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  • Active Bodies: A History of Women’s Physical Education in Twentieth-Century America by Martha H. Verbrugge
  • Heather Munro Prescott
Martha H. Verbrugge. Active Bodies: A History of Women’s Physical Education in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. xi + 391 pp. Ill. $55.00 (978-0-19-516879-2).

The release of this book could not be more timely: in 2012, the United States celebrated the fortieth anniversary of Title IX, which mandated equal opportunity for women’s athletics; and the International Olympic Committee proudly reported that the Summer Olympics in London was the first to have female athletes from all countries participating in the games. At the same time, the representation of female athletes in the media is still tinged with lingering racism and sexism, as media spend as much time on clothing and hairstyles as they do on athletic accomplishments. Verbrugge traces the historical trends that have led to this mixed legacy. [End Page 292]

Verbrugge focuses her study on the careers and ideas of women, white and black, who taught physical education from the late nineteenth century to the present. She thereby makes a major contribution to our understanding of the history of female professionals in this period. She departs from other histories of physical education by placing the evolution of the field within America’s unique social and cultural milieu. Those familiar with the history of women in medicine will find many similarities between the experiences of female physicians and those of Verbrugge’s subjects: in fact, a significant number of the physical education pioneers were trained in medicine. Like medicine, the field of physical education in the late nineteenth century was still establishing itself as a respectable, scientific profession, and requirements for entry into the discipline were nebulous. Women and African Americans took advantage of physical education’s protean status to make a place for themselves in this emerging discipline. Like female physicians, women in physical education challenged gender norms by pursuing careers and being physically active. Thus, physical education became a viable career for athletic girls.

Verbrugge departs from other histories of physical education by drawing on the work of Cynthia Eagle Russett, Anne Fausto-Sterling, Londa Schiebinger, and others on the relationship between health professions and the science of sex and race differences. Physical education attempted to enhance its professional status by drawing on the emerging sciences of the human body. These sciences called into question the “fitness” of female and nonwhite minds and bodies for college-level study. By physically embodying educated, active, healthy womanhood, women physical educators helped to undercut some Victorian notions about the female body. Yet, in order to make a place for themselves in the profession, women also had to emphasize the innate differences between men and women. This led female physical educators to create gender constraints of their own. White female physical educators upheld a professional ideal called “Phy Ed-iquette,” which was used to a bolster white, middle-class, heterosexual model of gender in teacher candidates. Black women physical educators imposed similar professional expectations on their students, epitomized by the concept of “Beauty Health” promoted by Maryrose Reeves Allen at Howard University. Like Phy Ed-iquette, Beauty Health equated femininity with middle-class, heterosexual norms. However, Beauty Health “also articulated a keen racial consciousness” (p. 88) and mission of racial uplift by finding beauty in black women’s physical features.

Verbrugge concludes by explaining why we are still far from achieving full equality for female athletes and physical education professionals. She demonstrates that Title IX was a mixed blessing for women’s athletics: while this landmark reform in education law greatly expanded opportunities for female athletes, it also made teaching and coaching girls and women’s sports more attractive to men. Male coaches benefitted from professional networks and hiring practices that favored men. Title IX also led to the merger of men’s and women’s athletic departments, thereby marginalizing female athletic leaders even further. Thus, while the number of coaching positions for women’s teams expanded greatly, women’s share of those positions plummeted. The situation was especially bad for African American women: their representation in top positions hovers...


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pp. 292-294
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