Venus With Biceps A Pictorial History of Muscular Women

Prior to crossfit or bodybuilding muscular women did exist. There were women involved in physical culture in the past, but there stories were not told. Venus With Biceps A Pictorial History of Muscular Women reveals to readers an unknown history of women’s sports and physical culture between the years of 1800 to 1980. David L. Chapman and Patricia Vertinsky  wrote this monograph. The primary source material contains images, cartoons, and magazines that Chapman had collected over the years. Physically strong women have existed prior to the 19th century, yet this book gathers evidence of their participation in strength feats and physical culture. Chapman spent 30 years collecting these images. His interest in muscular women really started late in life. It was 1987 when he began to do research into women’s involvement in fitness and bodybuilding. Chapman being a writer for numerous bodybuilding magazines was able to meet bodybuilders of the golden age era. He met Abbye Stockton and realized this was an interesting development that emerged among women, especially in a period in which their rights were limited. Another athlete that sparked further interest in this rarely studied element in sports history was Laurie Fierstein. She was a bodybuilder who also was the curator for the New Museum of Contemporary Art exhibit “Picturing the Modern Amazon.”  Chapman was invited to lecture at the museum discussing the iconography of the strongwoman in art and photography. Fierstien gave Chapman more insight into what motivates women to compete and push their bodies to the physical maximum. His discussions with Stockton and Fierstien led to some questions. These questions pondered how women struggled in the past in the physical fitness culture and the meaning of femininity. Female muscularity was more controversial in the past than in the 21st century. There has been a cultural shift, even though the more narrow minded attitudes still are present. The rise of the female mesomorph is a story of  advancement and repression. It can go in cycles. Through images and primary source material Chapman shows how sex politics and sports interacted. The muscular woman can mean many things to people : they can be seen as beautiful to others, threatening, or abnormal.

             The introduction describes the mixed feelings and messages that the muscular women gets from observers and proposes its main thesis . Negative reactions were worse in the past. Outlets for athletic competition were not widespread for women. The only place the strongwoman could display their talents was in variety show stages or vaudeville performance. Circuses also provided another platform.

venuswithbiceps  The text and information mostly focuses on women’s physical fitness participation in Europe and America. It is not known in other areas of the globe if women participated in some form of physical culture. Today it is not a surprise to see a female athlete or a woman who engages in rigorous exercise. More women are competing in the Olympics and in numerous sports compared to a century ago. The are presenting highly developed physiques. The impressive aspect of this is that such improvements are enhanced by new training techniques and pharmaceutical means. Chapman states in the introduction : “with the advent of steroids, hormones, supplements, and other artificial growth stimulants female muscularity has multiplied exponentially, and as female bodies transform themselves into something bigger, bolder, and different from what had been idolized in the past, the same old uncertainties and sexual ambiguities keep society bubbling away with loud,but hardly new controversies.” Women have pushed their bodies in athletic competition to new heights. This is not solely the work of performance enhancing drugs or supplements from a GNC store. Exercise physiology has in the past decades began to seriously examine women athletes. Most studies were done on men and it is clear the physiology is different in regards to sex. Having more resources and information at their disposal, women can enhance their athletic performance in an efficient manner. Old myths about women’s bodies and capabilities have been discarded. Even with these developments, the sexist and misogynist convictions still remain.

There are the common statements echoed by those who believe that certain activities are unladylike. The idea of the “mannish woman” was present in the past to an even more extreme degree. Patrica Vertinsky co-author of the monograph is a professor of  history with a focus on physical education, fitness, and physical culture. Throughout the text she describes this sexist prejudice as a way to dehumanize and undermine women’s accomplishments. There is an over reaction to female muscularity that does not happen with men. Women have to live with double standards and this is just another item on the list. This double standard and ostracism is nothing new to the female athlete. This is the primary foundation of the monograph’s thesis. The muscular woman had a presence in certain venues and in popular culture. The image presented of the muscular woman had influenced certain perceptions. Most were negative projecting anti-woman sentiment or homophobic feelings. The text describes this prejudice : ” over the last 100 years the image of the strong, confident, muscular woman has been the object of derision.”  The portrayal is either sexy dominatrix, sexless mannequin, or sideshow freak in the words of the thesis. However, it is a recent phenomenon that women of such as body were either placed into one dimensional images being presented to the public as monstrosities, lesbian man haters, beautiful living statues or sex objects. Such ideas are based off of hatreds either against women or people of different sexual orientations. It does not represent reality. Just like any other women their experiences vary vastly depending on class, ethnicity, and nationality.

The monograph also states that women had to fight ( and still continue) to reclaim the image and perceptions of the muscular woman. The reason negative attitudes were so pervasive about muscular women or female athletes was that men were producing certain images and ideas distorting public opinion. while the thesis is cogent, there are some debatable proclamations made in the introduction.

          The introduction claims that “sports as we know them were invented in England.” This is not true. All around the globe, various peoples had some form of sport. Sport dates back to ancient civilization. Women were also participants. The Greeks, Minoans, and Egyptians had sporting activities. It has been theorized that sport has its origins in military training. It may have also had a religious significance considering some Greeks had games revolving around the worship of gods or goddesses. Africa had a longtime tradition of wrestling among its peoples. The Diola, Yala, and the Njabi had women wrestlers. The Diola were known to use wrestling as a way to have arranged marriages. The male champion wrestler would marry the female champion wrestler. The issue with such a statement made by Chapman is that it excludes other non-European  civilizations. Doing so presents an ethnocentric perspective of  history, which is extremely limited. Examining the female muscularity phenomenon from a larger international perspective adds to support to the argument. Women were active participants in CuJu during the Song to Qing  dynasty in China. Amerindian peoples were also involved in stickball and footraces. Although met with the same ostracism as seen today, the female athlete is certainly nothing new.

This should have been expressed better in the text. Modern professional sports began in the West , but the sporting tradition had international roots. This should be obvious to any sports historian. Yet, this is a relatively new field of study and the study of the female mesomorph more so. When the industrial revolution occurred labor habits changed, including what was done during leisure time. It can also be disputed that in the words of  Chapman : ” in an age when machines became stronger and more efficient than their human operators, it became necessary to measure one’s peers in another way, and for many physically minded people, athletic competition was the answer- at least for men.” There had already been a system in which people measured one another and that was by class. Most civilizations throughout history have functioned on a pyramid structure with a ruling class controlling the majority. There is a pyramid structure present in democratic societies, which threatens the system itself. Sports provided the working class a brief escape from the agony of economic exploitation. It was more than just the physically minded people seeking an outlet, it was an a stress reducer in a world that was not changing for the better. Chapman should have done more research in this regard to sports history.

           David Chapman does describe the hysteria surrounding women engaging in physical culture. These objections to women’s participation came from religious organizations and traditionalists. The 19th century moralists condemned women’s advancement in any aspect of life saying too much education or exercise would harm women. They used religion as a cover to justify the control of women. They were challenged by others who believed that at least some exercise and education was good for women. Calisthenics, dancing, and rhythmical drills became acceptable in the 1800s for women. Yet, it was still advised not to take it too far. This language is similar to attitudes in the contemporary fitness atmosphere. Women are told often not to get “too big” or “cross the line.”

The physically active woman caused fear in some men and the muscular woman even more so. A strictly conservative society had a level of fear in regards to women’s bodies and sexuality during the Victorian Age. This is why the popular imagery of muscular women was either contradictory, confused, or negative. Men did not know what to make of or how to understand these women. Chapman explains that the reason there are not more photographs of muscular women prior to 1980 was due to moral codes about exposure of the female body. A woman could not simply have her torso exposed during the Victorian Age. Swimsuits were even generating an outcry. This even continued into the early 20th century in which Bernarr Macfadden was arrested in 1905 for holding a women’s physique contest at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The founder of Physical Culture magazine was one of the early advocates of women getting exercise beyond just improvement of figure. To traditionalists and religious advocates exposure of the female body was immoral. Women could be arrested for wearing a bikini in some US states. This was also a crime in Australia, Italy, and  on some French beaches up until the mid -20th century.  The moralists of the past would most likely be more shocked by the bodies and exposure of them are in the 21st century.

There were also arguments that muscle was bad for women’s health. The idea was that women would destroy their reproductive system and this had no basis in biomedical fact. There also an argument that was based purely on aesthetics. Muscles were “unfeminine” and would “unsex” a woman. Such claims represented gender bias and a desire for strict gender roles. Another reason muscular women in popular media may have been rare at the time was that many were not ready to see them. This may explain why producers of various forms of content did not put them in their works. Women who were muscular also may have not been willing to display such physiques for fear of ridicule. Chapman explains that even muscular women who posed for photographs did so in a glamour shot format, rather than the physique posing. The truth is that the glamour element has been a part of women’s posing and physique photograph. While female bodybuilders and physique athletes pose traditionally on stage, they pose differently in individual photographs. The glamour element is there combined with traditional physique posing.

The co-author should remember that bodybuilding was in its infancy, so women probably would not have posed in the same way as modern bodybuilders. To say the early photographs of muscular women are not authentic  physique pictures lacks cogency. It would be ludicrous to say women bodybuilders  who are not flexing in their off stage pictures are not authentic. There was a process of evolution in terms of presentation of the muscular form. The image of the muscular woman was getting wider exposure  compared to other periods of history.

              The female body as the book explains was susceptible to various fads and changes in beauty standards. Just like styles of hair and dress changed, so did ideas about the feminine body ideal. The ideal of the hour glass shape was enforced by the rise of the corset. The came the concept of the S shape as a beauty standard. Bustles were worn by women to enhance the female backside. During the late 19th century there was a paradigm shift in regards to women and exercise. There was the concept that they should do it to improve appearance. The few muscular women in these societies were pioneering such an idea. One of the ways photographers and artists avoided controversy about muscular women was to have them presented in a living statue pose. This would show that they are not a threat to male viewers and that there was no lascivious intentions in its production. This small movement of women into physical culture seemed to expand between the years of 1900 to 1914.

4366315_f1024 There are more images from this period of strongwomen. The reason for this had to do with the increased popularity of circuses, fairs, music halls, and vaudeville stages  .When World War I broke out, this stopped many entertainment venues from functioning especially in major war zones of  Europe. The rise of other mediums like radio and television also contributed to the end of the old forms of entertainment. Muscular women then lost mainstream exposure to an extent.  The strange part of this is that the muscular woman some how got separated from mainstream sports culture. Women getting involved in cycling, archery, and croquet during the 19th century. However women were still be held back at the Olympics Games. Strongwomen were athletes with out a place to compete or show their skills. Their training techniques would later be used by female athletes in various sports from the 20th century and beyond. If it were not for them, such sports and physiques on women would not exist. The real shift came after World War II with Abbye Stockton who demonstrated there was no contradiction between muscles and femininity.


   She revealed an impressive musculature, which at the time was not considered gender appropriate. Chapman revealed that female acrobats and trapeze artists  had more room to navigate in terms of the world of muscularity. The atmosphere of circus performance was more open and therefore less strict. David Chapman referred to it as a “hidden world of female strength.” There was once more a change in beauty standards. There was the diversification of the female form based on particular models in the fitness community. A firm female figure was preferred. This would eventually lead to a more muscular female body. It is not a surprise that female bodybuilding emerged during the 1970s at an important time of women’s liberation. The excellent part  of Venus With Biceps is that  was not afraid to discuss feminist hypocrisy in relation to the muscular woman. The feminist positions on beauty standards are often filled with contradiction and sometimes illogical conclusions. Chapman states that feminists harbor suspicions of muscular women as ” either beauty queens in disguise or that women physique athletes are simply trying to become alternate or inferior versions of men.” The falsehood of feminism is that they believe in a sisterhood and support all women. This simply is not the case when examined from class and race lines. They criticize beauty standards, but continue to support it by being large consumers of fashion and make-up products.

Chapman’s rebuttal to feminist claims is that a beauty pageant just reinforces one standard of beauty, while the physique athlete is developing another image based on individual convictions rather than cultural norms. The ludicrous claim that women are trying to be like men is nothing more than a recycled statement made by sexists, they claim to be fighting. If anything the muscular woman represents a feminist symbol. It shows that women can be strong and be successful in  once male dominated domain. The only reason that a feminist would think that a muscular woman would be imitating men is that strength is a male only attribute. That is incorrect as the female athlete has demonstrated. Men have used the ridiculous argument that because they are stronger they have a right to rule over women. When arguments of biological inferiority are proven mendacious, detractors resort to ostracism. There is a reason for such extreme reaction as Chapman articulates : “physically powerful and heavily muscled women have always been upsetting to the status quo because they reversed the “natural” dominance of the male.” Feminists should be their natural allies. The problem with such monographs is that they normally fall into preaching feminist rhetoric, rather than being a work of academic research. Venus With Biceps avoids this blunder , but occasionally  the illogical feminist reasoning emerges. Beauty standards have changed throughout history,but i may be the first time in which women are developing their own concept of aesthetics.

         The monograph also provides readers with an essay “Muscularity and the Female Body.”  Patricia Vertinsky shares her knowledge of sports history and the female body. Traditionally muscularity was associated with male power and beauty. Women were associated with weakness and frailty. This did not represent reality. Many notions of the body were based on pseudoscience and eugenics. The female body according to Vertinsky’s essay was cast as biologically inferior and designed for passive nurturing. From this emerged the concept of “natural bodies.”  Women’s bodies according to this concept were not meant to be strong. Men were the strong ones. Some scholars link this concept of muscularity and masculinity to the rise of modern celebrity culture and sports. It roots are much earlier according to Vertinsky going back to ancient Greek civilization. This association is more of a Western phenomenon and it can be seen in the art of the Greeks. Iconography shows that the ancient Greeks valued the muscular form as an aesthetic ideal  and this European tradition continued through the ages. Sculptors such as Polykleitos and Praxiteles created their works based on proportions that were numerical based systems  with an emphasis on symmetry. Beauty had been conceptualized as a mathematical quantity.

The female form has been depicted as soft in most Western artworks. The female bodybuilder presents another model of the female body not seen in a iconographical context.  

