How Do You Solve a Problem Like Women’s Track?

By Cat Ariail

“Track and field, along with tennis, golf and swimming, are considered the ‘lady-like’ sports that women actively participate in. The reason for labeling these sports as ‘lady-like’ is that there is no body contact – and certainly there is none in track and field. It is an accepted fact that track and field build [sic] up the body in three ways, physically, mentally, and competitively.  All these items are an asset to the American way of living.”[1]

So wrote Evelyne Hall, National AAU Women’s Track and Field chairwoman, in Amateur Athlete, the official tribune of the AAU, in the fall of 1950.

Despite wider social proscriptions that discouraged white women from competing in the sport, the white female leaders of women’s track and field eagerly strove to make the sport broadly appealing by positioning young women’s participation as beneficial to American society.  Catherine Meyer, 1948 women’s Olympic track and field coach, likewise insisted, “Everyone is interested in combating juvenile delinquency, in doing something for boys, yet with few exceptions, no one does anything for girls in an athletic way.” She further retorted, “If participation in sports builds character in boys, why shouldn’t this hold true for girls?”[2]

Of course, making women’s track and field “lady-like” and “an asset to the American way of living,” proved complicated. Cultural resistance to women’s track was not just reactionary sexism. Rather, racial difference made impossible the imaginings of Hall and Meyer.

The 1949 and 1950 Los Angeles Coliseum Relays produced starkly different understandings of the possibilities for women’s track. Contextualizing the two meets reveals the critical role of racial difference, as it intersected with gender conventions, in determining the perceived appropriateness of women’s track and field.

In short, the interaction of racial and gender ideologies rendered women’s track a problem. One with which the sport’s leaders were unwilling to reckon.

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The 1948 London Olympic Games likely inspired Hall and Meyer.

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Fanny Blankers-Koen prepares for competition. (Photo courtesy of galerie-creation.com).

Fanny Blankers-Koen, “The Flying Dutch Housewife,” won four gold medals on the Wembley track.  A tall, slim, and blonde thirty year-old mother of two, Blankers-Koen demonstrated that white, western women could compete in the supposedly masculine sport of track and field without forsaking femininity. The New Yorker’s Mollie Panter-Downes, on site in London, expressed his fascination, enthusing that, “Mrs. Fanny Blankers-Koen, a veteran of thirty, looks magnificent on the track.”[3]  Winning gold in the 100-meters, 200-meters, 80-meter hurdles, and as a member of the Netherlands’ 4×100-meter relay squad required that Blankers-Koen undertake a grueling schedule in London.  She did so with ablomb, showing that women could compete seriously in athletics while maintaining the traditional trappings of white femininity. In May of 1949, Blankers-Koen brought this vision of white, feminine athleticism to Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Coliseum Relays served as the West Coast’s leading meet, annually attracting more than 40,000 fans. In the postwar moment, the sport flourished on the West Coast, corresponding with the broader development of the western United States during and after World War II due to the location of defense industries.  Like the region at the large, West Coast track signaled modernity. The frontier of American sport, therefore, presented the possibility of a more accepting and encouraging attitude toward women’s track.

“Speed, muscle and glamour, mixed with record-making performances, marked the ninth annual Coliseum Relays,” announced the New York Times in their recap of the 1949  meet.[4]  The nearly 50,000 in attendance witnesses Blankers-Koen display a so-called “glamorous” brand of female athleticism, in addition to an impressive show of speed. After easily winning the 80-meter sprint and hurdles, she joined with a girls’ club team from Glendale, California, with which Evelyne Hall assisted, to defeat a foursome of Canadian female athletes. Running anchor, Blankers-Koen thrilled fans when she erased a demonstrable deficit to capture the win. “She brought a thunder of applause when she closed a gap of some 40 yards,” reported the Times.[5]

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The New York Times presents Blankers-Koen’s “glamorous” athleticism. (Photo courtesy of the New York Times, 22 May 1949).

