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  • A Testing Time
  • Catriona M. Parratt

When Jaime Schultz invited me contribute to a new initiative, “The Test of Time,” I was flattered and pretty confident I could produce something worthwhile. The deadline seemed a comfortably hazy ways away and the work—Allen Guttmann’s Women’s Sports: A History (1991)—was one on which I felt I had a solid grasp and clear position, and so I began.1

“It Was Twenty Years Ago”2

If a week is a long time in politics, as former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson is said to have said, then twenty years must count as a very long time in the history of sport history; and if the work produced in that period can be taken as an indication, it certainly [End Page 487] does. By many a measure, be it volume of output, theoretical and interpretative ambition, or diversity of approach, source material and subject matter, there is plenty in the last two decades of sport history to celebrate. The vitality of the literature on women’s sport is especially heartening. Books and articles build apace, covering un- or under-examined topics and employing novel sources. They are conceptually and methodologically sophisticated, they raise intriguing questions, and they tackle issues every bit as pressing now as when second-wave feminists launched the enterprise of the “new women’s history” in the 1960s and 1970s.3 What’s more, while men and men’s activities still occupy the center-stage of historical inquiry, both in the discipline at large and in sport history, there is some satisfaction to be taken from the fact that an increasing proportion of even this work draws productively on the innovations and insights of women’s history.4 Gender, it would seem, and sexuality, and bodies, and how we dress, decorate, move and use them, matters for too long and too easily dismissed as “womyn’s things” are now central to the business of understanding, in a fuller and more complicated sense, the human condition. Maybe, finally, the objective Nancy Struna envisioned for the field in 1984, that of showing what “ultimate difference” women’s sporting experience makes, is beginning to be realized.5

It must be time then to re-visit Allen Guttmann’s 1991 Women’s Sports: A History (hereafter WS) which, as I stated in my Journal of Sport History review of the book, is a landmark study. The first survey of the history of women’s sport in the Western world, it offers the kind of synthesis and temporal range that William Baker’s 1982 Sports in the Western World did for men’s sport.6 In WS Allen serves up the fruits of original research by numerous historians—including important work otherwise inaccessible to those limited to the English language—and his own insights into late twentieth-century women’s sport. Carefully researched, finely written, and larded with wry comments, the book is classic Allen. It is also distinctly of its time, something of a culmination of the compensatory and contribution approaches of the 1960s and 1970s but registering the shift to a more explicitly theoretical gender work that was underway by the 1980s. Part of wide-ranging and often fractious debates about feminism, the nature of history and much else besides—debates that continue to roil in some places—this reorientation has resulted in some of the very best work sport historians have produced, and it has seen some scholars boldly going where Allen has made it clear he is unlikely to ever want to go.7

And then I got stuck. Very stuck, because I realized that while I felt entirely in my scholarly comfort zone when WS was published (I was absorbed at the time in a glory of materials, secondary and primary, on its subject matter), twenty years later that was no longer the case. Not only had there been libraries full of works published in sport history, sport studies, and women’s history, the fields that bore most crucially on the book, there were whole new areas of scholarly investigation that also surely did so: body studies, masculinity studies, queer studies, trans* studies, sexuality studies, performance studies...


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pp. 487-494
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