This was the harbinger to antropometry  and pseudoscientific biological racism. There was some contribution to credible fields such as physical anthropology. The idea of muscular man and soft curvy woman was a product of ancient Greek art and was sustained by pseudoscience of the 19th and 20th century. Women and men have various body types so the idea of “natural bodies” had no scientific basis. Crainometry, phrenology, physiognomy, and comparative anatomy believed that physical characteristics could describe the character, behavior, and intellect of a person. Unproven claims by pseudoscience were used to enforce much held prejudices about race, class, and gender. This would have devastating consequences during World War II when countries like Nazi Germany used eugenics to justify mass murder. Relevant to the discussion of women’s bodies it was believed that their main purpose in life was to produce babies. Other theories suggested that women were just too frail for physical activity. When strong women showed this was not truth they cast as anomalies. People would rather cling to mendacious beliefs rather than accept people who are different. Some theories were so bizarre, even for the eugenicists themselves William Sheldon began a system of body classification that equated body type to personality.

The three somatotypes as described by William Sheldon. Mesomorph, ectomorph, and endomorph are still terms used today in fitness terminology. 

The terms ectomorph, mesomorph, and endomorph were developed from his theories. Being a psychologist it it was obvious that there is not correlation between body type and personality. What his ideas and theories were suggesting that the mesomorphic body was a superior type and such individuals would run the world. This thinking has racist overtones similar to Hitler’s concept of a master race. His book The Atlas of Men (1954)   featured anthropometrical measurements of men proclaiming what were the superior body measurements. There was to be another book that would have been called The Atlas of Women , but Sheldon never finished it. Although his theories were not credible he got significant funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and his ideas were adopted by physical education departments in the US.  Barbara Honeyman Heath an assistant to Sheldon was gathering data and photographs for The Atlas of Women. She would work with numerous physical education departments who wanted to see women improve posture ,health,  and fitness. Heath came to the conclusion that these methods and ideas were fraudulent then repudiated Sheldon. She would later work with Margaret Mead using the somatotype system while studying the peoples of Papua New Guinea. This tale of junk science and prejudice reveals how perceptions of women’s bodies are based on distortions. The “natural bodies” were based on ideals that were not grounded in reality. When this was applied to health and beauty it was to the detriment of women.

            Beauty during this period of eugenics became associated with health. These two concepts are not related, but became linked together. Beauty can have various means or paradigms depending on who is asked to describe it. It varies among cultures, individuals, and societies. One can be healthy and not meet the societal standards of beauty. What the muscular woman does is define a new form of beauty. The problem with Vertinsky’s essay in the second portion is that it uses Naomi Wolf’s theory of the beauty myth. This has numerous flaws. The text states “Wolf attributed the rise of photography an important historical role in disseminating models of idealized femininity and beauty where the female body was expected to look dramatically different from that of a man.” Photography was not responsible for women’s poor image. It was the product of a society that valued women only as reproductive units or instruments for sex. The images of female beauty being weighed cruelly on women can be debatable as well. Unlike arranged marriage, employment discrimination, or lack of access to education no one is forcing women to focus on their appearance. Women buy and sell make-up, hair care products, and are more focused on fashion.

Women profit off of other women having insecurities about their bodies, yet feminists never acknowledge this. Men they state are the ones who promote the beauty myth. The problem is that Wolf’s analysis and claims ignore the fact women have a choice in the contemporary period; the woman of the Victorian Age did not have such a luxury. The issue also revolves around the fact many women have low self-esteem, which leads them down a path of body obsession. This makes women and girls with such issues of self perception more vulnerable to certain images propagated through various types of media. Victorian Age women were more restricted in most areas of life. Areas such as medicine, fashion, and beauty ideals were used to justify women’s subordination to men. The corset was an example of this subordination. This type of clothing was designed to squeeze a woman’s waist to make it appear smaller. Like most clothing for women during this time period it was designed to restrict movement. It was believed that women should not overexert themselves. Physicians were convinced that physical weakness was a woman’s natural state.   There was another camp that emerged in this debate about the female body. Women should at least have some health conditioning for childbirth. Women involved in some form of physical activity would not harm the as some health reformers ensured. Catherine  Beecher was one of the early advocates for women getting exercise. This was not for the purpose of appearance, rather a eugenic purpose in mind. The major shift came when women wanted their physical exercise to become more than just for the basis of appearance.

        As Victorian prudishness disappeared women began to become more in touch with their independence. During the late 19th century cycling became a popular pastime for women. The beauty concept developed the notion that women needed exercise for their beauty. Body ideals began to fluctuate. The Gibson girl was the voluptuous type. When the 20th century arrived the flapper depicted a thinner female body. The rise of film and popular entertainment venues presented the public with new images of the female body. The muscular woman actually did have a venue in popular entertainment.

 From Corsets to bicep curls, it seems women have gone through a political, social, and physical transformation. 

Circuses, music halls, and vaudeville was a popular form of entertainment during the late 19th to early 20th century. Strongwomen performed in these venues. There were instances in which strongwomen gathered a following. Charmion was a trapeze artist who was filmed in Thomas Edison’s short film “Trapeze Disrobing Act .” The 1901 short film demonstrated that men were getting interested in the a strong female physique. Women were performing strength feats just like the men. This was the period in which modern bodybuilding was being developed. Eugen Sandow and Bernarr Macfadden were pioneers in physical culture and modern bodybuilding.  To them the built physique had to be displayed on a stage. However, the new physical culture movement did receive backlash from medical professionals and physical educators. They though developing muscles to a high degree would reduce body efficiency and pose a health risk. This was not true and advocates of physical culture challenged such claims. Macfadden was revolutionary in the sense he advocated exercise and strength for women. He once stated that “there can be no beauty without muscles.”  Physical Culture magazine was read by both men and women. The magazine would reach sales of  over a million copies by 1955. There was another shift in the body ideal for women. The new woman was athletically active. Charlotte Perkins Gilman feminist, novelist,  and sociologist advocated that women have full control of the bodies, which included developing themselves physically. Her 1915 novel  Herland  emphasized this idea through a book in which women lived independently, were self-sufficient, and were active physically. This was a work of utopian feminist fiction in which men did not exist and the characters resembled the amazons of ancient Greek myth.

The fitness culture has a long history. One of the ways ideas were spread were through magazines and this continues to some degree today. Internet publications are now overtaking traditional print media. 

William  Blaikie produced a popular book called How To Get Strong and How to Stay So. This work of physical education was advocating that women and girls train to build strength so they can maintain good health. It seems some were not seeing a conflict in relation to muscularity and the female body. Vertinsky then explains that during the interwar years some still saw the contradiction between a strong body and femininity. The press was harsh in particular in the criticism of women. Much of it was either sexist or homophobic. While the author does not focus on the fact that non-white female athletes had to deal with both racism and sexism. African American women athletes were normally ignored by the mainstream American press. The text should have mentioned this more in a wider context, because it only focuses on the experiences of mostly white or European women. This limits the scholarship. Women were by the 1930s becoming more vsible in the sports world, yet there were objections to them. Most were based on their appearance. Athletes such as Babe Didrikson  were described as “muscle molls”  meaning they were manly or unfeminine. Women’s strength is often condemned when it is not needed, but in times of peril it becomes a necessity. During World War II women had to take the jobs of men fighting overseas, which required manual labor. Women had to be strong so that the war effort was successful.

After the war, there was a sharp turn in conservatism in terms of women’s roles. Women were expected to return to the domestic sphere. This was happening when Pudgy Stockton was making a larger impact on women’s fitness, which would not be realized until later in the century.   She popularized the idea that women could lift weights and still remain feminine. The odd contrast was that the ideal of beauty was shifting back to a slimmer body type. Vertinsky  cites the rise of the fashion industry, weight loss industry, and even toys like Barbie as a reason for the shift back. It could also metaphorically symbolize some men’s desire to control women and maintain the status quo. Stockton and the women who were inspired by her began to find an alternative. Lisa Lyon would be inspired to build her body and she would later become one of female bodybuilding’s first pioneers. This came from looking at photographs of Stockton.

The essay does do a great job of explaining how body image conformity was and continues to used against women. Yet, incorporating the beauty myth concept into such an argument  makes it lack credibility. Niomi Wolf’s theories and ideas have either been contradictory or at worst not entirely accurate. There is a tendency for feminism to cast all men as oppressors; this seems strongest in modern day third wave feminist rhetoric in academic analysis. The reality is that no one is forcing women to submit to body image pressure like women are forced into marriage or particular economic sectors. Feminism is often uncertain or contradictory on the analysis of the female athlete or muscular woman. It shifts between praise or scorn. Sometimes it takes an extreme route of the notion that women should just enter areas for the sake of  being antagonistic to men. These ideological conflicts can not be solved with a simple answer. The essay does provides a lucid explanation in regards to the connection between sexism, eugenics, health, and beauty. Yet, the small amount of feminist rhetoric weakens that strength of an otherwise rational argument. The  Patrica Vertinsky’s analysis provides also an clear synopsis of the history  in terms of were the muscular woman fits in a wider historical context.

      The rest of the monograph proceeds to show primary source material starting in a chronological manner. The muscular women of the past had more of a struggle supporting themselves with their athletic talents alone. Some professional women made a living being street performers. Strongmen did not have it better and would often work with strongwomen to increase audience attraction. Such performance acts could be seen in carnivals, fairs, and theater houses. Although the strong woman acts are considered to be a development of the 1800s, it is possible that it began earlier. The book in the first chapter shows five engravings from 1783 that depict women performing strength feats. They show women from Leipzig, Germany doing strength feat acts with anvils and horses. There is a possibility that these act were done by means of chicanery or the product of someone’s imagination.  These women could have been real people, but is clear that the strength feats are exaggerated. Strongwomen predate the rise of physical culture and heath fitness fadism in the 19th century. They benefited from this phenomenon. While health professionals were just beginning to embrace lifting exercises, strongwomen were doing this for a century. From the visual materials that remain, their are names of the foremothers of iron. The earliest documented name is that of Elsie Luftmann. She was known to do cannonball juggling acts and lift large weights. Luftmann toured mostly in central Europe.

There could have been more strongwomen active, but Elsie Serafin Luftman  is the only name so far remembered from that era in the early 19th century. This illustration is dated at 1830.

Although it seems that this was the activity of mostly European and American women, women of other ethnic groups were involved. Miss Lala  was a African Polish strongwoman born in 1858. She was also an acrobat, trapeze artist, and did other stunts . She became are very popular strongwoman in Germany, France, and much of Europe. This was not unusual. There had been an African presence in Europe for quite sometime. Her real name Anna Olga Brown and she was active through the 1870s to 1890s. Little is known about the rest of her life.  What is remembered is that she would perform iron jaw acts. Allegedly she would hold a cannon with her teeth as a strength feat. This may be another trick that circus acts would do. However, the other acts she would do were genuine.

strong woman
Miss Lala was so popular that she was the subject of the painting “Miss La La At The Cirque Fernando”  by Edward Degas in 1879.

 The era was known for producing many posters and visuals advertising strongwomen. The graphic art is a delight to look at for a reader. Graphic design is often under appreciated, but has a major impact on culture and visual arts. The most important element in terms of history is that it leaves primary source material.

 Changes and transformations can be documented. This allows scholars to see possible patterns in ideas or commonly held perspectives. Women staring in the 1830s began as strongwomen and by the 19th century were becoming professionals in this profession. They were doing this in an atmosphere that was hostile to women’s advancement or freedom. The reason women may have had more room to navigate this field was because it did not prove to be a threat to the social and political order. As long as this was just simple entertainment with no definite statements on sex politics, there were no repercussions for women involved. While strength and brawn were essential to their acts women were still constrained by social mores about gender roles. Even successful strongwomen like Athleta would do the most to cover up their bodies. The reason was not to be a threat to male members of the audience . Another reason was that it would have been considered inappropriate at the time for women to expose or display their bodies in a particular manner. Some women were willing to challenge  that. Frances Rheinlander  who was know as Athelda was known to do poses that are common on bodybuilding stages today.

Women also had trepidation about displaying such musculature. The fear of looking masculine or violating gender norms was a challenge.  Then came another paradigm shift. Strength was no longer seen as harming a women’s feminine qualities. Strongwomen themselves began to present an image of strong and beautiful woman. Louise Leers, Kate Roberts, and Katie Sandwina ushered in a golden age of strongwoman performance. This as between the 1890s to early 20th century. Audiences were amused and fascinated with women who could lift object twice their own weight.

 There were interruptions that occurred that brought the golden age of strongwomen acts to a period of hiatus. World War I devastated the world order. The world came back to a sense of normalcy to a degree, but by 1929 the Great Depression hit. The 1920s did still have strongwomen performing yet that period of  prosperity did not last. Muscular women obviously existed prior to the 1800s. The text merely shows that they were not documented until that century. The monograph also clarifies that not every muscular woman was  a circus performer or professional strongwoman.

    The following chapter “pumping wood” reveals a fascinating change in terms of women and fitness. Regular women and female athletes wanted to build muscular strength for the purpose of just staying in shape. Early women’s physical culture literature discouraged exercise, due to the concept of the frailty myth. There was the mainstream conviction that women just did not have the physical constitution for strenuous exercise. A consensus was later reach that women needed at least some form of physical activity for their health. Calisthenics and working out with wooden dumbells was advised. Regular women’s motivation for working out was different from that of the athlete or professional strongwoman. The goal was not to build a strong physique, rather maintain health. Many health conditions at the time that were plaguing women were related to the corset. These tight garments could dislodge organs and pinch the lungs.

Just like today every woman who goes to the gym does not have the same fitness goals in mind. 

The chapter contains illustrations from newspaper articles showing women how to do proper exercises from Harper’s Weekly . Women would eventually discard their corsets so that they could have more free movement during an exercise session. Women could join exercise clubs, but this was extremely rare. Women interest in exercise and physical culture did spark a backlash. Even though women were few in number in physical culture, social conservatives and sexists condemn women’s participation. The muscular woman was made into an object of ridicule and contempt. The text has printed a series of valentines cards which mock female athletes from 1900. These were known as vinegar valentines and normally ostracized groups of people the producers found unappealing. Postcards would also ostracize athletic women and women who decided to engage in physical culture.

sexist postcard
This postcard dated  1905 states that women should not waste time on exercise. Postcards and valentines normally depicted the female athlete as vain, ignorant, or egotistical.
This is a booklet from 1900 produced by Lydia Pinkham Company . It features a woman doing a double biceps pose. The Pinkham Company booklet is a demonstration of positive depictions of the female athlete at the time.

