A Snapshot of the Complicated Culture of Postwar Women’s Sport

By Cat Ariail

In early 1949, Catherine Meyer, still coach of the United States women’s track and field team despite the criticisms of her performance at the 1948 London Olympics, began to look toward the 1951 Pan American Games, slated for Buenos Aires, Argentina, and 1952 Olympics, which were to be held in Helsinki, Finland.  In an article in Amateur Athlete headlined, “Will U.S. Girls Rate Places On Pan-American And Olympic Teams?,” she assertively argued for the need for more support for women’s track. Recalling the praise Alice Coachman received for her gold medal effort in London, Meyer insisted that more American female athletes could receive similar acclaim at the coming regional and international sporting festivals, if given requisite support.  “We must start now in the promotions of women’s athletics. We must look to broader fields, to the schools and colleges, playgrounds and industry,” she demanded.[1]

Meyer wrote of women’s track universally, but her aims suggest she imagined such support spurring young white women’s participation in the sport. Notably, she referenced juvenile delinquency, a paranoia that percolated in American society in the early postwar era due to anxieties about that authority of whiteness in a world wrestling with mass consumption, communism, and civil rights, to justify track opportunities for young women. She posited, “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.”[2]  Meyer further retorted, “If participation in sports builds character in boys, why shouldn’t this hold true for girls?”[3] In short, she linked sport and citizenship for young white women, situating track and field as a space that made young white women better citizens.

Roxy Andersen, a former Canadian Olympic hurdler and new AAU women’s track and field commissioner, similarly argued for the benefits sport provided for young, implicitly white women, insisting, “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. But – and I say this with real experience – I have known many young girls who were thin, scrawny, unattractive, prone to mixing with boy gangs and pointed for trouble ahead until they joined a ball team, track or swimming club.”[4] “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 exclaimed.[5]

Their editorials, however, reveal the influence of black women’s track on their ideas about gender, athleticism, and citizenship. Their suddenly aggressive advocacy suggests the effect of seeing Coachman and Audrey “Mickey” Patterson, who won the bronze medal in the 200-meters, patriotically positioned on the medal stand in Wembley Stadium. These images inspired USOC and AAU female officials to begin to envision young white track women occupying these symbolic spaces in Buenos Aires and Helsinki. So, in contradistinction to the intersecting ideologies racism and sexism that supposedly rendered black female athletes deviant women and illegitimate athletes, the athleticism these young black women displayed on the international athletic stage did not drive white women away from the sport. Rather, in the estimation of the sport’s white female leaders, black female athletes demonstrated compatibility between femininity and athleticism. As evinced by Meyer’s and Andersen’s editorials, the white women who formed the AAU’s and USOC’s women’s track and field committees began to call for more investment in women’s track, insisting on young women’s equal right to participate in the sport.[6]

The fact these white women saw the black athletic womanhood embodied by Coachman and other black American female athletes as imitation-worthy was significant. Their adoption of this model for white women affirmed the effectiveness of the black sport community’s strategy of advertising black female athletes as fit and feminine exemplars of black citizenship. By invoking juvenile delinquency, Meyer likewise looked to position white female athletes as contributors to a strengthened white citizenship. Andersen’s descriptions similarly imagined sport turning recalcitrant young women into “young ladies whom it was a pleasure to meet and know.”[7]

But, despite drawing inspiration from black sport culture, their developmental plans  indicate their racially-exclusive visions for the sport. Meyer wrote, “We should like to appeal to all of the Associations of the AAU to start now to plan a campaign promoting women’s track and field throughout their districts – through field days and play days at the schools and colleges, through recreation departments, and playgrounds and through industrial civic organizations sponsoring athletic programs.”[8] Although the national AAU was desegregated, allowing for participation of all athletes in national championship meets, district associations determined their own racial policies. In the South, where the majority of black female athletes were located, associations remained segregated, thus excluding young black women from any of the prospective development efforts advocated for by Meyer.

Andersen’s hoped-for initiatives likewise were ignorant of racial realities. She described in detail a women’s track culture that thrived due to a dedicated cadre of coaches who fostered appropriately feminine yet technically talented female track stars, failing to recognize the fact that black women’s track culture already had achieved and endorsed many of the aims she outlined. The strong track program at Tuskegee Institute, as well as the one that would soon develop at Tennessee State University, were a product of segregation.  Somewhat ironically, the primarily northern-located white women who led the USOC and AAU now wanted to adopt some of the strategies that black women’s track culture developed because of exclusion.

But prevailing social ideologies about whiteness, femininity, and athleticism in combination with the existing reality of the sport would prevent the white female leaders of women’s track from effortlessly making the sport more white. So they were flexible, first prioritizing strengthening sport. To do so, they welcomed rather than feared black female athletes, recognizing that they helped to facilitate the sport’s growth. The 1949 National AAU Championship shows as much, evincing a spirit of racial and ethnic inclusivity that existed alongside a vision of racial superiority. The 1949 title meet highlights the curious and contradictory realities and ideologies of race, gender, and nation that operated within women’s track in the postwar era.