The significance of Blankers-Koen’s sterling performance exceeded the space of the track.  She advertised an amenable image of female athleticism, presumably providing a model of American female athleticism organized around whiteness and femininity, and compatible with fit motherhood.  A photo in the Times that captured Blankers-Koen gracefully clearing a hurdle communicated this ideal.[6]  Her presence proved that track was “safe” for young white women, hopefully inspiring them, as well as the skeptical parents, to pursue the sport. She served as embodied proof of the assertion of Roxy Andersen, a former Canadian Olympic hurdler and AAU women’s track and field commissioner in California: “Let us get this straight. I have never known a girl, naturally beautiful, to lose any of her good looks and charm because she became sports minded.”[7]

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Mel Patton poses after a USC practice. (Photo courtesy of gettyimages.ie).

Along with Blankers-Koen, Mel Patton claimed star status in Los Angeles, leading his University of Southern California Trojans to two relay wins, including a new world record time in the 880-yard relay.  “Fifty thousand bug-eyed fans were completely Patonized by the jet-propelled young Trojan’s feat,” exclaimed Track & Field News.[8]  Patton was the nation’s athletic ideal. Married to his high school sweetheart and father to a young child, the handsome Patton projected all-Americanness. Ahead of the 1948 Olympic Games, both Time and LIFE magazines had featured him on their covers; he was the nation’s “white hope.”

In London, he initially failed to live up to exceptions, finishing a disappointing fifth in the 100-meters. But he demonstrated admirable resilience, coming back to capture gold in the 200-meters. Witnessing his effort, The New Yorker’s Panter-Downes rhapsodized, “When Patton, after the disappointment of the one-hundred-metre contest, brilliantly succeeded in the two-hundred, he looked like a wiry little David shooting out from the thundering ranks of dark Goliaths.”[9] Patton also ran anchor for the Americans’ gold-winning 4×100-meter relay team.

Approximately nine months later in Los Angeles, Patton’s performance combined with that of Blankers-Koen to define the 1949 Coliseum Relays through white athletic excellence.  This imagery aligned with that of the region more broadly; the West Coast’s modernity  was organized around whiteness. Because the landscape of American sport was intertwined with and inextricable from the broader American landscape, few black athletes competed in the 1949 Coliseum Relays, including no black female athletes. The racial homogeneity of the meet was not incidental to the enthusiastic attitude about female athleticism that Blankers-Koen inspired.

The following year meet organizers again sought to tap into the potential of white women’s track. But other dynamics changed.

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Marjorie Jackson captures a victory at a club meet in Australia. (Photo courtesy of wikipedia.org).

Marjorie Jackson, Australia’s rising international sprint talent who recently had turned in a new 100-yard world record of 10.7 seconds, accepted an  invitation to compete, taking over for Blankers-Koen as the symbol of western, white and feminine athleticism. Recognizing the meet’s apparent openness to female athleticism, Horace Owens, a local writer who had graduated from Tuskegee Institute, successfully pressed for the inclusion of black female athletes from his alma mater. Four female athletes from Tuskegee, along with Tennessee State University’s Jean Patton, would make the trip to Los Angeles. Since Patton was the current 100-meter outdoor and 100-yard indoor national champion, meet organizers likely hoped she would offer an exciting challenge to Jackson.

The 1950 Coliseum Relays also featured a significantly increased number of black male track stars. Along with past and future Olympians Mal Whitfield, Lloyd LaBeach, and Andy Stanfield, the vaunted Morgan State University (MSU) relay team ventured to Los Angeles.  The Bears were the first all-black squad to compete at the meet.  The foursome of Sam LaBeach (younger brother of Lloyd), Bob Tyler, Bill Brown, and George Rhoden recently had romped at the Penn Relays. Winning the coveted mile and sprint medley relays at Franklin Field earned them an invitation to the West Coast’s central contest.  Their presence, in conjunction with the black female athletes, introduced black athleticism into a space of sport associated with whiteness.

Yet, despite the an array of events featuring prominent track men, including a thrilling mile relay duel between MSU and Occidental College, in which the local but largely unheralded Oxy squad edged the Bears, the women’s 80-yard sprint stole the show.

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Tennessee State University  celebrates Jean Patton after her successful performance at the the 1951 Pan-American Games.

