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  • "Playing Fairly and Fiercely":Paradigms of the Early Years of Kentucky White Girls' Basketball, 1891-1919
  • Sallie Powell (bio)

In a packed gym, two central Kentucky basketball teams battled each other in the first match of a three-game series with the intensity of a college men's football game.1 The fans evoked the enthralling sounds of a tightly contested rivalry for the "Thanksgiving" tournament honors and an engraved trophy cup. The Atalantas, ablaze in their red uniforms and motivated by their captain, Evelyn Thomas, barely beat the yellow-clad Amazons led by their enthusiastic captain, Jeanalta Charter. Only two baskets decided the final score of the 18 to 14 win. Physical director Marion Speigner had trained the sixteen girls from the two teams for over a month, producing players who were "fit." The local newspaper noted that the players' "endurance might well be classed with athletes of their sex." Speigner also officiated the game while Mrs. Ramsey and Miss Payne worked as scorekeepers and Miss Bradley operated the timepiece.2 The fact that women controlled every aspect of this 1905 girls' basketball game at Sayre Female Institute in Lexington, Kentucky, demonstrated the autonomous power that Kentucky females possessed over their [End Page 153] athletic endeavors in the early years of basketball.3

Basketball goals of all shapes and sizes dot the landscape of Kentucky's one hundred twenty counties. Some have wooden backboards and chain nets. Several have fiberglass backboards and nylon nets. Others are children's plastic toys. A few "baskets" are nothing more than a nail or a knothole in the side of a building. In Kentucky, basketball rates as a religion, with its congregation sacrificing "blue" blood."4 Generations of young people, raised on a steady stream of public commentary on this "tower of ball," dreamed of their opportunity to play basketball.5 This team sport crosses cultural boundaries of race, class, and gender. It unifies communities and, at times, unifies the state with the dream of winning championships. The game also mirrors changing ideas about female roles in the larger society.

Through the analysis of the culture of Kentucky girls' basketball, this essay explores how white women exerted agency within the confines of a predominantly white-male sports milieu in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.6 Therefore, it builds on historian Donald J. Mrozek's examination of how sport enhanced women's sense of freedom in a venue where they "expressed their [End Page 154] characters and formed their identity."7 Players, coaches, and physical-education professionals attempted to negotiate a place for basketball within socially constructed gender norms during the playing years of Kentucky girls. By using newspaper articles, yearbook accounts, and photographs, this essay also illuminates a heretofore unknown aspect of white women's basketball history, contributing to the history of women, sports, and Kentucky, and showing how this history can serve as a cultural lens to examine the social values of its place and time.8

Basketball arrived in Kentucky shortly after it was invented by Dr. James Naismith and modified for women by Senda Berenson of Smith College. The Kentucky love affair with basketball initially included female participation with some teams playing by Berenson's "girls' rules" or a variation of those rules and other teams playing by "boys' rules," a more aggressive, competitive five-player game.9 The Progressive era offered women an opportunity to play basketball in an all-female milieu. However, women did not always control all Kentucky girls' teams and, as the sport grew, more men managed the game. Thus, the issues of control and power initiated the question of female participation in basketball. Conflict between a stereotypical feminine ideal of passive, genteel white women and the reality of Kentucky women enjoying the aggressive, competitive team sport of [End Page 155] basketball persisted throughout the early years of the girls' basketball within the Kentucky educational system. Health concerns fluctuated from the belief that basketball participation produced physically fit women to the conviction that playing the game caused enormous harm to women's well-being. These polar opposites contained two common denominators—marriage and motherhood. Advocates for both sides claimed that their position offered the...


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