The west Texas town of Odessa hosted the August championship meet, an obscure location that appears to indicate a lack interest. However, the South Texas AAU, in partnership with the Odessa Shrine Club, outbid suitors in Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York, showing themselves ready to organize a financially profitable meet that also would meet the needs of female competitors. Importantly, the meet organizers arranged for affordable housing for all contestants, providing room and board at a local school for two dollars per day to allay some of the financial challenges that most squads had to manage. The Shriners also hosted a chuck wagon barbecue for contestants two nights before competition Along with the singing and dancing exhibition from the athletes, the celebration presumably allowed black and white athletes from across the nation to socialize freely, creating a scene that contravened the social preferences and practices of western Texas.[9]  A team of five female athletes from Cuba also enjoyed this affair.

In May 1949, Havana’s Edison Institute traveled to Morris County, New Jersey to compete in a dual track meet against a team composed of young female athletes from four local high schools.  Edison Institute, which included both white and mestizo female athletes, defeated their New Jersey hosts, totaling sixty-eight points to twenty-two. Nevertheless, observers noted that the “final score was not indicative of the competition which was good,” while, according to women’s track and field chairwoman Meyer, “Good sportsmanship and friendly rivalry combined to make this meet with our Cuban neighbors one which is hoped will be an annual affair.”[10] The opportunity and hospitality encouraged Edison’s coach, Charles Yiribarren, to announce that he would bring members of his relay team and a javelin thrower back to the United States for the national title meet.[11]

Pages from AA - June 1949 (1).jpg

A photo of Edison Institute at the May 1949 meet in Morris County, New Jersey. (Photo from Amateur Athlete, June 1949).

In addition to Edison Institute’s Aleida Serret, Gladys Mulkay, Martha Garcia, Olga Gonzales, and Julia Perez, four female athletes from Mexico City’s Mexican Athletic Federation also competed in Odessa.  The presence of this collection of Latina athletes made the 1949 title meet a diverse yet safe space of female athleticism that defied prevailing social norms and demonstrated the alternative possibilities for women’s track. The meet testified to the efforts of Meyer, who cultivated cooperative networks among women’s track advocates and leaders, both in the US and beyond, in order to sustain the sport. Even if she and her fellow officials prioritized building the sport for a broader population of white female athletes, achieving this aim did not encourage the exclusion of female athletes of other races and nations. They instead actively courted the participation of any and all aspiring female athletes, realizing the power of female athletic quantity. In short, racial and ethnic ecumenicalism could best counteract gender inequities.

However, the diversity of entrants could not slow the Tuskegee juggernaut. The Tigerettes accumulated eighty-one points, winning five events while placing in every event except one.  Juanita Watson led the way for the Tigerettes, triumphing in the 50-meter dash and baseball throw.[12] With victory, Watson partly fulfilled the confident claim she made to the Chicago Defender’s Russ Cowans after that May’s Tuskegee Relays, when TSU freshman Jean Patton bettered her in the 100-meter dash.  Expressing the often unrecorded passion of young female athletes, Watson exhorted, “I should have beaten that gal. I’m going to prove it when we meet in the National AAU meet.” She further exclaimed to Cowans, “Well, you just wait until the AAU meet. I’ll prove to you and Jean that I’m a faster sprinter than she is.”[13]

In Odessa, the showdown between the budding rivals occurred in the 50-meters rather than 100-meters. Nevertheless, the sting of her defeat appeared to spur Watson, described by Cowans as small girl who “packs plenty of speed in those little legs that churn like pistons as they propel her over the ground.”[14] She finished first to Patton’s second, backing up her confident claims.  But likely much to her dismay, Tuskegee coach Roumania Peters did not enter her in the 100-meters, allowing her rival Patton, a native of Nashville, to take to 100-meter title over her teammate Mickey Patterson.[15]  But Bernice Robinson claimed star status.  The lone competitor from Chicago’s Washington Park recreation club, she set a new American record of 11.9 seconds for the 80-meter distance. She then added second places in the high and broad jumps, making her the meet’s individual high point scorer.[16] Another Chicago native, Mabel Landry, also found success on the dusty and humid West Texas track, winning the broad jump in both the junior and senior divisions.[17]

1952 Olympic Games. Helsinki, Finland. Womens Long Jump. Mabel Landry of the U.S.A. who was placed 7th.

Mabel Landry competes in the broad jump at the 1952 Olympic Games. (Photo courtesy of depaulmagazine.com).

Landry attended St. Elizabeth’s School, a black Catholic school, where athletic director Joe Robichaux recognized her talent and invited her to run for Chicago’s Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), an interracial athletic program for youth that he established in 1946.[18]  She represented CYO’s first, and only, female track athlete. Nonetheless, Robichaux arranged for her to travel to Texas for the national championship. In order best to ensure that she would be in top condition for the meet, Robichaux purchased a sleeping compartment for her while he rode in one the regular cars for black passengers.[19]  The dictates of Jim Crow, however, foiled this preparatory plan.  When the train entered the southern territory early in the morning, an engineer pounded on Landry’s door, waking the sleeping athlete.  As Landry remembered years later, the engineer yelled, “Get out. We just crossed the Mason-Dixon line. You have to get up front with the other coloreds.” The episode enraged Robichaux.  But Landry proved un-cowed by the demands in segregation.  She also fondly recalled the youthful thrill of “going into the white bathrooms when we weren’t supposed to.”[20]  This confidence, in combination with her ability, attracted the attention of members of the Chicago Dempsey Hurricanes, an all-white squad from the city that included Dorothy Dodson, a member of the 1948 Olympic team who won the javelin and placed second in the shot put at the 1949 AAU title meet.