Chapman explains that many times men did not know what to make of the muscular female. One method to deal with such a different concept of womanhood was to insult and shun a woman who did not meet societal gender expectations. All the depictions were not negative. Magazines as this chapter demonstrates sometimes had women on the cover. Fitness, exercise, and sport were at onetime considered male only activities. Women gradually entered the world of fitness culture. Women during this period also used Indian clubs and took up cycling. There was a new woman emerging that was more independent and was no longer willing to be regulated to the domestic sphere. As women were demanding voting rights on both sides of the Atlantic men were becoming threatened. This explains the exaggerated reactions to women engaging in sports and physical culture. There are complaints today that female athletes and fitness personalities do not get enough coverage, but during this period of 1900 to 1914, it was rare that women were present on magazine covers. Sometimes there were cases they were visible regardless of public reaction. Booklets also appeared giving advice on women’s health. Women who were seeking heath improvement rather than athleticism or physical development. The following chapter notes several paradigms that emerged.

       The chapter ” Pursuing The Healthy Life” demonstrates how rapidly body ideals changed. The hourglass figure went out of vogue in favor of the s shape. The Roaring Twenties saw  the rise of a woman with more independence. This was not equally distributed among the various classes and ethnic groups of America. Women did obtain the vote, but African American, Native American, and Asian Americans still had to struggle for equal voting rights. Women who were of the upper class had more time for leisure and sport. The fitness world at this time was developing a space for women. Health and beauty clubs would emerge in the US. The taboo about women in exercise had been lifted. There were some problems in this new paradigm. Mass media and popular culture of the era encourage exercise  for women for the sole purpose of making them look attractive to a particular standard. There were multiple models of the female body presented. There was the tomboyish flapper, the traditional lithe woman, and the female athlete. Although female athletes  of the interwar period  were training just for there sport, they did develop impressive strength. Alice Marble and  Babe Dickerson Zaharias were making women’s sports notable to the public, with their magnificent performances.

The public was at least to an extent getting used to the idea women could play sports or be involved in fitness culture. Advocates such as Mary Bagot Stack established the Women’s League of Health and Beauty in 1930 to encourage women to be physically active. This was one example of many clubs that emerged in both Britain and the US. Women there would practice gymnastics, dance, and calisthenics. The reason such organizations did not generate condemnation was they stayed in line with traditional gender roles. Women were not seeking to be athletes or build their muscles. Lifting weights was not part of the exercise regimen. There were women still around in the 1930s will to display a female body with muscular development. Ivy Russell was a weightlifter and wrestler who developed an impressive physique. She was born in the British Empire and many historians of  bodybuilding consider her to be the first woman to create such a physique. This can be disputed, because there may have been others yet she was probably    the first to enjoy displaying such muscular strength.

The muscular woman and the female athlete in general got limited exposure. Ivy Russell was willing to flex her muscles during a period when that was inappropriate for women. Many photographs of muscular women from the 1800s to mid-20th century show them not flexing their muscles to prevent challenging gender role boundaries.Even women with significant development were discouraged from doing so. This does not cause issues when women athletes flex today. Russell was a foreshadowing of what was to come by the late 20th century.

 There seems to be a cycle of advancement and backlash. There was some room for negotiation  to an extent in society. Women began taking advice from other women rather than the majority male medical professionals, who had limited understanding of women’s bodies. There was a fitness culture developing, but it put emphasis on machines that in the contemporary period would seem ludicrous. Weight reduction machines were popular forms of exercise equipment and the shake weights of their day. Vibration belt machines were common in gyms promising users they could lose huge amounts of weight.

Women using vibrating belt machines in the 1920s.

The rise of modern consumer culture also produced fitness fads. As women had more free time , it was only natural that it was occupied with such leisure activities. Some fitness fads even evolved into movements. The Life Reform Movement which developed in Switzerland and Germany advocated humankind’s return to nature by embracing healthy living, fitness, a return to nature, and an embrace of sexual liberation including nudism. This movement was more of a reaction to a rapidly industrialized and technological world as well as the rejection of the traditional conservatism of Europe. This movement spread throughout Europe and embrace outdoor physical activity.  It was at its height between the 1920s and 1930s. It was prohibited in Germany when the Nazis came to power.  There was one element that remained in the totalitarian state: the embrace of physical activity and naturism. The Nazis believed good health would make the nation stronger and produce better Aryans. Nazis and the Fascists did not encourage physical  exercise for women’s sake, but rather to make them fit mothers who would produce future soldiers. Italy was more more advance in this project, because there had been a long history of women being involved in exercise there.

This magazine from Fascist Italy was encouraging women to exercise so that they could be better mothers. The totalitarian fascist governments wanted large populations that so that they could build large armies.

The coming of global conflict in 1939 brought about social and political changes. Women were just like in World War I asked to contribute to the war effort by working while the men went off to battle. There was also a pop culture transformation as well. The idea of  physical strong women appeared in comic books such as Wonder Woman and Sheena. When fascism was defeated women were forced from their jobs in factories. The 1950s gave way to more social and political conservatism.

          There were a number of strongwomen and athletes becoming notable during the wartime era. Dorcas Lehman, Relna Brewer, and Pudgy Stockton.The 1940s was a time in which even women who played other sports were popular. The All American Girls Professional Ball League became popular with the public. With males being drafted and fighting in the war, many teams were losing their star athletes. Owners formed this baseball team with women and it filled stadiums. Women’s professional baseball existed from 1943 to 1954 in America. Sadly, it ended for women when men came home and owners no longer promoted it. Attendance dropped and this meant the end of women in professional baseball.  Some women were actively trying to make sports, fitness, and weightlifting appeal to women. Siegmund Klein a major figure in fitness at the time was opposed to women using his gym. The famous strongman and bodybuilder was convinced that athleticism was a male only affair. He was soon changed his position when he realized women could be great customers to his gym establishment in New York. Some men were getting used to the idea women could be strong.

Pudgy Stockton poses with  her husband Les Stockton.  These two athletes were known to do various strength feats on Muscle Beach in California.

 The monograph does  provide a great explanation why Stockton was important. She participated in the first women’s weightlifting meet in 1947. It was held in Los Angeles and had various weight classes. This was a significant step in the history  of female physical strength. Stockton also became an advocate for women writing in Strength and Health  promoting the idea women could lift and still be feminine. The texts also mentions women’s professional wrestling was emerging in the mid-1940s to early 1950s. The book contains a photograph of Mildred Burke and the Fabulous Moolah who were the harbingers of women’s professional wrestling. While there was some progress for women in fitness and sports culture, after the war there was a return to traditional gender roles.

The 1950s saw a return to tradition. All of a sudden women being strong and flexing their muscles was no longer considered acceptable once more. Venus With Biceps describes the period between 1950 to the mid-1970s as a time in which muscular women disappeared. They literally did not vanish, but their mainstream exposure was gone. This also could be seen in the fitness culture in which magazine merely put women on the cover not for their athletic feats, rather a decoration. This was a major reversal in terms of women’s progress in a male dominated arena. Gone were the days of  strongwomen having mainstream platforms. This would be temporary, because another change would happen in the form of second wave feminism.


There have been muscular women as long as there have been strong men. During this period of limited exposure photographers would seek out trapeze artists, acrobats, and  aerialists during the 1940s and 1950s to document female muscle. Although these women had athletic potential they had no outlet or platform to display it. Two decades would have to pass until the most radical stage of this transformation would come.

         The last two chapters explain the shift to just mere figure improvement to the development of muscular strength. This process would result in the creation of modern day female bodybuilding. Muscular women had been excluded from magazines, gymnasiums, and other public venues  during the nadir period of the mid-20th century. The problem with Venus With Biceps is that it misses on crucial point in this historical discourse. Title IX was pivotal in the increase of women in athletics. That legislation gave many girls the opportunity to play sports and go on to be champions in both national and international competition. Many female bodybuilders of today got their start in other sports before coming on stage. This is a vital link that binds the fitness culture to the sports world. Lifting weights was once thought to harm athletic performance. When this was proven false athletes from various sports began weight training and seeing their performance improve. During the 1950s the only way women could get close to bodybuilding culture was to be in a beauty pageant. It was common at the time to have beauty attached to them. Men objected to this they did not want to be seen as male counterparts to beauty queens. The feminist revolution of the 1960s and 1970s did give women more freedom in terms of employment, education, and reproductive rights. Sports was a low priority compared to more pressing issues. All this political and cultural change was happening during a period when women were entering the sports world en mass. The first female bodybuilding competition would be held in 1977 under the auspice of Henry McGhee. This was not a beauty pageant; women were judged on their muscular development. Following this  Doris Barrilleaux began running contests of her own.  Female muscularity would be pushed to new heights with the arrival of various contests.

Rachel Mclish would go on to become the first Ms.Olympia in 1980. The last photograph is of her in the book. The way it is organized and written readers can see how over the past two centuries women’s athletic physicality developed. The general public who were exposed to this may have thought this was a new phenomenon. Those with a knowledge of the historical background would understand it is a much longer tradition. The difference in the late 20th century was that women were pushing their bodies to the physical maximum. The strongwomen of the past were not making muscular development their goal. The women of the late 20th to 21st century involved in fitness were seeking their highest level of development. The author notes as more contests opened the more muscular women became and the more they appeared.

There was an evolution in the female physique on stage with women becoming more muscular than people thought was possible. Lisa Lyon although she only competed one time was a contributor to the early version of female bodybuilding. She won the World’s Women Bodybuilding Championship in 1979. Like Pudgy Stockton she was prompting the idea of women’s bodybuilding and weightlifting to women. She was inspired by Stockton. The monograph mentions the early pioneers, but is curious it does not mention the later champions like Cory Everson, Lenda Murray, or Iris Kyle. It makes it seem as if the evolution stopped at 1980. While readers would obviously know that there are muscular women in existence and are active in sports new comers may be confused.

       This journey into female strength and muscularity is not over. The author states that the female body was altered to a higher degree with performance enhancing drugs. Drugs have been a part of sports for a longtime, but that is not the only contributor to the new physique presented. Women became serious about training and more competitive as competitions grew. There was another shift in consciousness. It was acceptable for women to have a certain level of  fitness or even tone, just as long as it was not “too much.”  Such descriptions of what is excessive are relative and opinion based. It can be disputed that the claim as Chapman articulates ” unfortunately, the introduction of drugs has meant that once again, many people regard female bodybuilders as freaks.” Prior to the existence of performance enhancing drugs this attitude was present as the earlier chapters of the book demonstrate. This is not based on drug use or the side effects, but on sexist prejudice and a narrow definition of what a woman should be. The reason people have not gotten used to the idea of a muscular woman is that society hates women with power. The oppressive structures can be removed, yet the hateful attitudes still remain within a society.

There has been a distortion about women’s bodies. The difference now is that they are beginning to reject to particular societal beauty standards. There is an irony that the monograph articulates. It has been close to 200 years of the public appearance of the female muscular form and people still cling to the idea it is not proper.  Although Venus With Biceps does not discuss other developments much has happened since its 2010 release. The last Ms.Olympia was held in 2014. This was a major blow to female bodybuilding, but it was brief. The Rising Phoenix Competition became a replacement when the IFBB terminated the Ms.Olympia. This does not resemble the nadir period of the 1950s to 1970s. More women are competing in physique sports such as figure, fitness, physique, and bikini. The female bodybuilding category although struggling has not phased out completely. Former athletes such as Lenda Murray continue to promote and hold contests for athletes.

The women continue to survive in the bodybuilding culture despite various obstacles. The biggest change has been aided by technology. Women who are fit, but do not compete are active on social media and are seen by millions of internet users across the globe. Compared to the past two centuries, it is easier to find material related to or focusing on muscular women. There are women who are active in professional sports to a larger degree compared to the 19th and 20th century. Venus With Biceps A Pictorial History of Muscular Women is a great documentation in regards to a rarely studied element of women’s sports history.   This primary source material is perfect for anyone doing research or wanting to learn more. The monograph’s analysis related to particular subjects can be debated. Not mentioning Title IX seems to be a flaw in the book’s historical discourse. These minor imperfections do not effect the overall presentation. These photographs, advertisements, and visual art show that the muscular female did exist and was part of the pop culture consciousness. Although the same negative attitudes remain, many now see there is no contradiction between strength and femininity. It may take another 200 years for the majority to accept such an idea. The wonderful part about the contemporary period is that there are more strong and muscular women compared to the past.   Venus With Biceps A Pictorial History of Muscular Women is a must have book for fans of history, female muscle, and sports. It is unknown what this evolution in women’s physique will become, but there is past documentation that its has been occurring for some time.

Venus With Biceps A Pictorial History of Muscular Women

Athletries The Untold History of Ancient Greek Women Athletes

Athletries The Untold History of Ancient Greek Women Athletes is a monograph exploring the history of women athletes in Greek civilization. While any devoted follower of women’s sports and history knows about women’s participation in the ancient world, this is something new to the general public. For many the idea of female athlete is a new phenomenon that occurred with Title IX and the feminist movement. This obviously is not true, seeing as there are cases in which women played sports and were athletes. The reason this is not examined to the same extent as male participation is due in part to sexist prejudice and the fact that sports historiography is comparatively new. There are some who may not believe women did such things. Archaeology provides evidence of the ancient female athlete and the types of competitions they were involved in. Seeing as some civilizations either had an oral tradition of record keeping or few documents that still remain, artifacts help solve puzzles of the past. Authors Anne Reese and Irini  Vallera-Rickerson combine both history and archaeology to provide the reader with a vivid description of the female athlete of ancient Greek civilization. Originally published in 2002, at the time there was sill few secondary sources on this subject. The monograph discusses the Olympic games, festivals, and mythology in the context of women’s sports.While this is an entertaining and informative book, it does have some minor flaws .  Athletries The Untold History of Ancient Greek Women Athletes does successfully prove that the female athlete is not a recent phenomenon, but they are part of a long history of sports competition.

        The text does a great job of describing women’s status in Ancient Greece. it varied depending on the period and area. Minoan civilization was known to worship a mother goddess. This continued into Mycenaean civilization until Zeus became a replacement. Athens and Sparta were two extremes of the political spectrum. Women were restricted in terms of the laws in Athens. Their freedom was limited, yet they were allowed to attend some schools. However, women were under legal guardianship of the men in their lives whether it was their husband, brother, or father. Sparta gave women more freedom, yet this should not be seen as a conviction in equality. The monograph makes that mistake by implying it. The only reason women were allowed to engage in physical activity was so that they could produce stronger children. The males would become soldiers in this militarist society and the women would look after the home while men were at war. Citizens of Sparta male or female were raised to serve the state without question. Thebes and Korinth fell in a political and social middle ground between these two states.


