- Active Bodies: A History of Women’s Physical Education in Twentieth Century America by Martha H. Verbrugge
In Active Bodies, Martha Verbrugge provides a respectful, yet critical approach to a group of women that represented the “softer target in academic institutions and a broader culture” that typically preserved male privilege through sport (p. 38). Verbrugge insists that women’s physical education functioned as a cultural “crossroads of science, culture, and daily life” (p. 10). Analyzing debates over difference and equity in modern America, Verbrugge pierces the imbricating discourses used to conceptualize the limits of active female bodies, industriously approaching a century of physical education for women and girls and the cultural vestiges that linger. Culling source material from nearly twenty-five archives, she provides a careful examination of the work and ideas of the women physical educators who taught, researched, or served as administrators in both public schools and post-secondary institutions. Verbrugge situates women physical educators as agents that deployed various notions of difference in order to “consolidate their monopoly over programs for girls and women as well as protest inequities that both they and their students suffered” (p. 11).
The paradoxical work of women physical educators both contested and embodied inequity. Verbrugge illustrates this cultural work through a rigorous examination of professional literature, departmental documents, and oral histories. As such, this study provides a substantial contribution to our understanding of how various women physical educators negotiated their “precarious professional standing” (p. 46). Rich examples spanning time, region, and institutional setting illustrate how the field that women physical educators and recreation specialists occupied remained “distinctly gendered, hierarchical, and insecure” (p. 13). Case studies of individuals, college programs, and the Washington, D.C. public school system illustrate how physical educators had to “contend with the practical difficulties of public education and the constant din of public opinion” (p. 153).
Verbrugge begins by documenting some of the experiences of fledgling generations of black and white physical educators. Personal documents reveal women’s reactions to the unsympathetic educational institutions through which they found themselves employed. The performance and enforcement of a professional image through the enforcement of “Phy Ed-iquette” remains a salient theme throughout much of the century as the author interrogates how generations of women physical educators long wrestled with heterosexism (p. 46). Verbrugge profiles the careers of Mable Lee and Maryrose Reeves Allen, both employed by coeducational institutions, their long-standing tenures greatly influenced the legacies of physical education at the University of Nebraska and Howard University. Though Lee and Allen each embraced their own unique versions of active womanhood, Verbrugge details the plethora of competing and coexisting athletic philosophies being put to practice by departments, majors clubs, and Women’s Athletic Associations, or WAAs, across the nation. Verbrugge eschews overgeneralizing such trends in exchange for pragmatically [End Page 186] considering shifting demographics in college attendance, new negotiations of sexuality and gender, shifting racial relationships, and the curricular changes that expanded the roll of “student life” before mid century (p. 103). In her final three chapters Verbrugge examines the place of women physical educators, more specifically, gains and losses made after the watershed decisions such as Brown v. the Board of Education (1954) and the enactment of Title IX. Additionally she considers the pedagogical strategies used to preserve their jobs in integrated, coeducational, and increasingly corporatized educational institutions.
Active Bodies continues the complicated work of elucidating the role that women physical educators played in perpetuating ideologies of sexual and racial difference. Within colleges and universities she concludes that women physical educators made recommendations and created “policies that enhanced their authority” (p. 76). Verbrugge contributes a more nuanced explanation as to how white women physical educators rejected extreme medical portrayals of women’s bodies and demarcated their own professional space (p. 76). This theme is revisited in her concluding chapters as she considers the exoneration of moderate exercise for girls and women in the late twentieth century against a series of contemporary reactions and...