Monday, March 12, 2007

PE Teachers Reflect on the Pre-Title IX Era

In honor of Women's History Month, a sports columnist at the Stockton (California) Record got retired female physical education teachers to reflect on their experiences from the pre-Title IX era. Because society disfavored athletic competition for girls, they had no organized teams with a season-long schedule of interscholastic competition. PE teachers in the 40s and 50s could only organize "play days," where girls from different schools got together to form ad hoc teams for a day's worth of games in volleyball, basketball or softball.

"Play days were the worst," said [Marge] Larsen, who taught high school P.E. from 1938-61. "They were so boring, playing with girls from other schools."

"And they'd give your team names after candy bars like 'Baby Ruths,' " [June] Downer said.

The former teachers also described the discrimination they experienced as educators, receiving less pay and less credit than their male counterparts. They also alluded to "the stigma" that attached to women in physical education. The article does not go into detail on this point, but surely those women were referring to the stigma of being perceived as lesbians.

As for Title IX, the teachers expressed some ambivalence. They are pleased that the number and quality of competitive opportunities for women has increased under the law. But,
[Doris] Meyer said women physical educators at four-year colleges at that time weren't eager to rush into dramatic changes. They didn't want to see women's athletics go the way of men's programs, beholden to big booster dollars to pay for recruiting and scholarships.
Perhaps they also feared (rightly, it would turn out) that Title IX would decrease the number of leadership opportunities for female coaches and administrators by making those opportunities more appealing to men.

Female PE teachers in the 40s, 50s, and 60s are important people in the history of women sports, and it's great that this column has recognized the value of their stories. Obviously, the situation that these women faced is even more complex than a newspaper article could convey. On the one hand, promoting any physical activity for women at that time was subversive behavior. On the other hand, they often promoted and endorsed limited programs like play days and insisted their their student athletes otherwise strictly adhered to feminine stereotypes. To a modern feminist, this sounds like complicity in the masculine hegemony of sport -- and on the latter point, the stuff of Rene Portland's character. But such compromises allowed these women to preserve their jobs, deflect the lesbian stigma, and justify the existence of their programs. Without them, there might have been nothing on which to build a future for women in sport.

For more on phys ed and phys ed instructors pre-Title IX, see Mary Jo Festle, Playing Nice: Politics and Apologies in Women's Sports (1995).

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