Seeing as each city-state was independent, the laws were different in regards to women. Accounts of Spartan civilization come mostly from Aristotle, Herdotos, Pausinias, Plutarch, and Thukydides. These were mostly Non-Spartans, so accounts could have a level  of bias.It was a common Athenian opinion that Spartans were rude, uncivilized, and rustic. The accounts do expose what training for women in Sparta was like. Their exercise regimen consisted of wrestling, footraces, javelin throwing, and discus. Spartan women also developed a type of exercise known as the bibasis. These were exercises of jumping in place. A Roman poet known as Propertius claimed that women also were involved in pancratium a sport which was a combination of boxing and wrestling. Maybe it could best be described as the MMA of ancient Greece.


Spartans had a different attitude in regards to how boys and girls were raised. Girls and boys would perform physical activities in the nude. Gymnos the ancient Greek word in which gymnastics is derived,  means naked or without clothing. Athenians saw this and the fact that women had more freedom as vulgar. Athens was a place of the arts and culture. It was not compatible with the militarist and rustic society of Sparta.The fact that Spartan women had more independence did not mean the society valued gender equality. The idea was to have women become strong breeders and produce great warriors. King Lykurgos produced the foundation for a mighty power in the Mediterranean . This did not stop the state from falling to Macedonia and the Achaean League  around 195 B.C.E.. When The Roman Empire invaded in 140s B.C.E they divided Greece into provinces to be ruled directly. The Romans admired Spartan militarism and declared Sparta a free city. There was a small rival of the old Spartan culture. Women lived different lives in Athens and Sparta. Women were regulated to a domestic sphere in Athens, while Sparta allowed some freedom for them. Women’s status varied depending on the social and political circumstances of a city-state.

         Women athletes may seem like a new phenomenon, yet there is evidence that they were present in Greek civilization. Aegean civilization (3000- 1100 B.C.E) provides artifacts of sportswomen of the ancient period.  Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations reveal much about the activities of these athletes . Fresco fragments, clay seals, and reliefs found at Knossos are documentations of history of the sports Minoan participated in. Arthur Evans was the archaeologist responsible for uncovering the mysteries on krete.  His excavation allowed him to produce a four volume work called The Palace of Minos at Knossos. The art that Minoans left is a documentation about their society. Women just like the men were active participants in bull-jumping and bull-leaping. These sports were thought to be religious in nature as a way to honor the Mother Goddess. The Mother Goddess may be an indication that women in Minoan society had higher status. There is some disputes over how exactly bull leaping worked. The Toreador Frescoes depict bull leaping. Doing this action would require a huge amount of upper body strength and acrobatic skill. The text proposes theories, however it does not reach an answer. It could be that bulls were trained to perform in a certain way to allow acrobats to jump on them.

The Minoan Mother Goddess was usually depicted with snakes in her hands. Goddesses were more common before the rise of monotheistic religion.

 If the bull was charging and an acrobat would grab it by the horns, this would be dangerous. To somersault for bull leaping would be physically impossible. It is possible that the fresco is being interpreted to literally. A more logical explanation may be that this was depicting bull fighting rather than actual leaping. The feats were just embellished for the sake of entertainment. One problem with archaeology is that there may be a rush to jump to a conclusion too soon. These scholars have to be detectives of the past gathering artifacts as their clues.

The bull leaping fresco  shows two women  engaging  in bull sport with a man jumping on the bull.

 Iconography can be a useful tool in archaeological study. It has revealed that women normally in Minoan art were depicted with white or lighter skin and men with darker skin. Clothing differed in artistic depiction. The loin cloths that women wore had more designs and variation in color. The art also shows straps on the wrist and hands. The function was probably for getting a better grip on the bull. Frescoes were prevalent plaster based paintings. Pigments would be applied to plaster on buildings depicting sporting events or activities of daily life. Buon fresco required a method of applying pigment to wet plaster and the color will then sink into the wall. Fresco secco applies the pigment combine with an organic preservative ( such as egg whites ) to a dry surface.

Bull leaping as depicted from Minoan art would require a huge amount of upper body strength, acrobatic, and gymnastic skill. It seems unlikely that a person would be able to do this without serious injury. 

Besides frescoes, seals also leave evidence of female athletes in the ancient world.  Seals were carved as well as engraved objects made of stone, clay, or bone. The seals were used to make impressions on clay or wax. It was a means of verification of authenticity. It also was used to denote ownership. Normally seals were used in the home or market place. Seals were also used as symbols of identity among people.

This is a seal depicting bull leaping. There were two types of seals which included the stamp and the cylinder. The stamp was flat and made the impression by pressing down. The cylinder had to be rolled over to make an impression.

Statues and sculpture are also artifacts that show that female athletes were active in the ancient world. The reason why serious study was not given to such findings was because many male scholars thought it was not important enough to give attention to. The 20th century saw the rise of women’s history as a major academic field. Since then, there have been efforts to uncover women’s roles in the past. There still remains more to be discovered and learned. Heinrich Schliemann only discovered Mycenae in 1876. Prior to that, there was no knowledge of its existence. There could be many lost civilizations globally, but there are limited remains or evidence of their existence. Artifacts, documents, and art are records of history.

Greek female athletes depicted in sculpture. 

Still there is a level of skepticism. It appears that the only sports women were involved in were bull sports. There are books and academic journals that state women in Minoan civilization also did running, swimming, and hunting.  Opposing views are that the women depicted in art were performing religious ceremonies. Both perspectives could be valid, but there needs to be more exploration and research.

       The monograph also reveals to the readers the myth of the Olympic rings. The rings did not have their roots in ancient history. David C. Young revealed in “Myth About The Ancient Games ” that the rings myth can be traced to two American authors. Lynn and Gray Poole had mistaken an inscription from a movie prop and others copied their work. The rings have their origins in the 1936 Olympics. Leni Riefenstahl was the film-maker responsible for their existence. the rings were part of a prop used for her film Olympia. The stone was paced in the film at the stadium at Delphi. The Pooles erroneously thought this was genuine. The Olympic flame runner may also be a myth. Yet, there is reference to hearth that would be lit in the Prytaneum  discussed by Pausanias. This building was in the Altis and led to the exit of the gymnasium.

The passing of the torch is a creation of the modern Olympics. This tradition was not needed in the ancient world because the games were held in the same place. The modern Olympics can be hosted by various nation-states around the world. The propagation of this myth just demonstrates how fast misinformation can be conveyed. Athletries provides an explanation into myths and common misconceptions about ancient sports history.  A modern day invention was thought to have ancient roots. Through a mistake and incorrect information a myth of the Olympic ring origin was born .What makes the book enjoyable is that it reveals these little known facts.

      There were multiple games that women were competitors in. This included the Panhellenic Games, Olympic Games, Pythian Games, Nemean Games, and Isthmian Games. The Panhellenic Games refers to competitions held across Greek civilization. These athletic competitions were local, but expanded to include other city-states. Women could have been charioteers. The evidence found of women being part of the games is revealed in inscriptions with the names of women athletes. The inscriptions found at particular sites also reveal which event they competed in and the game she won. The games were held in honor of gods and goddesses such as Hera, Demeter, Zeus, and Apollo. Games were held in different years to prevent possible conflicts of overlap. The reason this was done was to allow high participation and attendance. All the games ended by 394 C.E. due to Christian belief they were pagan rituals. Emperor Theodosios I wanted an empire of Christian culture. Relevant to women in sports, the Heraea Games was a competition for women. Athletics were also part of festivals, which included poetry and singing. The cult of Hera was widespread, so it was no shock their was a festival and athletic events organized in honor of this goddess. The inscriptions leave us names of the athletes, but other than that there is no other biographical information. One inscription reveals a winner by the name Hedea who excelled at footraces in both the Nemean Games and Isthmian Games. Queens also may have been chariot racers. One inscription commemorates Egyptian Queen Verenike’s victory in the Nemean Games.  Athletics served an important purpose in ancient civilization.  It was not only a sort of binding adhesive to these societies, but a religious celebration.

       The authors propose one theory about the exact date of the Olympic games . A reader should be skeptical of the information they receive. They base this theory on the end of Troy VII around 1190 B.C.E, using Homer’s Illiad  as a marker. They are right to assume that 776 B.C.E is correct for the first recorded Olympic Games. However, there are still questions.  There is a possibility there were records of previous games that were lost to history. If the authors were to make such statements more evidence is required. This is a challenge for archaeologists considering the Olympiads were at various points continued or discontinued.  The renewal date of the Olympic Games was 884 B.C.E.  This appears to be the least cogent argument the text makes. The reasoning may be sound, however it does not meant it leads to the correct conclusion. The most reliable sources are taken from the writings of Pausinias. He claimed that the games were discontinued by King Oxylos ruler of Elis. The origin of the Olympics is not entirely certain, but there are numerous myth surrounding  the ancient athletic event. One myth is that Hercules stated the competition with his brothers. Another involves Pelops and Hippodamia. Mythology and stories have served a pivotal purpose in the transfer of cultural value systems in various societies. Greek civilization was no different in terms of that function. The authors should have provided more concrete evidence to support their claim.

     The monograph concludes with delineating the history of the modern Olympic Games. The first attempts at revival were in 1859 and 1870. This was under the auspices of Evangelos Zappas. This was funded out his own pocket, so the games at a certain point were no longer able to continue. The successful revival would come only with the help of Demetrios Vikelas and Baron Pierre de Coubertin. These individuals had connections to sports organizations and news editors. It was mostly Coubertin’s contacts that made revival of the games possible. The Olympic Games were revived in 1896 with competitors from around the globe. Women were not banned from competing, but there were efforts to exclude them.


This did not stop Stamata Revithi from participating in a marathon in the 1896 Olympics. The IOC refused to recognize her running time. Women were competing in the Olympics by 1900, but it was only in golf and tennis. Pierre de Coubertin made it no secret that he did not want women to be competitors in the games. Sexist prejudice was keeping women out of sports. However, by the 21st century more women would become competitors from around the globe.  Decolonization that followed after World War Ii created new independent nation-states in Africa and Asia. From there more athletes would appear on the Olympic stage. The female athlete is not a recent phenomenon, There were women who participated in sports during the ancient period. Athletries  is a great book for anyone interested in ancient civilization, women’s history, and sport. Although an academic text it is not so pedantic  or intricate that a reader would become confused about what they are absorbing. The brief discussion of Greek myths will entertain those with an fascination with the classics. Certain theories they propose should be questioned. It should be understood that there remains more to be discovered. Athletries The Untold History of Ancient Greek Women Athletes is a book worth owning.

Athletries The Untold History of Ancient Greek Women Athletes

Nike Is A Goddess The History Of Women In Sports Edited By Lissa Smith

Nike Is A Goddess The History of Women in Sports is a book that delineates women participation in sport. It is a combination of writings by Mariah Nelson, Amy Ellis Nutt, Kathleen McElroy, Melanie Hauser, Jean Weiss, Michelle Kaufman, Grace Lichtenstien, Jackie Burke, Karen Karbo, Barbra Stewart,  Shelly Smith, Elsie Pettus, and Lucy Danziger. The sports discussed are track and field, basketball, gymnastics, ice hockey, figure skating, golf, tennis, baseball,softball, skiing, canoeing, kayaking, rowing, sailing, swimming, equestrian sports, and soccer. This is an ambitious undertaking covering many centuries and athletes. There are problems with some of the essays. Others are better, showing a high level of research. This text was originally published in 1998 and much has changed. These writings are still relevant as a documentation of women’s challenges and struggles to get recognized in sport. A major problem with this monograph is that it focuses mostly on athletes from the West. Other countries have women participate in sport, but this is not studied as much. Reading this one can extrapolate mixed feelings. Strength sports are omitted. There is only an emphasis on Olympic sports. There are other sports played by women that are not recognized by the IOC. Despite these flaws, the text can at least be used as a reference source. Some sections could be pleasurable to certain readers, but other essays are lacking the same quality.

         Before readers begin dissecting the work, it is important to know the context of the title. Nike does not refer to the athletic gear and sneaker company, but a goddess of ancient Greek mythology. Nike was the goddess of victory. The Roman counterpart was called Victoria. According to the ancient myths she was the daughter of Pallus ( a titan) and Styx. She had siblings who were Kryatos, Bia, and Zelus. She was made a divine charioteer during the Titan War. She would be on battlefields to reward victors with laurel leaves.


Nike was not only a goddess of victory, but was also a representation of strength and speed. The reason that name is used for the more well known company is because it wants consumers to think using their products will ensure success. The first edition posted on the cover shows a statue of the goddess posted. Ancient art works of the goddess at first did not have her with wings. Gradually, they were added. The use of Nike in the title is showing how women advanced in sports and their successes.


Nike as depicted in ancient Greek art. 

At certain points the essays reveal that women were in a battle. There was a struggle for equal pay and access to training facilities. The largest challenge was to confront sexism and traditional cultural attitudes. The spirit of Nike seems to be looking over the women in a metaphorical sense. She would bless them with victory. The Nike Company understood the lasting cultural impact of mythology.


This is why they chose that name. Currently, Nike has been producing athletic clothing and gear for decades. Seeing as women’s participation in sports has increased it is only natural that women would become a major marketing demographic target. Sports bras are a major product they produce and are critical. It allowed women to do intense exercise with minimal discomfort to the chest and breasts. The text does not explain the mythology behind the goddess Nike. This could easily confuse readers with a limited understanding of the classics or Greek mythology. A statue of Nike appears on the book, which could confuse readers even more. This is only a minor issue, but an element that can be noticed immediately. Writers should never assume that their audience has knowledge about the topic discussed.

