When women wouldn’t let girls get in the game

Tim Stevens of the Raleigh News & Observer pens a solid history of the absence of a North Carolina girls high school basketball state tournament until 1972, just before the passage of Title IX.

This ban was cemented by actions over time from the male-dominated state high school athletic association, state school board association and finally the legislature in the early 1950s. But the main impetus behind relegating females to intramurals and “play days” came from the female leaders of the “physical education movement” as early as the mid-1930s:

“Rather than playing on athletic teams, girls were encouraged to participate in dance, etiquette classes and play days. Girls were encouraged to participate in less competitive activities, such as cheerleading. Boys basketball tournaments, including the NCHSAA’s championships, recognized girls by selecting tournament queens.”

The story then quotes a women’s sports advocate calling out all the usual social bugaboos for these restrictions — fears that athletic women would develop big muscles, be seen as unattractive to men, and generally be unladylike.  (When I was a kid, and before I even knew what they were, I heard things like “You’ll hurt your ovaries!” )

The exceptions were in rural areas and in the African-American community, where the realities of farm work and physical labor created different notions of proper activities for females.

I’m fortunate I was born at a time when I could shrug off those warnings and play anyway. (My ovaries are just fine.) I’m truly sorry that women profiled in this story, including Jennie Pegram, now 79, didn’t have the advantages female athletes have today. She’s in my mother’s generation, and this is a needed reminder that it wasn’t so long ago that different attitudes prevailed.

As I wrote in my women’s sports series last spring, the beliefs of women physical educators weren’t limited only to what they thought the limits of women’s physical abilities might be. They also wanted absolute control over how females exerted themselves for other philosophical reasons, and they especially didn’t want men to govern these activities.

There has been a strong anti-competitive line running through organized sports for females for more than a century. This line didn’t hit a wall until the AIAW-NCAA rift in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when women’s college sports were beginning to flourish and the issue was about pure power.

That all-male governing bodies kept girls and women out of the game for decades is not news. The fact that the philosophical justification for many of these decisions came from educated, professional women trained to teach females about the benefits of athletic competition but who were reluctant to do so continues to fly under the radar.

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