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Quite a Story to Tell: The Remarkable World of Women Athletes

Historical anthology of women and sports called "extraordinary"

Release Date: March 7, 2007

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- There has been a spectacular transformation in women's athletics in the United States over the past century, particularly in the 33 years since the passage of Title IX.

When it comes to self-congratulation, however, Susan K. Cahn, Ph.D., associate professor of history at the University at Buffalo and one of the country's top scholars of women's sports history, says, "Not so fast."

"Broadened school athletic programs, community sports inclusion programs and increased media coverage of women's sports give today's young women a sense of equity not supported by the numbers or by history," she says.

"Furthermore, because today's young women have little understanding of the restrictions placed on women athletes throughout American history, they have difficulty recognizing or talking about the sex and gender bias they continue to experience," Cahn says.

For this reason, Cahn, and co-editor Jean O'Reilly, Ph.D., have geared their new historical documentary anthology, "Women and Sports in the United States," to these young women.

The book will be published this month by Northeastern University Press/University Press of New England. It offers an excellent education in the tribulations and triumphs faced by American sportswomen from 1882 to 2005, and is organized in a way that Cahn says helps readers develop both historical knowledge and analytical insight into contemporary sport and gender relations.

The editors bring together scholarly articles, journalism, political and legal documents and first-person accounts that collectively explore women's sports in America over 125 years, with emphasis on the post–Title IX era, a period beginning in 1972 that produced a sea change in women's athletics across the U.S. It focuses on issues confronted not only by elite performers, but by casual and amateur athletes as well.

Pat Griffin, emeritus professor of social justice education at the University of Massachusetts, says the authors' "inclusion of original documents from each era and careful selection of knowledgeable writers make this book an absorbing and authoritative read for anyone interested in women's journey toward sports equality."

The book offers a tasty menu of what women athletes have faced over the years: "Throwing Like a Girl," "Less Ugly, "The World-Beating Viking Girl of Texas," "Are Athletics Making Girls Masculine?," "The Female Athlete as Oxymoron," "Playing Nice," "The All–Too Quiet Retirement of Mia Hamm," "The Muscle Gap," "Eating Disorders and Gymnastics" and the "All-American Girls Professional Baseball League Rules of Conduct, 1943–1954" (e.g., "ALWAYS appear in feminine attire when not actively engaged in practice or playing ball.")

It's enough to make a reader wonder how Hamm toughed it out to become the leading goal scorer, male or female in the history of international soccer competition, or how Tennessee Lady Vols coach Pat Summit, could have been the "winningest" NCAA basketball coach in history. And what about plucky little 19-year-old Gertrude Ederle, an Olympic gold medalist widely considered one of finest athletes of the 20th century? In 1926 she was the first woman to swim the English Channel, beating the best male time by two hours to prove once and for all that women were neither physically inferior to men nor incapable of strenuous activity.

Some contributors introduce important women in sports history whose experiences on and off the playing field raise some of the key thematic issues that other contributors explore in greater detail.

"Those themes," says Cahn, "include negotiating the realms of masculinity and femininity; femininity and muscularity; the physiological, biological and psychological issues that arise in the bodies and psyches of women athletes, and the ever-present sex and race biases institutionalized in sports organizations, media coverage of women's sports and, of course, Title IX and its aftermath."

Contributors include Jennifer Hargreaves (author of "Heroines of Sport") and David Zirin, who award-winning novelist and New York Times sports columnist Robert Lipsyte has called "the best young sportswriter in the United States."

Another is the distinguished 19th-century American suffragist, college president, labor reformer and temperance leader Frances E. Willard, who famously learned to ride a bicycle at 53. Another is sportswriter Joe Posnanski, who tells the story of boxer Katie Dallam, whose first match left her with permanent brain damage.

Joan Ryan, author of "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes," a chilling exposé of the exploitation of America's best young gymnasts and figure skaters, introduces readers to "The Secret World of Figure Skating;" writer Heather Ross Miller's employs her memories of half-court women's basketball as powerful metaphor for sexual attitudes in the 1950s; USA Today sportswriter MaryJo Sylwester considers the importance of family support for Latina girls with athletic gifts; and, of course, the story behind the newspaper headline "Riggs Butchered by Ms. King as Promoters Score a Million."

The book is not a collection of female triumphs over men athletes, however. Although it offers plenty of examples of women achieving success in the face of what today seem appalling roadblocks, it also explores the very nature of athletic expression as a cultural phenomenon that reflects the "proper" role for women engaging in such physical endeavors.

Cahn is the author of the award-winning "Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women's Sports" (Harvard University Press, 1994) and "Sexual Reckonings: Southern Girls in a Troubling Age" (forthcoming from Harvard University Press), the story of how the meaning of adolescence among southern girls during the region's most explosive decades underwent enormous political, economic and social shifts.

O'Reilly, author of "The Women's Sports Film as the New Melodrama," has written articles and reviews about women and film. She holds a doctorate in English and American Studies from England's University of East Anglia and teaches courses on women's sports films at the University of Connecticut.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York.

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