      The introduction Mariah Burton Nelson sets the tone of the monograph. It is called “Who We Might Become.” There is a feminist overtone, that generally alienates male readers. The problem with women’s sports monographs is that they cast all men as villains. Almost to a degree in which it is like a caricature of a popular action cartoon show. The essay starts off on a positive note then makes some generalizations. Mariah Burton Nelson reveals   background and how certain athletes inspired her as a young woman such as Bille Jean King and Babe Dickerson Zaharias . She was an athlete herself playing basketball while attending Stanford University. She is an author, motivational speaker, and sportswriter for numerous publications. The feminist perspective usually takes a negative view of all men. The men with power in the sports world were the worst  discriminators. They were corporate gatekeepers, owners of sports teams, coaches, and men who objected to change. What the feminist perspective fails to see is the growing number of male fans who are supportive. Unfortunately, Burton at a young age was sexually abused by one of her coaches. This traumatic experience could have effected the way she perceives men. The view seems mostly negative. Her book The Stronger Women Get The More Men Love Football  seems to have similar problems that appear in this essay. All men do not hate strong women. There is a growing number of male fans who are both amazed and attracted to women’s physical prowess. It cannot be forgotten, that without feminism women’s sports would not be were it is today. It cannot be ignored women are still discriminated against and some countries still do not send women to the Olympics. The issues of the sexual objectification of women athletes is a problem. What Maria Nelson fails to understand is that this is not solely a sexist motive, but a neoliberal capitalist model. Sexually objectifying women has been common in advertising and other media even before modern women’s sports. While sexism is an element to it, one cannot separate the exploitation and avarice of the neoliberal capitalist system.

           The essay “Somewhere to Run” did an excellent delineation of  women in track and field. This was written by Kathleen McElroy. The essay discusses notable figures such as Babe Dickerson, Wilma Rudolf, and Jackie Joyner Kersee. Track and field had existed as far back as the ancient period, but the modern version of this sport did not appear until 1837. The first modern track meet was held in England at Eton College. Women could not participate. Women were not even allowed as spectators. Vassar College in 1895 organized the first track meet for women.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee
Jackie Joyner-Kersee of Team USA posing with a javelin. Northridge, California 5/21/1992
Babe Dickerson Zaharias

 When women began to become competitive and skilled, detractors from different parts of society began a crusade to stop  them. Doctors made the claim that women will harm their fertility. Social scientists claimed competition harmed the female psyche. Journalists and the press made similar accusations. Moralists and religious figures objected to the idea of women displaying their bodies. There was an attempt to diminish women’s athletics, by reducing competition. The idea was that women showing a competitive nature made them masculine.Women entering the new competitive opportunities came from athletic clubs or industry teams. One example of this was the Prudential Insurance Company. Women’s participation in track and field goes back as far as the ancient world. While women could not compete in the Olympics, they had a separate competition known as Hera Games. These games of ancient Greece only allowed young unmarried women to enter them. When the 20th century approached women also organized their own games, even when the IOC condemned it. Alice Milliat  who was head of Femina Sport organized international competitions for women in 1917.   The IOC wanted the International Amateur Athletic Federation to hinder this progress, but it seemed futile to stop women from organizing. Around 1926, Milliat was in negotiations  with the International Track Federation. This was a mixed victory, because women lost control of their organized competition, but were allowed to compete in track and field in the Olympics. Women athletes now had a new opportunity to display their skills. One of the first global women’s champions was Kinue Hitomi. She was a world record holder in the 200 meter and long jump. Often monographs such as these exclude non-whites. This deserves praise, due to the fact most sports history focuses on the West or Europeans.

Kinue Hitomi  (1907 – 1931)  was one of the early track and field champions in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

 While there was high quality athletes, most were not trained sufficiently when they entered the 1928 Olympics. Reporters were generally negative when covering women in track competitions. This was the first time some saw women compete seriously in an international arena and many still held their traditionalist views. Some women completing the 1000 meter run collapsed and many took this as evidence that track was too vigorous for women.The IOC voted in 1929 to remove track and field competition. Seeing as there was resistance to this, it was negotiated that women could compete in 100 meter events.    The 800 meter events would not be reinstated until 1960.Even with these restrictions women continued to break barriers. The 1936 Olympics was significant because it was the first time African American women competed. Jesse Owens humiliated Hitler by winning gold medals and making a mockery of his racial ideology. Tidye Pickett was another hero of the games that discredited Nazi racial ideology through her athleticism. African American women were showing they could be just as talented as their white counterparts. The best element of this essay is that it discusses athletes that are normally not mentioned in sports history.  Alice Coachman for example was the first African American woman to win a gold medal. American racism was a challenge and it added an extra burden on African American athletes. African American women had to face both sexism and racism in their struggle to play sports. Coachman’s efforts allowed the door to open for other track and field athletes later on in the 20th century.

Alice Coachman (1923-2014)  open the door for many African American women in track and field.

Wilma Rudolph, Jackie Joyner- Kersee,  Florence Griffith Joyner ,  Gwen Torrence, and Marion Jones became notable talents.Although this is one of the strongest essays in the text, but there are disputable presentations. It seems to be a bias against the Eastern Bloc nations in regards to performance enhancing drug use. While it acknowledges that they were talented they present it as if only the Communist East was doping their athletes. The book should be lauded for mentioning  controversial  topics such performance enhancing drug use and sex testing, some statements are not correct. McElroy states “women who use steroids to shorten recovery time  needed from high-stress activity to develop more muscle at a faster pace, and have a greater capacity for muscle growth,  can use a small dose that is hard to detect, especially since the drug flushes out a woman’s system much faster than a man’s.”Steroids do not “flush out the body.”Many times athletes use other substances to mask the steroids depending on the drug test. While a small dose can improve performance due to the fact women are extra sensitive to it, it can still be detectable. The biological passport has grown more sophisticated over the years.The author should have done more research in terms of the science of drugs. The text then states that “sex testing only effects a few women.” That is not true. This practice is a form of discrimination against women, but it also effects people who are intersex. Making it seem as if it is not a problem only further marginalizes women in sport. Although this part of the essay is objectionable, it does return to strong form. It describes the success of Florence Griffith Joyner and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Yet, it did not have trepidation in revealing the racism and sexist media coverage both athletes had to face. Jaoaquim Cruz referred to Kersee as a gorilla. Cruz was from Brazil a country with a long legacy of racial hate. Joyner was subject to more drug testing, because of her athletic success. She never failed one and other accused her of use due to the appearance of a stronger looking physique.


The essay has minor flaws, but it is an excellent summery of the history of women in track and field. This essay ends on a positive note. It praises women’s advancements and resilience in the faces of many challenges. The essay can best be described by one of its quotes: ” women were allowed to fall, scream, strain, sweat, cry, show off their abs, and flex their muscles.”

       “The Battle Against Time and Gravity” is an essay that by Jane Leavy discussing women’s participation  in gymnastics. Gymnastics dates back to ancient Greece. This was part of the education of young men and was also part of the ancient Olympics. Women were not allowed to participate, but were able to dance. Dance has in a sense been incorporated into gymnastics. Fredrick Jahan  developed modern gymnastics in the 1800s. Women began to participate in the sport at Vassar College in 1886. Women’s gymnastics appeared at the Olympics in 1904, but these were not hardcore competitions. Exhibitions featured women performing exercises with wands and barbells. While the women were talented, they did not have an outlet for competitive expression. The individual competition that is more recognizable today came into existence in 1952.The US and Russia produced many talented athletes. Gymnastics is extremely competitive and the essay does not ignore the possible health dangers that go with it. There were cases of eating disorders and attempts to have the thinnest body possible. It was believed this body type made it easier to master complex movements. Coaching became close to abusive and it had to be addressed. Young children as early as age 14 were entering the Gymnastic Olympic games. Around 1996 it was mandated that competitors be at least 16 to participate .  The reason young girls were preferred  was that they were thought to be more flexible and easier to coach.

Mary Lou Retton became a major success in the sport.

   The sport has an issue with the health of its athletes. Many women become victims of compulsive dieting, poor nutrition, and eating disorders. The sport also has another challenge of being subjective. Scoring systems are highly politicized, which during the 20th century generated controversy. Retton suggested that scoring should be based on “originality and creativity, not pure daring.” There are cases in which athletes paralyzed themselves attempting to do dangerous maneuvers.  The essay describes this as sport that women are not allowed to age. From childhood to young adult are the span of competitive years. A larger woman would have difficulty in this sport, due to biomechanics. Many Olympic gymnasts retire in their early twenties. The great aspect of this essay is that it shows women can be competitive in their sport. There was a claim that was made that women never desire to be competitive. This writing shows the pain and sacrifice that athletes endured. Nadia Comaneci was a force to be acknowledged. Women can be very competitive as this sport demonstrates, but the question of putting young girls into it generates controversy.

          The essay “From Suburbs to Sports Arenas” has major problems. Ellis Pettus’s writing has factual inaccuracies and seems to favor white women of a middle class background. Women all over the world are now playing soccer, but she sole examines it through the context of a Western perspective.The essay reveals that while British women during World War I played soccer during breaks while working factories, there had been existence of soccer like games present in other parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Games similar to soccer were noted as far back as 300 B.C.E in Chinese civilization. An informed reader would have a problem with this essay’s approach. Solely focusing on the US and the West ignores the dramatic impact the game has had on other nations. It also favors a middle class outlook. She almost in subtle manner implies the best soccer players come from the suburbs. Soccer has been a tough sport for Americans to get excited about compared to the traditional favorites of baseball and football. Women began to get interested competitively in soccer in the 1970s in the United States. Title IX allowed for the development of athletes who would lead the way in forming professional women’s teams. This essay has to be the weakest written in the book. If it was researched better and presented differently it would have been more substantive. There are some positive attributes about this essay, but they are too diminutive. The struggle to get women’s soccer included reveals how sexism is still very much a part of the IOC. Then there are interpretations that are not entirely true. Pettus states : ” unlike male players, female players found a bond in the struggle to advance their young sport.” While it is true there was a level of international exchange it was between mostly European nations like Italy and Sweden. Japan was the only non-white country in which there was an exchange. This did not advance far as the author would have one believe. It exposes a level of racism and ethnocentrism. One can make the argument that it was 1998 when this text was printed and attitudes changed. This is not the case. The Women’s World Cup of 2011 saw racist abuse directed at Japanese players online through Twitter.

This rhetoric is not from the 1940s  it is from 2011 :  World Cup Final vs. Japan Brings Out the Racist, Ugly American

 The author seems to be under the illusion of solidarity and inclusion. This is the trouble with white feminists who ignore or do not care about racism. This piece needs some revision in many respects.

         The essay “Nets Profits” was a great delineation of women in tennis. Women have according to Lichtenstein’s words ” playing tennis for 125 years on the highest competitive level as well as for fun.” Women’s entry into modern tennis came in 1884, when women began  having championships at Wimbledon. Wimbledon was the most recognized of the championships for tennis ( others included French, United States, and Australia).Women had a little more freedom in this sport, because it did not cause as much gender role conflict. However, women were still criticized for not behaving in a feminine manner. Even though sexism was still present women were able to perform at high levels. Suzanne Lenglen was one of the first major women’s tennis athletes. Similar to the amazing success of the Williams sisters in the 21st century, she was a Wimbledon champion that remained virtually undefeated. Except for the years of 1919 and 1925 she won many other Wimbledon Championships. Although not considered ” a classic tennis woman” meaning graceful and beautiful she captivated audiences with her performances. Besides that, she brought her native country of  France prestige in the Tennis world. Sadly, her life was cut short by anemia. Players like Alice Marble and Helen Wills would later become notable figures in tennis. The essay does mention that tennis was an elitist and racist sport. This changed with Althea Gibson’s entry.

Suzanne Lenglen (1899-1938)

      World class tennis was completely segregated. Besides challenging the color barrier, Gibson also developed a new model of playing style. It was fast, explosive and powerful. She was so good, that it caused some criticism. The 1950s was an era in which extreme conservative ideas about gender and race were prevalent. Gibson as a woman was criticized as being “unfeminine” for performing well and despised because of her race. That did not stop her from continuing and being successful.

Althea Gibson (1927-2003)

 As the 1950s and 1960s passed there emerged an out spoken and talented tennis athlete who did much to promote women’s sports. Billie Jean King was exposed to tennis at a young age and grew to love the sport. When she entered tennis her strokes were not impressive and she needed work on stamina. Taking lesson from Davis Cooper she then was able to improve her performance. She became a dominant force in tennis from the 1960s to 1970s. She spoke out against unequal pay and discrimination against women in professional tennis. Billie Jean King is also remembered for playing in “The Battle of the Sexes Match. This match which Riggs set up was an exhibition match and became a media sensation. They challenged each other in 1973 at the Houston Astrodome. Booby declared that no woman could ever beat him. The 55 year old Riggs was no match for the strong 30 year old King. She won the match and it generated an audience of 55 million television viewers.

'The Sporting News 100 Years of Sports Images'
Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King in 1973.

The question remained did this have a huge impact on tennis or women’s sports in  general? This was a media spectacle, but it did have positive benefits. It demonstrated that women could be just as good entertainers in sports. Tennis got more media exposure, which was reviving a sport in a decline. King’s most important contribution was the founding of the Women’s Sports Foundation and the magazine Women’s Sports. The essay does a great job documenting the change and challenge in women’s tennis over the 20th century. This is one of the stronger essays in the monograph.

      The book continues with other essays about basketball, swimming, equestrian sports, kayaking, canoeing, rowing, and sailing. The game of golf is also discussed in the monograph. While a great number of sports are covered some are excluded. Weightlifting, bodybuilding, football, rugby, and martial arts are not written about. There are reasons for this. The first is that the monograph focuses solely on Olympic sports. This is limiting if one is attempting to examine women’s participation through out the entire sports world. Readers also have to consider the text was published at the end of the 20th century. Since then there has been progress. Women’s weightlifting had been added to the Olympics in the year 2000. It is important also to see what women are doing in less mainstream sports. It would not be until the early 2000s that mixed martial arts became popular. This phenomenon of women entering smaller sports deserves at least some attention. This shows that his text is a product of its time and why scholarship needs to be updated regularly. Changes in society and a field make a difference in historical perspective. There are a few women who are attempting now to form professional American football teams for women. This is the only sport that women are struggling to break into. The Women’s Football League has emerged, but gets limited press coverage compared to the NFL.

Since 2001 the DC Divas has been an active women’s professional American football team.
It’s unfortunate that ESPN never covers these events or games.

