Mariah Burton Nelson argues that traditional feminine roles devalue healthy, athletic bodies. Young girls, expected to sit quietly and act like ladies, are not encouraged in athletic endeavors. In 1970, only 300,000 girls participated in high school sports as compared to 3.6 million boys. Thus girls grow up physically illiterate, not proficient in the motor skills that constitute athletic ability: throwing, running, sliding, to name a few of the thirteen basic movements which boys develop in their play. Therefore, is it any wonder that women cannot run as fast or jump as far as men? But ever since the Civil Rights Act forbidding sex discrimination in schools became law, more girls are participating. And the apparent difference in abilities between men and women is decreasing: Paula Newby-Frazer’s 1988 time of just over nine hours in Hawaii’s Ironman competition—consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle race, and a 26.2 mile run—would have beaten all men before 1984 and Janet Evan’s 1988 world record for the 800-meter freestyle is a full two seconds faster than Mark Spitz’s world record set in 1968.
Nelson discusses the experiences of premier athletes such as Susan Butcher, four-time winner of the Iditarod; Jackie Joyner Kersee, track star; and Lyn St. James, race car driver, but she also looks at recreational athletes: a woman who begins rowing in her forties, another who teaches body surfing. These women discover the joy of being in control of their bodies and ultimately in control of their lives. Included are also the stories of courageous young girls (and their supportive parents) who fought for the right to participate in sports such as wrestling, baseball, and ice hockey.
Nelson considers what sports mean to women—a chance to compete, to challenge themselves physically, to gain confidence—and what the presence of women in sports means to men—an invasion of their territory, often producing male hostility and antagonism. She speculates on changes that women will bring to sports, foreseeing that the currently predominant military model of sports based on winning at all costs will yield to a partnership model based on playing to play with everyone included, a model that brings competition closer to the meaning inherent in its Latin roots, “to seek together.”
Nelson has provided a much-needed look at women in sports as she documents past discrimination, examines the changes since 1970, and outlines a potentially bright future.