhart. He also added consideration of several European women such as the French tennis star Suzanne Lenglen, and included considerable discussion of women’s industrial sports in Europe. In addition, he focused at some length on the long struggle to overcome male and female opposition to adding women’s sports to the Olympic Games.

After discussing women’s participation under the totalitarian regimes such as Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, and Stalin’s Soviet Union, Guttmann moved on to consider sociological evidence of women’s participation in sports. Although some evidence was problematical in that the instrument measured everything from competitive sports to picking strawberries as sport, other nation’s researchers focused more closely on competitive games. The data demonstrated that women across the post war West began to participate more fully in the sporting lives of their nations. He also discussed increased participation by African American women, highlighting athletes such as Wilma Rudolph.

The final two chapters on the state of women’s sports in contemporary times (the 1990s) focused on the effect that the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s had on women’s participation in sports. He mentioned Billy Jean King’s defeat of Bobby Riggs, but spent little time on it. Likewise, his consideration of Title IX of the Education Act of 1972 is somewhat superficial; although that is understandable since much of the contemporary impact of the law came from decisions made during the Clinton Administration (1993-2000). I would think that his contention that the law ironically led to a smaller percentage of women as coaches was controversial at the time. Much of the focus of the first chapter in this section is on increasing participation, once again using sociological data, of women in Europe and Canada.

His final chapter considered three contemporary controversies. The first was the question of whether women athletes were catching up to men. After acknowledging that male athletes were typically stronger, he demonstrated that women’s record times in various sports, particularly track and swimming, were decreasing at a faster rate than men’s record times, which indicated that the effect of more women having the chance to compete was lessening differences.

The second controversy regarded doping in sport, which continues to be an issue internationally. He initially positions in terms of women athletes possibly using chemical means to narrow the gap between women’s and men’s performers, before discussing the Cold War context of the problem and possible solutions.  As we have seen recently, none of his solutions seem to have been employed.

The final controversy was labeled “Sport and Eros,” (258) and considered what many argue is the sexualization of female athletes. Guttmann argued that this phenomenon was not limited to women athletes, and that males such as Eugen Sandow, Johnny Weissmuller, and Joe Namath have also been seen as sexual objects as well as athletes. He also argued that men tend to find athletic women attractive, and seemingly found that natural. As he stated in his final sentence, “Why not have it all?” (265)

So, how well has Women’s Sports aged? Is it a vintage or vinegar? For the most part, I would argue that it is a vintage work that has not suffered the ravages of age. The history that makes up the first twelve chapters is still very good. Guttmann did extensive research and was judicious in his interrogation of the sources. He noted what could be found, argued against claims that were speculative, and identified the various problems–such as lack of records for peasant women–that hindered research. When he critiqued his contemporaries, it was most often because they had stretched the story farther than the historical record allowed.

Where Guttmann’s work seems a bit dated is in his consideration of more modern concerns. Guttmann does consider the Olympics and women’s sports, but largely outside the context of the Cold War, especially where it concerned Soviet women athletes, who were routinely denigrated for being mannish and unattractive. He also does not make any mention of how U.S. women’s lack of success against their Soviet counterparts led to lessening of support for denying athletic participation to American women before Title IX.

Perhaps the most glaring omission is that Guttmann rarely touches upon sexual orientation, which became a significant part of scholarship beginning with Coming on Strong. Guttmann argued that Babe Didrikson Zaharias’ marriage suffered when her husband had an affair with her friend Betty Dodd, when recent scholarship suggests that Didrickson and Dodd had been having the affair. The charge that women athletes were lesbians is a difficulty that many women athletes have faced over the years and one that has been used to denigrate since at least the early twentieth century. His avoidance of that is somewhat surprising.

Guttmann also argued that the imbalance in media coverage had begun to decline with women gaining more exposure in the press and on television. Given the number of stories during the current Olympics decrying the sexist coverage of the games that may have been a premature conclusion.

Although there are some issues with Women’s Sports, especially in the latter chapters, his efforts to write a comprehensive history of females engaged in athletics, at least Western females, was groundbreaking. Reviews from the time of its release were largely positive, although a review by Catriona M. Parratt for the Journal of Sport History did critique him for giving short shrift to “the power dynamics of gender, sexuality, and women’s sports.” Parratt also mentioned that Guttmann “remains largely unsympathetic to feminist analyses which go beyond surface criticism and attempt to connect issues in women’s sport with broader enduring patterns of male hegemony.” Despite her criticisms, Parratt argued that Women’s Sports was “a major contribution to the scholarship in this field.”[1]

I would agree with that assessment, and in many ways agree with Parker’s evaluation that began this review. Women’s Sports: A History has stood the test of time in many ways. It was not perfect, but then few, if any, historical accounts are. Guttmann, in addition to being a careful historian, is also a fine writer, so the book should still be of interest to historians and to anyone interested in women’s sport.

Russ Crawford is an Associate Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. His area of specialty is sport history, with an evolving focus on nontraditional practitioners of gridiron football. Along with several chapters on sport history, he has published one book, The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946-1963, and has another, Le Football: The History of American Football in France has recently been published by the University of Nebraska Press in August of 2016.






[1] Catriona M. Parratt, Guttmann, Allen. “Women’s Sports: A History,” Journal of Sports History, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Winter 1993), 300-302

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