Eighteenth-Century Life 26.1 (2002) 70-93
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Equivocations of Gender and Rank:
Eighteenth-Century Sporting Women
City College of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center
But if the rougher sex by this fierce sport
Is hurried wild, let not such horrid joy
E'er stain the bosom of the British fair.
Far be the spirit of the chase from them!
Uncomely courage, unbeseeming skill;
To spring the fence, to rein the prancing steed;
The cap, the whip, the masculine attire,
In which they roughen to the sense, and all
The winning softness of their sex is lost.
—James Thomson, "Autumn" (1730)
Women's claims to sport, in the eighteenth century as now, have been enormously impacted by gender; but in the eighteenth century the impact of class considerations was equally important. The prevailing ideology assigned positive attributes, such as strength, endurance, physical prowess, intelligence, wisdom, and judiciousness, to males, leaving the opposite, often negative, attributes to females, but electing for them in general a contingent, supportive, and child-producing identity. In considerations of rank, laboring women were markedly differentiated, in physique as well as in dress, by allowing them to develop naturally, whereas the bodies and activities of polite women were engineered to inhibit such naturalness. In [End Page 70] relation to sport women of the middling and upper sort were subject to the same judgment made in 1999 on the soccer-playing women of Brazil by a leading Brazilian sports commentator, who explained that "the best woman player in Brazil will never be as popular as the worst male player, and the main reason is that women have been idolized as delicate objects of desire, incapable of playing a physical-contact, body-to-body sport." A sociologist penetrated more to the heart of this matter: soccer "is a sport that contains all of the various elements that are traditionally used to define masculinity: conflict, physical confrontation, guts, dominance, control and endurance" 1 —not qualities a man wants to confront in his woman.
In the same manner eighteenth-century males of the middling and upper ranks considered unfeminine those women who preempted male sporting prerogatives. These men demanded that women define themselves by their differences from themselves; any indication of similarity—equal abilities intellectual or physical—produced a disquiet in them manifested in disgust. A mysterious femininity has always enhanced male desire and delight in conquest. Clearly separating the domains of male and female removed all chilling competition from courtship and seduction scenarios. Unluckily, it also portioned most of the good stuff to the men.
Class strictures also demanded that middling- and upper-rank women remain physically noncompetitive. Laboring women had to be strong, wore clothing that enabled physical exertion, and could shout or exhibit themselves in public. Men of the middling and upper ranks, however, had the power to mold and define their women, whose idleness and dedication to society were to be seen as a signal of their own successes; and physical strength, which might incidentally have provoked competition in the sporting fields, was thought undesirable. In fact, women's bodies were bound and misshapen from childhood so as to appear delicate and small; and they were adorned in delicate clothing that inhibited exertion. Even more importantly, limiting physical strength to laboring women provided a useful distinction at a time when physical differences among the ranks were sought in an effort to prove the inherited—what we would call the genetic—nature, of aristocracy. 2 Clothes and a country house could make the tradesman appear like a gentleman; but physical appearance was far more difficult to change, and a differentiated physical appearance was sought in polite women from girlhood. The all-important distinction between the robust appearance of laboring women and the delicate appearance of genteel women comfortably suggested that the poor were of another species and [End Page 71] that interbreeding with them would be shocking, even unnatural—rather like breeding a cart horse to a race horse.
Eighteenth-century British women of the middling and upper sorts who lacked sufficient physical...