These recent develops may become too immense to ignore in future historiography of women’s sports. It seems strange that weightlifting is not added, considering the clearly feminist message that is conveyed in multiple essays. The emphasis on strength and power was once considered to be a male only attribute has been disproved. Women were flexing their muscles in the traditionally “male sports”  and demonstrated high levels of competence.  Not mentioning these sports, makes the book seem incomplete.

           Lucy Danzinger writes the conclusion to this compilation of essays. It celebrates that there has been a cultural shift to more of an acceptance of the female athlete. She also praises that there is a new generation of women who are confident in their sports abilities. Danzinger also states she is thankful she was able to witness such dramatic changes. The progress that has been made cannot be underestimated, but it seems she ignores the more harsh realities. There still is racism, sexism, homophobia,  and an unfair media surrounding sports culture. Although women and non-white groups have entered sport, the corporate gatekeepers and a portion of fans attempt to isolate people who are not white males. The experience for non-white women differ considering they do not have white skin privilege. It explains why the media criticizes Serena Williams more or why athletes who are not white get less press coverage. Then it cannot be ignored that there is division among class. Women who are born into working class households may have to struggle to realize their sports dreams. Combined with lower pay for professional women athletes it only adds to the burden. Homophobia still is prevalent and their are women athletes who may reject their fellow teammates just because of their sexual orientation. These are challenges that must be addressed if women are to advance in sport. Danzinger seems to miss this point and acts as if the battles have been won. Title IX has been under attack since its inception. The struggles are far from over, but it it is important to document the history of events. It can be used as a tool for future generations on how to combat injustice or discrimination.  Nike Is A Goddess   may not be the best monograph on women in sports, but it provides a general survey of women’s participation in sports.









Nike Is A Goddess The History Of Women In Sports Edited By Lissa Smith

Playing With the Boys : Why Separate Is Not Equal in Sports by Laura Pappano and Eileen Mcdonaugh

Playing With Boys: Why Separate Is Not Equal in Sports  is a book written in 2008 which argues categorizing sports into “men’s sports” and “women’s sports”  represents a long held sexist tradition. The text takes this a step further can argues that separating men and women’s competitions is unequal. The authors state “sports in other words, are not just for fun, are not just for guys, are not just so much about background yammering, but a social force that does not merely reflect gender differences, but in some cases creates, amplifies, and even imposes them.” The introduction then presents the main thesis: ” the assumption that women are physically different from men translates into the assumption that women are physically inferior to men, which translates that women couldn’t or shouldn’t -compete with men because that would spell immediate injury to women, physically  if not also psychologically.” While there has been an increase in women’s athletic participation and improvements in performance, sexual dimorphism is a factor. Sex differences are the product of human evolution over millions of years. However, biological determinism is questionable. There are women who are genetically endowed that competing with men would not be a challenge. These are rare exceptions. Before puberty, there is no reason to separate sporting contests for boys and girls. The thesis has a major weakness in regards to the comparison of adult women and men. There are particular sports in which mixed competition does seem possible. Even with this major flaw, there are some positive attributes of the text. The book does an great job examining sex discrimination in sports from a legal perspective. It does not avoid the controversy of transgender participation. It examines the issue through the context of history. The authors do not solely place blame on men, but particular women opposed to women’s advancement in sports.


A problem with monographs like these is that they are dominated by feminist rhetoric. 

         The background of these authors is pivotal when analyzing the text. Laura Pappano is a journalist  and graduate from Yale University. She does have an athletic background being  a goal keeper on her field hockey team  Laura Pappano also as a hobby loves to bike, run, and plays tennis. It is clear she has understanding of sport and training. Besides being involved  formerly in the production of columns for Boston Globe, she founder the New Haven Journalism Project. Her works focus mostly on education and issues of pedagogy.Laura Pappano also is the editor of which seeks to promote gender equality in sports. Her credentials are perfect considering she is a person who values physical fitness. Although her column for the New York Times “How Big Time Sports Ate Up College Life” makes readers question her motives. While it is true American universities do spend a ludicrous amount of money on sports, it does provide scholarships for students. Women benefit from this as well and have seen scholarship opportunities increase. It is true that men’s athletics at particular universities still receive more attention. This could be what prompted the creation of the 2012 column published. If it were the reverse, there would be little protest. If it was women athletics she would not voice such comments. This seems to contradict Laura Pappano’s claim of wanting equality. Her points in the column can be valid ( college should be about learning, not frivolous activity), but is indirectly projecting something else. When men play sports it is imposing gender discrimination, but when women do it is liberating. This distorted and simple perspective does not fully capture the true nature of the problem. Laura Pappano  analysis presented in her works heads in the right direction, but reaches wrong conclusions. This occurs also in Playing With the Boys. 


Having some background in kinesiology and physiology would have contributed to Laura Pappano’s  arguments. 

Her co-author Eileen Mcdonagh  is a professor of political science at Northeastern University. Eileen Mcdonagh is a fellow in the Center for Advanced Behavioral Science at Stanford University. Her works focus on gender and political issues. Topics that Mcdonagh covers are reproductive rights, development of the American political system, and the representation of women in political life. It is apparent when reading the text, which parts she wrote. When making the arguments against sex discrimination, it is clear that was her contribution. Eileen Mcdonagh  examines political science from a historical perspective . She uses the same method of analysis for Playing With the Boys . While this is useful to the thesis, her lack of sports science in a sense is limiting. If one is seriously going to consider integrated competition between the sexes, biology,physiology, and endocrinology must be discussed. Eileen Mcdonagh  makes a compelling argument against sex discrimination in sport by using Supreme Court rulings. The comparison between African American’s struggle in regards to women lacks cogency, because that is a different form of oppression. She does make a valid point that women should be given a chance to try out for particular sports, if mixed competition is desired. Merely assuming that a woman would not be as skilled as a man based on sex is illogical.


Elieen Mcdonagh’s arguments seem more logical and lucid. Yet, a lack of experience in physiology, biology, and kinseology limit the ability to reinforce the thesis. 

        The physiological and biological differences between men and women’s sports performance is addressed.  This examines the endocrinology, anatomy, endurance, oxygen consumption, and metabolism. On average men are taller than women and have greater bone mass. Men produce more testosterone, while women produce only one-tenth of the hormone. It is critical in the development of lean body mass. Women produce more estrogen, but it is not impossible for women to produce more testosterone than others. The authors forget to mention the role of myostatin  in muscular hypertrophy.  This protein regulates muscle growth and having low levels gives an individual a greater potential for a mesomorphic body type. Understanding this protein is critical to athletic potential. While it is true that cultural bias may stop women from developing full athletic ability, sexual dimorphism is still a factor. If a man and woman were given the same training regimen and diet it is likely the male would become stronger. However, there are exceptions. Estrogen does have benefits for the female athlete. Women have an advantage in terms of heat tolerance, due to the fact they have fewer sweat glands. Having a slower reaction to body temperature changes can be useful in some sports. Muscular strength is pivotal and men have more of this particularly in the upper body. Training can narrow the gap, but there are performance percentage differences.  According to the authors ” Among highly trained powerlifters, one study found that performance differences ranged from 0 to 8 percent.” Men still have the upper body advantage, but women’s lower body can be estimated to be seventy-five percent as strong.


Competing with men in sports that require upper body strength would be a challenge.

Another factor in performance is the utilization of oxygen. Muscles need oxygen to produce adenosine triphosphate for the purpose of muscle contraction. The aerobic power generated is dependent on the heart’s capacity to pump blood, lung efficiency when oxygenating, and the blood’s oxygen carrying speed. Women have smaller hearts and lungs, which means their aerobic power is lower than that of males. Not only that there are factors in regards to metabolism  and lactate tolerance. Women have some advantages in metabolism, because fat contributes to the storing of carbohydrates and glycogen. Carbohydrates and glycogen must be consumed during exercise. This could be why women may have an edge in terms of endurance. Women have the advantage in ultraendurance events. Estrogen appears to have a protective role for skeletal muscles. It may also prevent soreness from long periods of exercise. This also is related to the lactate tolerance. After vigorous physical activity, muscles will tire. Lactate levels rise to protect muscles from over exertion. Males and females both experience this, but it is unclear who has more of the advantage.


One can not exercise without getting to a point of feeling tired. Women on average have little strength, but this can be by resistance training. 

Men seem to have a majority of the physical advantages. Oddly, the authors mention the anatomy of genitals. It is true that men’s genitalia does not offer any special advantage during athletic performance. Men and boys require athletic cups to protect themselves from injury. To say that female anatomy provides an advantage also lacks cogency. They cite the case of Melissa Raglin who in 1997, who wanted to play in the Babe Ruth League with boys. The twelve year old girl was ordered to wear an athletic cup. This was to provide safety, because any injury to the children would make the organization liable. The authors do not mention that the testis do actually provide a physical advantage. luteinizing hormone allows the testis to produce testosterone. The interstital cells and inhibin form a negative feedback control between the anterior pituitary gland and hypothalamus. This will control the level of testosterone in the blood. Strength is an important attribute to sports performance, but skill requires years of training. The authors could have done more research into biomechanical and physiological elements of the human body. It appears that women would not be as successful competing with elite male athletes.

        There are arguments that are credible for competition between girls and boys. Before puberty there is very little difference between girls and boys in regards to strength. Body composition is similar. Separating girls and boys for sports would seem ridiculous at this stage. Schools at one point feared that if they allowed girls to play on boys’ teams, boys would attempt to go on girls teams. The term for this is encroachment  by legal definition. The idea is it would not be fair to girls and the boys would physically dominate. This is not the case with children, considering they have not reached full growth. The controversy is over contact sports and whether females can handle it. There are girls who even in adulthood could handle physical contests with males. The authors point out that courts rule in favor of girls playing on boys teams, but rarely do so in the case of boys. The argument of US courts is the rulings are adjusted to compensate for past discrimination. Laura Pappano and Eileen Mcdonaugh seem to agree with this ruling. This is not true equality. There are cases in which boys did not have a sports division at their school and had no choice, but to try out for the girls’ team. John Willimas was denied playing on the women’s hockey team at Liberty High school in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1992. He played as a golie and previously played on a mixed team in middle school. It was clear that the Equal Protection Clause was violated, but the argument was made that it was protecting girls access to equal opportunity. This goes off the faulty assumption that just because Willams was male and not a member of a discriminated group he would dominate the team. That is not completely true when examining physical ability as a individual instead of the basis of sex.



Between the ages of one to thirteen there is no divergence in strength levels. When puberty occurs, boys will develop more muscle and a larger skeleton. There is a large surge in physical strength, that women will not procure unless they engage in physical activity. 

You cannot say you are a supporter of equality when it clear that boys would be at a disadvantage in the Equal Protection Clause. Christopher Mularadelis tried out for women’s tennis team, when one was not available to males. This occurred in 1978 at Haldale High School in Cold Spring New York. He was denied the right to participate. Male students who enjoy volleyball find it difficult to form a fully functional all male team. They are denied access to participate in women’s volleyball. Although men do have more physical advantages at this stage, they have not fully developed. Puberty concludes around age seventeen. Testosterone levels peak at age twenty and gradually decline as a male ages. Therefore, boys at this stage would not have an absolute physical advantage.  This is a distortion, but the authors refuse to address it further. They do admit that men do participate on female teams, yet do not seem to be concerned about the legal and discrimination challenges the male students face. The quote  by Jamal Greene that appears in the text explains the situation perfectly : “one-way racket that allows women to participate in male only sports without extending the same opportunity to males who wish to participate in female only sports.” There is little logic behind this stance. If it were a truly equal position it would function both ways for males and females.

      If it were possible to do away with coercive sex segregation in sport a question arises which sports would women perform equal or better to? The authors provide examples, but  omit other sports that are less mainstream. Wrestling at certain ages males and females can compete on an equal basis as mentioned in chapter two. A lower center of gravity favors girls . It is still a challenge seeing as males would have more total lean body mass. This puts females at a disadvantage in terms of weight class. There are some girls who even compete in wrestling against males in high school. Flexibility and skill can be a useful counter to a much stronger opponent. Rock climbing is another example the authors use to demonstrate that women can compete with males. If the book wants to make a compelling argument it has to examine other sports. Track and field was excluded. Women can be almost as fast as men ,but the structure of the pelvis does effect total speed. Women are closer to males in the lower body strength wise, which could make mixed competition  feasible. The authors could have excluded this to due to the fact that males still retain the highest speeds in track and field records.



It is possible that a few women could compete with men in track. Yet, the majority would still be slower due to a wider pelvis. 

One sport that should not have been omitted is female bodybuilding. It would have advanced their argument of the possibility of integrated competition. Bodybuilding has experimented with this in which men and women compete in mixed pairs. Together they pose and present one routine along with standard poses. Not only is it competitive, it represents a level of cooperation between men and women that can break certain barriers. Women could compete with men directly depending on the athlete. Men do have bigger muscles, although there are some cases in which women are close to their male counter parts. Weight classes would have to be adjusted. Just like with figure and physique divisions, height would have to be taken into account.


As one can see from above, this woman looks like she could be a equal or a little stronger than the man. Women must work harder to become strong.


Here it looks like they are even.She could be stronger.

It is perplexing that the authors do not mention this sport. Female bodybuilding is fascinating when analyzed from perspectives of gender studies and sociology. This omission could be the result of bias. Pappano and Mcdonaugh clearly are focused on sports that are more mainstream or “popular”  with the public. Bodybuilding may not be considered important enough to be worth mentioning by the authors. This leaves out a helpful piece of information that contributes to the thesis. Here women are developing their physiques to the maximum, challenging the idea of female physical inferiority. They crush that idea with their powerful muscles and present a new archetype of womanhood. It is a shame they are ignored or written off completely. The book also does not expound on the fact that gymnastics could be mixed competition. This would actually put males at a disadvantage, due to women’s greater flexibility. Women’s gymnastics appears to be more popular than the men’s event. The reason this could be is that it is considered gender appropriate. There is a level of grace that is involved in these contests, but they still require strength and skill. These particular omission weaken certain points.

