Sweating Femininity: Women Athletes, Masculine Culture, and American Inequality from 1930 to the Present

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Marino, Michella Mary
Basketball; identity; motherhood; Roller Derby; sexuality; sports; History
thesis / dissertation description
Despite a long history of participation in sports, women have yet to gain equal access to this male-dominated realm. The national sports culture continues to regard them as marginal, if not invisible. For more than a century, women athletes have struggled against a subordinate status based on rigid definitions of female sexuality, an emphasis on white middle-class standards of beauty, and restrictive cultural expectations of motherhood. This dissertation, however, reveals a vital story of feminist women who have consistently stretched the boundaries of gender and have actively carved out their own identities as women, athletes, and mothers while playing an integral role in the development of sports. Drawing on oral history, archival materials, and a wide range of other sources, I provide a comparative analysis of women's experiences playing basketball and Roller Derby. These two sports have included women from their outset and at different times both challenged society's restrictions on women's femininity, sexuality, and physical abilities. One of my major objectives is to explore and explain the tension between women's representation and agency, between cultural constructs and women's lives, between images of women and their individual identities. Both women and men struggle for self-definition in the world they inhabit, and they often surmount formidable obstacles on the path to change not only themselves but also the ideals against which they measure themselves. In a culture that champions individualism, women "sweat" their identities because they want to be themselves, yet realize that self-definition is still shaped by a powerful set of cultural ideals and pressures about what it means to be male or female, man or woman, boy or girl. While these women sporting pioneers pushed their way into the public limelight, they worked to prove that athleticism could in fact be a part of the female identity, even while that identity was continually in flux. But until American society is ready to accept women as viable athletes, realize that athleticism can be a feminine and masculine quality, and allow women to play multiple roles, women will continue to sweat their femininity.