Marjorie Jackson entered the nine-women women’s sprint the unquestionable favorite.  Despite a slow start, she took the lead at the 50-yard mark, seemingly on her way to an easy win.  Patton prevented her coronation. She unleashed a burst of speed to steal victory in the final ten yards.  “The win bowled over the crowd of 50,000 because Miss Jackson had been regarded as an almost certain winner of the event, one of the featured attractions of the track and field festival,” exclaimed the Atlanta Daily World.[10]

The Australian somewhat avenged her loss in the relay.  As with Blankers-Koen the year prior, she teamed with three young white female athletes from Glendale, likewise anchoring a come-from-behind victory to defeat the Tigerette foursome of Gladys Talley, Juanita Watson, Evelyn Lawler, and Nell Jackson.[11]

Nonetheless, Patton had made black female athleticism visible.  Given the opportunity to enter the center of American track, black female athletes troubled racial and gender preconceptions and preferences. The invitation of Jackson, like that of Blankers-Koen, aimed to celebrate white female athleticism, providing a imitable model for white American young women. Patton’s performance in Los Angeles complicated this goal, disrupting the female athleticism imagined by the white female leaders of women’s track. If, as Hall claimed, white female track athletes were “lady-like,” so were their black competitors.

For the meet’s white male organizers, the potential of women’s track became much less appealing when embodied by a black female sprinter. Despite the excitement injected by the female athletes both years, the Coliseum Relays decided to end its women’s program, choosing to avoid the ideological discomfort raised by successful black female athletes. This decision also previewed the effort to discourage women’s track participation at the 1951 Pan-American Games. White female leaders also ignored the ideological implications of black track women. They accepted black female track athletes, often complimenting their achievements at National AAU Championships. Yet, they remained blindly committed to a “whitened” image of the sport, promoting a seemingly universal (but implicitly white) women’s track.

Hall continued to expound on the sport’s appropriateness, asserting, “Most of the competitors of the last 20 years are leading busy, active lives – rearing a family but still retaining good health and trim figures. Women, too, have learned the values of a sound mind in a sound body!”[12] Andersen likewise insisted that athletic experiences turned recalcitrant young women into “young ladies whom it was a pleasure to meet and know.”[13] “I’m telling you that the sports that many deplore for women have given a lift that no other means could provide to hundreds of girls throughout North America,” she declared.[14]

They clung to a vision of the sport compatible with dominant, heteronormative American culture. But it was incompatible with reality of the sport, which not only was dominated by but also dependent on southern, black female athletes.  As such, the women’s track was resigned to irrelevance, attempting to bend to the preferences of white, male authorities of sport and society and, thus, failing to speak to the needs of the young women, white and black, who competed.

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Today’s institutions and leaders of women’s sport must not replicate their predecessors’ mistakes. In a United States controlled by men who disrespect and devalue the bodies of women, the institutions and leaders of women’s sport must resist the accommodationist stances of the predecessors. Women’s sport, by displaying women’s autonomy and capacity, has progressive power. It can serve as space for exploring and addressing pressing social issues. But the institutions and leaders, as well as advocates and allies, of women’s sport must recognize and reckon with the full complexity of gender, racial, sexual, and ethnic differences..

For, avoidance produces continued irrelevance.

Cat Ariail is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of the University of Miami.  She researches gender, race, and nationalism in mid-twentieth track and field.  You can contact her at cat.m.ariail@gmail.com.

Notes

[1] Evelyne Hall, “Women’s Track & Field Needs Promotion,” Amateur Athlete (September 1950): 22.

[2] Catherine D. Meyer, “Will U.S. Girls Rate Places on Pan-American and Olympic Teams?,” Amateur Athlete (April 1949): 16.

[3] Mollie Panter-Downes, “Letter from the Olympics,” The New Yorker (14 August 1948): 66.

[4] “U.S.C. Relay Team Clips World Mark,” New York Times, 22 May 1949, S3.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Roxy Atkins Andersen, “Girls Thrive on Sport,” Amateur Athlete (November 1950): 24.

[8] Kenny Greenberg, “USC Runs 880 Relay in Record Time of 1:24,” Track & Field News (May 1949): 1.

[9] Panter-Downes, 66.

[10] “Jean Patton, Andy Stanfield Triumph at Coliseum Relays,” Atlanta Daily World, 23 May 1950, 5.

[11] “Morgan Barely Misses in Mile Relay Title Race on Coast.”

[12] Hall, “Women’s Track and Field Needs Promotion.”

[13] Andersen, “Girls Thrive on Sport.”

[14] Ibid., 28.

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