       A controversial topic that is rarely discussed is transsexuals involved in sport. The book does not avoid this subject. Should transsexuals be allowed to compete? That depends on the completion of  sexual reassignment surgery. After the surgical procedure there would be no hormonal advantages. The concern is that fair play would not be upheld if women competed with transsexuals. The reality is it has nothing to do with protecting women or being fair. It really is about excluding a group from competition and maintaining traditional gender convictions. Transsexuals violate gender norms in  traditional societies. There is less concern about female to male transsexuals. The reason being is that it assume that men are the better athletes. Male to female transsexuals face more scrutiny. There is a belief that they carry over the physical strength from their former sex, which gives them an extra edge. This is not true and some in the IOC still debate if it truly influences performance. This depends on whether or not the sexual reassignment surgery was done before or after puberty. It is more difficult after puberty when the gonadotropic releasing hormone has already activated sex hormone feedback loops. The authors stress that the IOC has not fully investigated medically the possible performance advantages of formerly being male.  It is great that the authors spoke out against transphobic policies that have been in place for half a century.

       Performance enhancing drugs are mentioned in the text. This is probably one of the most divisive and taboo subjects. It becomes more complicated when discussing gender politics in sports. While there are questions are fairness, bioethical concerns, and health issues there is a clear double standard in use. Women are criticized more for use than males. The authors demonstrate that it is not a concern about women’s health, but what is regarded as “natural.” If a man takes anabolic steroids it is acceptable. The double standard has become so blatant there are multiple cases of random testing of female athletes. Males do not have to do random drug testing like their female counterparts. One case cited in Playing With the Boys was the random testing of the women’s track and field team at U.C.L.A  in 1980. The men’s team was exempt from random testing. Athletic women are constantly accused of using steroids more than males. Only after the early 2000s did males face the same criticism for use. The general synopsis of this section is revealed by this quote: “while steroid have no place in athletics, social pressures fuel an unfortunate double standard in which male athletes artificially enhancing his body is wrong but understandable and natural, while the female athlete is considered unwomanly  or grotesque.” The authors do not seem to understand that performance enhancing drugs have been a part of sports for half a century . There are many substances that are developed that are not yet detectable by drug tests. Use or non-use has divided many sports enthusiasts and athletes. The fact is drugs are here to stay. One should take a neutral stance on this issue, because it is ultimately an athletes choice what they do with their body. Organizations still have the right to ban certain substances. There is no need to extend the War on Drugs to professional sports. The authors should consider how the use of certain substances may level the playing field. Anabolic androgenic steroids increase strength and muscle mass beyond what could be done naturally with diet and exercise. If women lack the necessary brawn to compete with men in mixed contact sports, performance enhancing drugs could be the solution. The risk could be too great in terms of health. Performance enhancing drugs will continue to be a source of discord in professional sports.


Marion Jones increased her performance dramatically through the use of anabolic steroids.  stopping women from use has nothing to do with protecting their health, but the fear they will go through virilization. The conclusion is they will be less attractive, which appears to be more important in the sports world than performance. Some women can use steroids without going through virilization at all. 

Playing With the Boys does make valid points in regards to the institutional sexism in sports.  The most blatant form of sexism is the use of sex verification tests. These were supposedly designed to prevent men from “passing” as females and winning women’s competitions in the Olympics. The idea of this seems ludicrous, because it based on the idea that all men could beat all women. They never considered that a woman would attempted to compete in the men’s events. These tests have recently been discarded, but the IOC retains the right to conduct them. This is not in the name of “fair competition.”  The purpose is to make women feel unwelcomed and uncomfortable. Men did not have to do sex verification and it clearly demonstrated the high level of discrimination against women in sports. Sex tests were not even scientific. Women would have to display themselves nude to IOC  officials, doctors, and gynecologists to prove they were female. That method was unreliable and ignited much vociferous objections. It was soon replaced by a chromosome test.  The only accomplish with this was discovering genetic abnormalities or intersexed  attributes of athletes. Women contain 22 pairs of nonsex chromosomes just like males. Sex chromosomes contain XX for women and XY for men. There were cases in which women had extra nonsex chromosomes and were designated not female according to IOC rules. Ewa Klobukowska was made a victim to this ruling. She was a Polish sprinter who the IOC officials claimed had too many chromosomes to be regarded as female. It was never revealed which extra type of chromosomes she had, but it was clear that it did not give her “unfair” advantage.

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Ewa’s case represents the flawed scientific approach in sex testing. Although she was not intersexed, being that would have not given her extra physical advantages.  

Sex tests started in 1966 and came to an end in 2000. Unfortunately, the IOC has replaced it with a ruling that women with naturally high testosterone will be excluded from participation. It seems as if little progress has been made.  The wage disparity between women and men in sports is another clear indication of sexism. The fact is women’s sports are not marketed in the same manner or given the same amount of attention as men’s sports. The claim the text makes is that low turn out for women’s games is why there is a pay disparity. There are a significant portion of fans that are not targeted by corporate sponsors. This is an untapped market which business and corporations do not want to promote, because culturally it is believed that men are the better athletes. So according to the concept of gender logic, they should be paid more. Rationalizing inequality becomes even more irrational, when there is a potential for economic growth. Lowering the price for women’s sports events is a terrible business model. This pay disparity is rooted in a traditional belief that a woman’s main purpose in life was to be a homemaker. Having a career outside the home was a hobby and nothing more. Women did not need equal pay, because their husbands would care for them.  This strict gender role system continues to live on in sports.

         The sexist atmosphere continues in a rigid and limited definition of femininity. Strength, power, and skill are not seen as positive qualities. A female body that projects these attributes challenges the traditional notions of beauty as the text explains. It is acceptable in society for a man to develop himself physically while for women it is not. Female athletes even struggle with the fear of muscle. This also takes on a homophobic dynamic. Women who are heterosexual fear being labelled lesbian and other women of different sexual orientations are ostracized. Playing With the Boys does not adequately address this issue. Lesbians do face prejudice from their heterosexual peers, but the authors do not seem to think it is a problem. They seem to also view them with trepidation ” at the same time, however, the overplayed stereotype of female athletes as mannish lesbians has suppressed the popularity of women’s sports, support for female athletes, and the recruitment of straight females into sport. ”  This quote appears as if Lesbians are to blame for negative perceptions of women’s sports. Their presence is not to blame for negative attitudes, but a culture of misogyny and herterosexism.  Stereotypes, which can be based on truth are designed to degrade and alienate an oppressed group. The lesbian stereotype in this instance is used to control women and vituperate lesbians. The authors clearly have no understanding of this, because they are examining the situation through the perspective of heterosexual white women. This harms their argument if they truly believe in equality. Body image perceptions are still influential. Societal and cultural pressure may be holding women back from their full physical potential.

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The slender body type is valued for women more so than a muscular one. 

The notion of female frailty has not fully been eliminated.  This did not just influence attitudes toward women in sports, but other physically demanding fields such as the army, police, and construction work.

      The idea that women need protection from danger may seem harmless. However, as the text demonstrates it was to control women and stop them from being competitors with men. The relation to sports is that women engaging in physical activity could risk injury. The fact is that athletes will acquire multiple injuries during the course of their careers. Men getting hurt is of less importance due to the idea that they are tougher. Women are believed to be too weak for rigorous physical activity. The authors explain as follows: ” in the end, the question about female protection entails more than safety.”  The idea of women showing such power angers misogynists. Men who have a machismo perspective believe women should occupy a secondary status in all areas of life. A woman successful at sports challenges cultural convictions about women’s roles. The authors expound on this further ” it also involves propriety and the belief that women simply shouldn’t engage in some activities.” This excuse was used to justify excluding women from education and the public sphere. The stereotype of the vulnerable and timid female has been challenged by a new generation of powerful athletes. This is both intimidating to certain groups of men. Other see it as an attempt to steal attention away from men’s sports.

        Another argument detractors use is that it is not moral for men and women to compete with each other. Claims that boys would be physiologically devastated have been used to stop mixed competition. The other claim is that girls would be injured or suffer the same trauma from loss. Failure is a part of life; it is how resilient  you are after it, which determines success. If boys were not taught to view girls as lesser beings, this would not be a problem. Detractors claim that it is unnatural for men and women to compete in mixed sports.


This boy has no reason to feel shame by losing to a girl. He just lost to a better athlete.

Phrases such as “you throw like a girl” or “you were beaten by a girl” represent the gender bias. It is coded language that designates an inferior status. To be female is to maladroit, weak, and incompetent. Athletic skill can be learned through training, but girls are not given the same opportunity. Playing With the Boys reveals that girls are not given equal access to little league games. Football is seen as a “man’s game” and boys are at a young age encouraged to play. The emphasis on development of physical skills seems more important for boys. Sexism does not only effect women as they age, but also in their youth. Sports has a sexism and misogyny issue. Attitudes must change, so that women are valued members of the sports community.

        Men are not entirely culpable seeing as there are women who are opposed to women’s involvement  in mixed competition and participation in general.  The book mentions a long tradition of women who ostracize other women for opposing cultural mores. One example is the Eagle Forum which promotes past traditional views on gender roles. They are a conservative organization with the goal of promoting family values and right-wing political agendas. They target affirmative action and Title IX  for repeal on the grounds it is “special privilege.” The reason women would oppose involvement  is that they believe women’s role is both wife and mother. Men must be served by women and that is how nature intended it. It appears that some women have internalized  the sexism of society. The authors fail to understand this. Feminists are even divided on whether sex segregated sports is ethical. There is a faction of feminists who see women as victims who need constant protection either through extra legislation or different types of treatment in the public sphere. Victim feminism has painted  all men as treacherous. Sameness feminism does not have the misandrist attitudes, but refuses to acknowledge basic biological facts. Men and women are different. People do not have to be the same to be equal. The authors do not delineate on this schism, but it should be lauded that they mention it. Too often all men are made to be the villains in writings such as these.

       One issue is that the book seems to favor the sameness feminism faction.  The chapter “Inventing Barriers” seems to make the claim that certain limitations of particular women are cultural. The text does make a valid point that women have been restricted due to pseudo- scientific  theories in regards to women’s physical capabilities. Menstruation was once seen as a sign of female weakness. Physicians in the past even believed that the uterus was the weakest part of the female body. These sexist and baseless convictions have been discredited. To say differences in physical abilities is completely cultural is not entirely accurate. The paradigm of “women are weak” and “men are strong” is misleading. The fact of the matter is men have more potential to gain strength due to size and endocrinology. This does not mean women cannot acquire strength. The authors point out that when you examine individuals some women can be stronger than men. Men and women given the same exercise regimen would usually result in men gaining more lean body mass.


Males have a greater potential for muscular hypertrophy due to particular androgens.

It should be clear to everyone that men and women are different biologically. People erroneously are convinced difference means inferiority. That laughable notion has been adopted even by sameness feminists who attempt to say men and women are not different. This seems more self defeating than anything else. Women do not need to be exactly like men to be equal. The authors do not seem to understand this. They do make a potent argument that their is performance overlap. If analyzed graphically in terms of a bell curve, it is possible that elite female athletes could perform just as well as their male counterparts. The text also reveals that women certainly have gotten stronger ever since improved training and social barriers were removed. It is clear that women in sports have gotten physically stronger. Looking at the women involved in sports in the past the change is amazing. Women’s physiques have become more muscular and powerful. This is fact, but the authors omit that there is a ten percent gap in performance when examining Olympic records. Their rebuttal is a legitimate one. Women’s professional sports are still relatively new and it is unclear just how physically developed a woman can get. It is clear that women have improved in performance. Yet, it seems unlikely that elite female athletes would compete with elite male athletes en mass in the future.


Compare Wilma Rudolph (1960) and Carmelita Jeter (2012)  and it is clear that there has been performance improvement. 

            The legal basis for dismantling coercive sex segregation seems to be a more rational argument. As long as a girl or woman is qualified and able to play a particular sport, there is no reason to stop her. Young girls were banned from playing contact sports with boys in the United States. Sports such as football and soccer were off limits. The US courts would rule in favor of girls who wanted to try out for boy’s teams, because none existed for girls. These were clear Title IX violations. Blatant discrimination can be challenged on the basis of violation of the Equal Protection Clause. This is part of the fourteenth amendment of the US Constitution. Not state can enact laws that hinder the equal rights of US citizens. When applied to US schools and their sports teams it is only fair that girls have same opportunity to play. The assumption that men are naturally better athletes is not true. Girls and women could have the same athletic potential, but are stopped because of particular restrictions. The fear is girls and women are too delicate for rough activity. This has now been proven false. Heather Sue Mercer was mentioned in the book who played football at Duke University. Mercer was a place kicker, but she was dropped from the team. This was not because of her performance for which she was qualified, but because of her sex. The coach had a problem having a female on his team. This 1994 incident went to court and ruled in her favor. That is one of many examples that attempted to exclude women from athletic participation. There are qualified women and girls for sports teams, but they rarely find acceptance.

          Playing With the Boys attempts to parallel sex segregation  with racial segregation to reinforce the argument of  the existence of coercive sex segregation. This simply lacks credibility because of the different nature of racial and sexual oppression. While all women were subject to a code of sexism, African American women faced the trauma of white supremacy. The book ignores and omits the fact that white women have more opportunity due to the fact they have white skin privilege. Wilma Rudolph during her track and field career faced more vicious racism, than sexism. While the text understands that African Americans have had a struggle in society it misses one critical fact. Whites believe even to this day that people of African descent are subhuman. That is the critical difference. While white women were viewed as inferior to men, they were more valued because of their skin color. African American women and men were seen as subhumans and unworthy of existence by American society. The authors who are two white middle class women cannot possibly comprehend the issues surrounding racism and white supremacy. Their lack of knowledge is even more obvious in this statement : “while the Anglo-American psyche was able to overcome myths of white athletic supremacy to appreciate and accept the black athlete, women have made no such strides.” This is a delusional assessment. One can only recall Donald Sterling’s racists rants and realize that a majority of whites will never accept non-whites in the US. The former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basket ball team demonstrates this. It seems that the only women the authors are concerned about is white women. It could be that the authors could possibly have unresolved prejudices themselves. This cannot be confirmed, but the writers must understand that racism can be covert in action and policy.Saying women have not made progress or strides is mendacious. The four decades that have past the public has witnessed high levels of women’s participation in sports. This is not just in the United States, but globally. The London 2012 Olympics saw the highest number of female participants in the sporting event’s history. This parallel between racial segregation is the weakest section of  Playing With the Boys.

