Coming on Strong

COMING ON STRONG: GENDER AND SEXUALITY IN TWENTIETH-CENTURY WOMEN’S SPORTS chronicles the difficulties that American women faced when they sought to participate in athletics. The history is compelling and interesting for it offers readers the opinions of skeptical coaches, male athletes, physical education teachers, and other women as to why women were “different” and why their sports should reflect their “special” needs. While it may seem ancient history to many readers, the account of the lengths to which rule makers went to “protect” women from “injury” or embarrassment offers interesting reading. Cahn discusses such things as the restrictive dress and behavior codes and separate rules for girls that limited physical contact and reduced the size of the playing fields.

COMING ON STRONG makes the clear point that the rules and protections were in some ways less of a danger to women and girls wanting to participate in sports than were the public and media attitudes about what sort of women played sports. The book examines these prejudices that include labeling women athletes as too aggressive or tough or seeing them as lesbians. Cahn makes a compelling argument for the positive benefits women have gained from sports, and she discusses the lives of specific women athletics such as Betty Robinson, Mildred “Babe” Didrikson, Wilma Rudolph, Althea Gibson, Cathy Rigby, Billie Jean King, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Chris Evert, and Martina Navratilova.

The book also provides an insightful historical picture of a wide range of women’s sports, including softball, basketball, field hockey, swimming, tennis, gymnastics, golf, skating, and track and field.