The Sports World Wrongly Empowers Male Athletes at Great Expense to Women, Says UB Sports Historian

Release Date: June 6, 2001 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The past few decades seem to have marked a sea of change in public regard for female athletes. Does this signal a broader social definition of what it is to be female and feminine in American society?

Emphatically no, says Susan Cahn, a distinguished and widely published scholar of sports history. Not only is the conclusion not supportable, she says, but she questions the assumption upon which it is base.

"Despite women's amazing progress and their ability to cultivate strength, build confidence and experience joy in athletic activity," she says, "the sports culture continues to be a key location for the production of sexual differences -- between male and female bodies, between masculine and feminine persons and between normative heterosexuality and "deviant" homosexuality.

"These differences," Cahn stresses, "are not neutral, but signposts of inequality. They signal that we live in a society that continues to empower men at great expense to the health, respect and well-being of women."

Cahn, associate professor in the Department of History in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences, is the author of the pioneering study, "Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women's Sport" (Free Press, 1994; Harvard University Press, 1995), which chronicled the remarkable transformation made by women's sports in the 20th century.

The widely anthologized book won the 1995 Best Book Award from the North American Society of Sports History and already is considered a classic in the field. She currently is at work on her second book, "Sexual Reckonings: Adolescent Girlhood in the Modern South, 1920-1960" forthcoming from Harvard Press.

Cahn is the recipient of a Rockefeller Archive Center Research Grant and a fellowship in the Stanford University Humanities Center, and is editorial consultant for the journal Feminist Studies, a member of the Board of Associate Editors for the Journal of Women's History and former associate editor of the Journal of Sports History.

For more than 100 years, Cahn says, the debate over the role of women athletes has revolved around the question of whether there is conclusive proof of the inherent maleness of the athletic body.

For more than 100 years, Cahn says, the battle over the role of women athletes has revolved around the question of whether sport "proves" the inherent maleness of the athletic body. She says it isn't a question of the relative superiority of one body over another, "although throughout the history of western sports, the physical superiority of the male body has been an assumption so basic that it rarely is questioned."

"The issue can be argued ad nauseam," says Cahn, "but what interests me isn't whether women can beat men or male athletic records, although they have and do. It's that when women demonstrate exceptional physical power and dominance, their very femaleness comes into question."

She points out that while masculinity and athleticism have converged in the public consciousness, the notion was not part of American culture until the latter part of the last century.

Muscularity and brawn, she explains, were disdained as characteristics of poor working-class men until the 1880s, when the working class began to organize into unions and radical political groups opposed to the choke hold of industrial capitalism.

The middle-class response to this threat to the status quo, Cahn explains, was the production and promotion of what was called "muscular Christianity" -- a focus on the physical body as a way of ensuring moral health and rectitude. For men, it embraced the kind of male physicality that found expression in tough exercise and daring physical exploits. In the increasing promotion of collegiate football, weight lifting, crew and other organized sports, the "heroic" male athlete began to develop in the national consciousness.

Cahn says "The New Woman" of the early 20th century -- who had so boldly marched into previously male-only spaces like universities, the business world and politics -- also vaulted into the athletic arena, embracing the idea of "vigorous femininity" as a counterpoint to her previously passive physical role.

Once the athleticism was conceptually wed to maleness, however, the role of women athletes was problematic. If sport was a "masculine" pursuit, then it was an activity that by definition differentiated men from women.

"The athletic woman," says Cahn, "challenged public and private assumptions of what it is to be male or female, masculine or feminine."

"If athleticism is defined as a male domain," she says, "then women athletes who demonstrate strength, dexterity and great athletic skill confound established sex-role boundaries."

Like other cultural historians, her subject serves as a cultural flag from which much can be deduced about broader gender-based attitudes, practices and changes. She says that because

various meanings and aspects of the word "sex" are historically intertwined and ever-changing, they help illustrate a society's understanding of sex differences.

By "sex," she means three things. "First, the biological sex of the athlete -- the literal body and its assigned sex, male or female," she says, "second, gender, that is, the culturally ascribed traits associated with male or female persons, and third, the erotic aspects of sport -- the sexiness of athletes as public competitors whose bodies are on view for audience pleasure and the issue of sexual identity (homo-, bi- and heterosexuality) as it relates to sports."

"The 'sports' world is still a key cultural arena in which common sense beliefs about sexual differences are formed and confirmed," Cahn says. "It is a world that continues to hold inconsistent attitudes toward women athletes because of their physicality, power, strength and sexuality.

Citing myriad examples, both hilarious and horrifying, Cahn illustrates how, over the past century, female athletes have been celebrated as healthy, strong, beautiful women, even as their alleged "mannishness" came to connote their "failed heterosexuality." They were celebrated as "statuesque beauties," "nymphs" with "finely molded bodies" and disdained as hawkish, hairy and button-breasted hoydens.

They (and we) were assured that athletics would give women a fresh glow and strong bodies and warned that it would rob them of their beauty, natural modesty and reserve; alter their physiological womanhood; produce an unnatural intoxication with competition; unleash sexual passion and loosen sexual inhibitions, and unnerve men and destroy the family.

This, says Cahn, had produced the female athlete's apologetic, in which she demonstrates her challenged femininity by wearing pastel, ruffled or revealing sportswear and notes the presence of boyfriend, husband, children and pie-making skills.

Cahn emphasizes again that the evidence from the sports world indicates that, regardless of scientific research and factual demonstrations to the contrary, a double standard continues to be applied to male and female athletic accomplishment.

As a result of a refusal to look at the record, she says, the pattern of discrepancies in athletic operating budgets, scholarship money, coaching positions and pay and media coverage continues, and it imperils the health, self-respect and well-being of women athletes of every age and skill level.

Cahn has served as initial consultant for the American Civil Liberties Union on a case involving sex discrimination in recreational sports in Los Angeles, as well as for several documentaries including "Slam Dunk: A Basketball History of the 20th Century," the series "The City Game: Basketball and Social Life in 20th Century America" and HBO's "Playing the Field: Sex and Sport."

Media Contact Information

Patricia Donovan has retired from University Communications. To contact UB's media relations staff, call 716-645-6969 or visit our list of current university media contacts. Sorry for the inconvenience.