         Title IX which is a pivotal piece of legislation does have some limits. This argument is the most powerful one in the monograph. Title IX was not specifically directed at sports, but educational programs. Women were given less funding for school sports, which were designated as extra curricular activities. The text argues that Title IX did not go far enough for ensuring gender equality in athletic activities. Title IX for example did not stop the exclusion of girls from Little League Baseball. Title IX did advance women’s educational opportunities in universities and colleges. However, there still is the challenge of promoting gender equality in regards to intercollegiate sports. The NCAA even was fearful that if women’s sports were allowed, it would bankrupt men’s sports. If Title IX was effective it would address problems in which no female team is present at a particular school. Some girls have to try out for the boy’s team, because that is the only option. This results in the girls heading to court to challenge the ban on girls competing with boys in contact sports. A portion of girls have recently become interested in wrestling and football, but they may not have the full protection of Title IX. It is clear that the law may need some adjustment to deal with rapidly changing scenarios.

        Playing With the Boys: Why Separate Is Not Equal in Sports    does provide valuable information on contemporary women’s sports history. There are major problems with its conclusions. The solutions of promoting women’s sports through marketing and the internet are excellent tactics to countering negative perceptions. A new gender neutral view of sports is a healthy and welcome goal that must be advanced. These are rational approaches to disparities that women in sport face. Yet, this goal the authors state seems unrealistic: “females playing sports with males must become standard practice, not the exception.” Training and coaching can made a significant difference in performance, but there are elements of sexual dimorphism that make mixed competition unlikely. Men’s upper body strength would give them the advantage in weightlifting, basket ball, and baseball. Women would have the advantage in gymnastics, ultramarathon events, and swimming  due to flexibility ( as well as the effects of estrogen). For young girls and boys mixed competition is reasonable, because sex hormones have not influenced physical development. One should consider if elite female athletes would even want to have integrated competition. If this were done en mass, it is dubious that they all would be successful. That depends on which sport and the areas of the body which will be utilized ( upper body or lower body). If a woman feels that she needs to compete with a man, she should be allowed to. The authors seem to subtlety   promoting sameness feminism. Women do not need to be like men to be equals, because they were never inferiors. Although Playing With the Boys has problems it serves as a good reference source for the layman and scholar. It is written in a manner that is accessible to the general reading public and contains a wonderful appendix that documents legal cases in regards to Title IX. This is an academic text, but is still enjoyable for anyone interested in sports, sexual politics, and women’s studies.

Playing With the Boys : Why Separate Is Not Equal in Sports by Laura Pappano and Eileen Mcdonaugh

The Frailty Myth by Colette Dowling

  The Frailty Myth is a book published in the year 2000 by Colette Dowling. The book asks the question can women be equal as long as men are physically stronger? She argues that the basis of the weaker sex stereotype in based on Victorian Age pseudoscience. There was the idea that too much physical exertion could damage the female reproductive system. Dowling  believes that women should seek to be on the same physical level as men in terms of strength and prowess.  She refers to this as physical competence. Running, developing cardiovascular endurance, building muscle, and learning to throw are essential. She puts emphasis on the need for girls at a young age to learn physical skills just like boys do. PE classes should expect more from their female students. Women student athletes should be given the same training as their male counterparts. The strength gap she is convinced can be narrowed, if  women are taught to develop their physical skills. Her book does make valid points, but is drowned in Feminist rhetoric.


Here are two different editions of the book ( 2000 edition on the left and 2001 edition on the right). Notice the other half of the titles on the book covers are different. The statement “women approaching physical equality” is odd. This implies that women were physically inferior before. The other statement “redefining the physical potential of women and girls” is misleading. Women’s physical potential has minimally been defined. The truth is we do not know how strong women could get, because so much focus was on their limitations. 

The general synopsis looks at the history of the weaker sex stereotype. The books focus is on the struggle of women to get into sports. Her examination is on the United States and Europe specifically. She only once mentions women gaining access to non-western  international competition (the Asian Games). Dowling rarely puts emphasis on the women developing world, who are struggling even more than their Western counterparts. There are countries that have even worse attitudes in regards to women and limit their opportunity. Their tribulations will not be discussed in this book. She then delineates how the idea of women being physically inferior is based in pseudoscience and unproven theories. Ideas such as genital decay or the notion women would harm their reproductive capability were common in the medical community. This seems facetious to us now, but during the Victorian Age it was believed. The cult of invalidism was a cultural construction that desired to present women as weak and frail. Not only that, but prone to illness. This was gradually overturned when women started getting access to competition opportunities. Dowling discusses how women were prevented from participation and then how Title IX changed everything. Women  could now have more funding for sports in schools and colleges.She examines gender in relation to sports. the author explains why physical activity is good for women’s health and well being. The book then ends with Colette Dowling stating the need for women to have self-defense skills. The final stage  of  women’s liberation will be what she calls physical equality.

One of the major problems of the book is it lumps all men together.Third Wave Feminists tend to believe all men are the enemy. Dowling becomes guilty of this in one section of the chapter “closing the strength gap.” All men, she states have a fear of women’s strength. While it is true that men have used women bodies a means of control that is not the only method. Denying access to jobs and education were by far more damaging. Not all men reject women’s growing physical power. She uses the unfair criteria in bodybuilding competitions as an example. Men are in her view keeping women back in the sport. The judges do not want to see hyper-muscular development. This is more of a failure on the part of the corporate sponsors. The IFFB claims that larger competitors are not marketable. This is not true when you see the large numbers of fans going to the athletes’ pay websites.  The Weider Corporation misses this opportunity. The fact is many fans of female bodybuilders are male. By ignoring fan bases corporations will fail to add to their profits. Just as well, because more money should go to the athletes. Judging criteria has always been distorted in bodybuilding circles. Judging “femininity’ is nebulous. Then there is a general dispute on whether size, shape, or symmetry should be emphasized more than the other.



Here are two athletes with pay sites, Kashma Maharaj and Colette Nelson. They provide video content as well as written content for their fans for a monthly fee. Clearly there is a large enough fan bases to keep these websites running. Some the funds go to expenses they need to continue competing. 

The most contradictory statements and claims in the text appear in the first paragraph of the sixth chapter . Dowling states: “as women got more muscular, the event was redesigned for female competitors so it had less to do about being strong and looking female.” Women can look very strong and female at the same time. The author seems to have a dubious feeling about that. When making a reference to the film  Pumping Iron II: The Women  she refers to Bev Francis as “macho woman.”  For a person who claims not to believe in strict gender roles in terms of masculinity and femininity  this is hypocritical. Bev Francis did not change her sex when she developed her body. Women come in different shapes and sizes. It is odd to say a woman of a muscular body type is abnormal. Models of beauty vary from culture to culture. When it comes to aesthetics in bodybuilding there are various perspectives. Often some say women have developed too much. Some judges prefer a sleeker model, a moderately size model, and the hyper-muscular model of body. That is why different divisions were created ( fitness and  physique). Incompetent judging of contests are as much to blame as sexist attitudes toward women. She states in a subtle manner that all men hate strong women. That is not the truth. Even though there are detractors of such women, there are a growing number of fans. Most are men.  While many magazines are disappearing featuring women in strength sports, there has been an internet revival. Fans have access to forums, websites, blogs, and online magazines. There is a greater exposure to female strength.

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Here are two magazines. They are both for mainstream consumption, but feature women with powerful physiques. The Flex magazine will most likely be purchased by men, because of the woman on the cover. Muscle and Fitness Hers  is directed at women, but the model on the cover has a high degree of muscularity. The women are not portrayed in a negative light. 

The disappearance of female bodybuilding magazines may not mean public rejection to it. Print media ( including newspapers) are gradually being defeated by the internet. Women’s Physique World  for example ran in print from 1984 to 2006. However, it continues to sell its old issues and video material  on it’s website. This is a much more efficient business model. There are a myriad of sites dedicated to women’s strength sports. Most of the web traffic is coming from men ages 18 to 34. There is a huge portion of  men who enjoy female muscle. Colette Dowling should be praised for mentioning  female bodybuilding, but she needed  to more research  on the sport and culture. One statement becomes a blatant generalization : “today women bodybuilding champions make as much money from their appearances and endorsements-perhaps a final indignity for men.”  This may be an indignity for a sexist, but not all men. There are male fans and competitors that welcome women’s participation. Many want to see equal amounts of prize money for female competitors.

Colette Dowling’s assessment of sport performance needs adjustment. Her belief is that is the gap in performance is related to lack of training. While one cannot deny that women are discouraged from certain physical activities, sexual dimorphism plays a role. Dowling’s background is in sociology. She is a psychotherapist  based in New York. It would have helped her argument to expound more on exercise physiology. The author does not seem as knowledgeable as she could be in regards to sports performance.


This is an audio file of her appearance on The Dianne Rehm Show. This was broadcast in 2000 and they discuss the state of women’s sports. Listen to the recording. At one point a caller questions her about the role of sexual dimorphism in performance and she has no idea what the term means. 

Sexual dimorphism refers to the secondary sex characteristics in a particular species. One pivotal factor is how hormones influence the body structure. Testosterone increases strength and the size of the skeleton. Women who produce more estrogen relative to androgens,will retain more fat. While Dowling points out estrogen provides benefits  to women in some sports, she reduces her argument to a battle of the sexes. Women have to be on the same level as men physically. The comparisons seem unnecessary. Men on average are stronger, but that does not make them better athletes. Strength is nothing without skill. Colette Dowling says she wants women to develop physical skills, but contradicts herself by putting emphasis on strength. Her comparisons between male and female athletes are adjusted to height and weight. This does not accurately portray  certain mathematical records. There still exists a 10% difference in  Olympic records. Estimates can vary in body strength ( no matter which sex). Women can be 80% as strong when the weight and size are close. Absolute strength can be about 65%. lack of adequate training can be an explanation, but endocrinology provides one too. There are many exceptions, but on average men will become stronger than women even on the same training regimen.


 Here a difference can be seen. Colette Nelson (left) is much stronger than the man who does not train. Xin Li Cao (right) would have a challenge trying to match the strength of her male counterpart. 

A few women could match men who are equally trained. These are rare exceptions, but possible. Women and men are biologically different. The section titled “The Menstrual Myth” misses some points in terms of body function. Over training can harm women ( just like men) in different ways. If a woman’s body fat becomes too low, she may stop ovulating. Sports that focus on weight like ice skating, swimming, gymnastics, and long distance running could be prone to the athletes triad. Exercise will not harm the menstrual cycle, but over training will. Dowling proclaims: ” many heath benefits have been found for exercising for females, so care must be taken to not overpresent women who harm themselves by going to extremes.” There is no over representation. Women athletes could at some point in their career suffer from amenorrhoea. Dowling does not seem to accept that women’s bodies function differently. This does not mean women are restricted in  their physical achievement. Having the right endocrinologist and coach can prevent such medical conditions. Women are prone to shoulder and joint injuries in sports. It is important that they build up these areas to prevent harm. Dowling needs to understand that biological difference does not imply inferiority.

The best part of  The Frailty Myth is the analysis and  history of sex discrimination in sport. When the modern day Olympics were revived in 1896, women were not allowed to compete. It was not that women were not able to play sports, but cultural mores would not permit it. Women did get to compete in the 1900 Olympic Games, but only in golf. Swimming and diving was added in 1920. Track and field events were added in 1932. The change was met with media backlash. Newspapers harshly criticized women’s involvement and sports organizations as well. The National Amateur Athletic Federation (NAAF)  was opposed to women competing in the Olympics. Real improvement did not come until 1964. The 400-meter run, volleyball, track and field pentathlon, and the 400-meter individual medley swimming were introduce for women in the games. Women continued to face discrimination with sex testing. Women athletes were required to go nude before a panel of doctors, gynecologists, and  IOC officials to prove they were female. Men were not required to do such a test.  The International Olympic  Committee   claim was to “protect” women from men who would disguise themselves as women and compete in their events. This rarely happened and it was clear what it was designed to do. Seeing as it was not possible to ban women from sports, another option was to make an uncomfortable atmosphere. It was a way of trying to put women back in their “place.” Dowling also has explored the pay disparity between male and female athletes. Many sports networks give very little attention to women’s sports on television.  The chapter “Can I Play” is a must read highlight.

One chapter that is troublesome was the discussion of rape. The section “Physical Assault : Keeping Women Down”  is a statement on the dangers of rape culture. Dowling is convinced that women need as much physical strength as possible to prevent perilous situations. The problem with the rape culture concept is that it views all men as  sex offenders. An individual who commits such crimes obviously has violent and anti-social tendencies. Colette Dowling casts men as either oppressive or malevolent. Self-defense is something women should learn, but seeing men as the enemy is not. She uses the high rate of sexual assault on universities as an example. Most of these crimes do involve alcohol given to the victim. So, in this case physical strength is not a factor. Being aware of your environment and people in the area is critical. Large muscles and strength are not always required to defend yourself. Certain martial arts like judo are highly effective.  Her knowledge of martial arts seems to be limited. It is true that learned weakness is detrimental. The biggest problem is the author’s conjecture that men keep women weak so they can be easy targets. Women may actually be weakening themselves by trying to reach a thin body ideal.  This is related to body image disorders that Dowling mentioned in previous chapters. The mass media shares some of the blame. TV, film, and advertising made the extra slim body type as something desirable. To blame men completely is unfair.

The book seems to come to the conclusion that might makes right. The last paragraph is of major interest.  This quote is revealing: ” When necessary, a woman must be able to tap in her fighting spirit and do what she needs to do to survive.”  While self-reliance and self-defense are necessary Dowling frames it in a combative tone. It then seems like she is saying every man is against powerful women. Her reasoning is in a subtle way that women should use their new found strength for vengeance . Some men have been brainwashed by a traditional culture. Others do have genuine misogynistic attitudes. Not all men have negative views about women or powerful ones in particular. This is probably the biggest flaw of the book. The monograph Colette Dowling produced is not the best on women’s sports.However, it does have some positive attributes. It reveals a history rarely written about. It gives a great outline of women’s rapid rise in the professional sports world and the struggles they faced. The most important message written in the book is the need for physical activity. The long term benefits are good for women. Seeing as people are living longer than ever, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is pivotal. One day society will be accepting of strong women, but it will take time.  Dowling closes with this quote ” women by making themselves  physical equal, will at last set themselves free.”  The fact is women were never physically inferior. There is a long history of women’s participation in sports. It seems as if women have already reached the physical equality that Dowling speaks of. Women are showing more muscular and powerful physiques in athletic contest, than in the past.

The Frailty Myth by Colette Dowling