Last week, Dorothy Kamenshek, a groundbreaking women’s baseball player, passed away at age 84. She was the star first baseman of the Rockford Peaches in Illinois, and the all-time batting leader for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL).
Kamenshek was also the first woman ever to be recruited by a regular team – that is, a men’s team. In 1950, a Class B team in Florida tried to buy her contract from Rockford, but the AAGPBL board of directors rejected the offer. In a statement to the press, the president of the league said that “Rockford couldn’t afford to lose her. I also told them that we felt that women should play among themselves and that they could not help but appear inferior in athletic competition with men.” (Kamenshek was not interested either, believing that buying her contract would have been a publicity stunt and that she wouldn’t have been allowed to play).
What really struck me about that statement from the president of the league is that even though it was made in 1950, it might have been made yesterday. The idea that women, while totally deserving of their own leagues, are unfit to play with and against men, is still alive and well today. The argument that female players are less interesting to watch because they’re slower and weaker is often presented as one of the explanations for why women’s leagues like the WNBA struggle to attract viewers and sponsors.
Athletics is, as it was back in 1950, one of the areas where sexism can
be easily explained away by invoking biology. For example, in grand slam
tennis, women play three sets while men play five. The reasoning seems
to be that women couldn’t handle playing five sets, or that because
they’re less powerful players, spectators would be bored watching them
play more than three. To which I say: Bullshit. The spectator who gets
bored watching a Williams sister slug it out with Maria Sharapova for
more than three sets doesn’t deserve a seat in the stadium. But the
biology argument was and still is easy to invoke when it comes to
athletics, and it’s disappointing to be reminded of how just little has
changed in sixty years.
Kamenshek, who was called “Dottie” by her fans, was the inspiration for the character Dottie Hinson, played by Geena Davis in A League of Their Own. In A League of Their Own was one of my favorite movies growing up, and when I heard the news about Kamenshek, I popped the DVD into my laptop and re-watched it, bringing the total number of times I’ve seen it up to about seventy-six.
In the movie, Dottie and the other founding players of the AAGPBL (an all-white league, which was nominally referred to in the film) are required to walk the fine line between being athletes and being women – the manager of the league insists that “every player in this league will be a lady,” mandating grooming and etiquette lessons for the women and banning smoking, drinking, dating. In response to criticisms that playing professional athletics will masculinize the girls (as they’re called throughout the film), the league puts out footage of them doing ladylike thinks – knitting, pouring coffee, being pretty – in the middle of practice. It’s an amusing scene and easy to giggle at, until you remember that only two years ago, WNBA has pulled similar sexist moves, like bringing in a cosmetics consultant to ensure that players “receive the right attention off the court.”
Kamenshek is quoted as saying that initially, spectators and fans were hard to come by, and the ones who came weren’t there for the sport: “At first they just came to see the skirts, and then we showed them we could play.” In the movie, the powers that be take advantage of the fact that people are there “for the skirts,” by deliberately hiring pretty players and by making their uniforms short and tight. Sixty years later, the WNBA is guilty of doing much the same thing. As Jessica wrote in response to the news about the WNBA’s makeup consultant, instead of fighting back against the objectification of women athletes, the WNBA – like the AAGBPL – embraced it, and tried to leverage it to sell more tickets.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. In Kamenshek’s time, women athletes had to fight to be taken seriously; today, that’s often still the case. But Kamenshek is also quoted as saying that baseball “gave a lot of us the courage to go on to professional careers at a time when women didn’t do things like that.” Then, as now, athletics opens doors for women. Whether it’s making them more confident, teaching them teamwork and how to assert themselves or supporting healthy body image, women’s sports can be a powerful force in the fight for gender equality. And it’s important that we support the women who play them in whatever way we can. In February, I encouraged readers to pledge to see one women’s sports game in 2010. The point of pledging (and of following through, of course) is to show your support, with your presence and with your cash, for women who play sports and the institutions that make that possible. It’s already almost June, so if you haven’t seen your one game yet, go do it soon!