When you think of a woman athlete, what do you see? You may envision a woman with a powerful, “mannish” body who is most likely lesbian. If so, writes historian Susan K. Cahn, you’re playing into a stereotype that’s been around since the emergence of women in sports.
Sporty women have long been portrayed as emasculating, mannish lesbians. Ever since women began to publicly play sports in the late nineteenth century, writes Cahn, they threatened the once exclusively male terrain of the field and came to exemplify not just the urge to play, but the ways in which women were breaking out of their stereotypical gender roles and “spheres” at the time.
This was scary and sexy: While women athletes were praised for their vitality and vigor, they were also shamed for doing activities that, men claimed, could damage their ability to have children. These athletes were caught between a stereotype that sports would unleash their sexuality and one that claimed they would kill their reproductive capacities. And plenty of people wanted to comment on their participation in sports.
At first, writes Cahn, this manifested in attempts to control woman athletes during menstruation. If women played while on their periods, experts warned, they could become sterile or it could cause birth defects. Another train of thought held that the stronger the American woman, the more likely she would be to give birth to a strong new generation. And as women entered more and more sports, they found that a sexual message—often wrapped up in the titillation of seeing a woman engaged in an unabashedly physical activity—sold.
This debate presumed that women were heterosexual, though. Around the 1930s, fears of lesbianism entered the world of sports. Egged on by a medical establishment that saw homosexuality as deviant, writes Cahn, “the assertive, muscular female competitor roused increasing suspicion.” The public soon joined in, looking for evidence that sporty women were lesbians.
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By midcentury, as homosexuality became more open in the United States, the fear of lesbians in sport grew. Women athletes learned to be sure they were presenting a feminine exterior and placed a strong emphasis on their (supposed) heterosexuality. But even as women struggled to prove they were traditionally feminine, their attempts to infuse their sports with femininity further reinforced society’s fear of “mannish” athletes.
Cahn took her work a step further by gathering the oral histories of woman athletes. Six of the 40 women interviewed were openly lesbian, and all told Cahn that their sports participation, especially in softball, helped them form social and romantic connections with other women. Under the guise of sports, they “could redefine womanhood on their own terms,” Cahn writes.
“The unacknowledged, indefinite presence of lesbians in sport may have allowed for a wider range of lesbian experience and identity than is currently acknowledged,” she concludes. As sports shied away from “mannishness,” they created space for women to find one another—even as their sexual identity was reduced to a dated stereotype.