- Coming On [and Staying] Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women’s Sport
Nearly two decades ago, Susan Cahn won the 1995 North American Society for Sport History (NASSH) book award for her “pioneering”1 work, Coming On Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women’s Sport.2 For some, including myself, introduction to Cahn’s scholarship occurred years earlier with the completion of her dissertation in 1990.3 Cahn’s Ph.D. thesis was required reading in Prof. Tina Parratt’s sport history seminar at the University of Iowa, a class in which I was enrolled as a relatively new [End Page 297] doctoral student in the early 1990s. I was unabashedly smitten with the dissertation soon after cracking the cover and thus was delighted when asked to lead the seminar to discuss Cahn’s thesis.
Given the dissertation’s emphasis, not only on the myriad constraints playing upon females in sport but also the resistant, emancipatory spaces created by participants, I thought it fitting to dust off my “boom box” and audiocassette tape of Meg Christian’s 1974 classic (at least among some 1970s lesbians) song, “Ode to a Gym Teacher” and bring both to the seminar. Christian’s tribute to the bonds (sexual and otherwise) formed within all-female sport sites was validated by Cahn’s work, and thus it was little wonder that I found myself humming the song’s refrain all week in preparation for the seminar. Christian, in detailing the adolescent crush she had on her eighth grade gym teacher, sings:
She was a big tough woman, the first to come along That showed me being female meant you still could be strong And though graduation meant that we had to part She’ll always be a player on the ball field of my heart.4
My initial infatuation with Coming On Strong, first the dissertation and then subsequent book, had little to do with its strength as an academic tome in the present or into the future. Consideration of the book’s theoretical and methodological sophistication was not principal in my mind, at least not immediately. Rather, I was attracted to the book on a much more visceral and personal level. Issues of class, gender, and sexuality had long circulated around my experiences in organized sport and other physical activities. Aware of those tensions to some degree, Cahn’s book helped to bring them into sharp relief. I found myself and my sport experiences, for the first time, on the pages of a text before me. Sport provided me with the safe place in my world to come out as a lesbian in the late 1970s.
For me, softball fields and the culture that surrounded them were not only safe but also nurturing and liberating. As Cahn so adeptly states, “women who persisted in athletics found in sport a positive, even life-transforming experience. While dismissing, defying, or simply putting up with the societal hostility toward women athletes, they created a vibrant female sporting tradition” (p. 6). Cahn’s narrative provided historical grounding for a variety of cultural tensions that played upon me and countless other female athletes who came before and even after my own experiences. I found all of that incredibly powerful then and in the years since. I offer up this personal introduction to Coming On Strong not, I hope, to be taken as an episode in navel-gazing. Nor do I share my initial response to Cahn’s work because my specific subject location grants any kind of superior insight on the text. With that said, however, the subjective spaces we occupy do matter, as they bear on the ways in which we approach the work and writing we do. Acknowledging that reality in relation to my understanding of Coming On Strong, or any text for that matter, is important.
My love affair with the book was not mine alone, as reviews of the monograph were also quite favorable. A few writers were taken by Cahn’s prose, which they found “lively and lucid” especially when joined with the many “colorful”5 quotations found throughout the text. Others noted that, in part, the book’s...