CYO Girls Track Team resize

A team photo of the Chicago CYO women’s track and field team from the early 1950s. (Photo courtesy of National Catholic Reporter/ncronline.com).

According to Landry, Dodson and her teammates, who finished second in the team standings in Odessa, requested to join her team.  Landry was honored but apoplectic, telling her suitors, “But I’m the only one on my team.” Yet, they insisted that she ask her coach, who also expressed shock and told Landry, “But Dolly [Landry’s nickname], we have no money. How can we afford a track team?”  But he soon developed a plan.  When he returned to Chicago, Robichaux filed suit for Chicago CYO against the Illinois Central Railroad for violating the ban against segregated interstate rail travel when the engineer demanded that Landry forfeit her sleeping car.  The court ruled in favor of Chicago CYO, with Robichaux using the damages won to invite the Chicago Hurricanes to join Chicago CYO, forming an interracial track squad.[21]  A stand against segregation thus produced more integration. Landry’s experience and its outcome thus highlights the progressive potential of women’s athletic opportunities, where the athletes’ shared desire to compete could erode socially proscribed gender and racial barriers.

In the wider landscape of American sport, the happenings ahead of and at the 1949 title meet had little reverberation. But, within women’s track, the developments had consequence. The emergence of a prominent interracial track team ended the informal racial segregation that had characterized the sport.  The visiting squads from Havana and Mexico City also introduced transnational possibilities for the sport. But most critically, the attitudes of the sport’s white female leaders and the action in Odessa together provide a nuanced perspective of the operation of  gender, race, and athleticism within women’s track. For, somewhat contradictorily, the efforts of Catherine Meyer, Roxy Andersen, and their associates to build the sport by appealing to a broader population of white female athletes, instead contributed to a more inclusive women’s track infrastructure that had the potential to contest entrenched gender, as well as racial and ethnic, practices and ideologies. In short, the culture of postwar women’s sport was not simplistic, only governed by prevailing gender conventions; it was dynamic, a space of experimentation where the attitudes and realities of gender and race did not follow a prescribed format.

Historians have argued that the bodies of young women served both material and symbolic roles in articulating American citizenship in the postwar era, with the state, commercial culture, and the medial establishment all accessing the bodies of young to women to re-stabilize the hierarchies of gender and race disrupted by World War II.[22] Women’s sport, particularly a sport like track and field organized around national representation in regional and international sporting events, also was part of this process. It was a space in which ideologies of race and gender messily were translated into reality, with various interest groups differently interpreting the bodies and abilities of young female athletes to press their own visions of American sport and citizenship. So even if the imaginings shared by Meyer, Andersen, and their compatriots never became reality, their ideas introduce women’s sport as an influential space for experimenting with the raced and gendered boundaries of American identity.

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

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Urge More Races for Girl Runners,” Amateur Athlete (October 1948): 16; J.W. Ll Alford, “A Woman Champion’s Views on Training,” Amateur Athlete (August 1949): 24.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Meyer, “Will U.S. Girls Rate Places on Pan-American and Olympic Teams?”

[9] “National Women’s Track Champs at Odessa, Tex.,” Amateur Athlete (June 1949): 19.

[10] Catherine D. Meyer, “Cuban Girls Compete in New Jersey Meet,” Amateur Athlete (June 1949): 20.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Miss Robinson Sets Track Mark,” Amateur Athlete (September 1949): 11.

[13] Russ Cowans, “Down Dixie Way,” Chicago Defender, 14 May 1949, 14.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Miss Robinson Sets Track Mark.”

[16] “Tuskegee Gals Win Track Title,” Afro-American, 20 August 1949, 15.

[17] “Miss Robinson Sets Track Mark.”

[18] “Joe Robichaux Colorful Name in Sports World,” Chicago Defender, 23 December 1961, 1.

[19] Melissa Isaacson, “Finally on Right Track,” Chicago Tribune, 15 May 2008, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2008-05-15/sports/0805150005_1_dolly-track-lane-stadium.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Rickie Solinger, Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade (New York: Routledge, 1992); Laura Briggs, Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002); Regina G. Kunzel, “White Neurosis, Black Pathology: Constructing Out-of-Wedlock Pregnancy in the Wartime and Postwar United States,” in Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 304-334; Ruth Feldstein, Motherhood in Black and White: Race and Sex in American Liberalism, 1930-1965 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000); Rebecca Kluchin, Fit to Be Tied: Sterilization and Reproductive Rights in America, 1950-1980 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009).

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