- Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Women’s Sport by Susan K. Cahn
Twenty years after winning the North American Society for Sport History (NASSH) Book Award for 1994, Susan Cahn issued a second edition of her now canonical manuscript. Although much has changed in the last two decades in America and in women’s sport, the power and significance of this book has not. As Rita Liberti eloquently described in her review essay in this journal (“Coming On [and Staying] Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women’s Sport,” 40.2 : 297–307), many sport scholars read this book as students and taught it as instructors. Similarly to Rita, I first read the book in a sport history seminar in 1996, and I too found the book inpirational. Although I have taught and reread the book on many occasions, reading the second edition for this review evoked an unexpected realization that the book was not quite what I originally thought.
Overall, the value of the book remains unchanged. The subtitle has been tweaked (the words “twentieth century” deleted) and a new epilogue with updated endnotes added, but the rest of the book is the same. Cahn’s detailed primary-source research conjoined with interviews with former athletes, coaches, and administrators allow her to trace “how gender and sexuality have been culturally constructed within and through twentieth century U.S. women’s sport” (x). She describes both the organizational history of women’s sport and also highlights the experiences of individual women. Her argument is compelling and well articulated: although sport for women was liberating in many ways, the cultural construction of sport as masculine was profoundly limiting.
One of the key strengths of this book remains its research. Cahn utilizes contemporary magazines, news reports, and medical journals, as well as delving into archival materials, to examine the evolving representation and perception of American female athletes. She begins in the early twentieth century with the rise of professional and recreational sport and the [End Page 226] shifting social roles of American women. As the book moves roughly chronographically through the century, Cahn reveals the tensions between active women and the norms of beauty, femininity, and womanliness. She carefully examines the intersectionalities of race, class, gender, and sexuality for the women she describes. Issues of race and class appear in every chapter, but Cahn particularly foregrounds race in the chapter about black women in track and field. The stories of the women who carried the U.S. track and field team for years are both inspirational and heartbreaking, as Cahn contrasts their athletic success with racial and gender discrimination. Similarly, in the chapter about the All-American Girls Baseball League, Cahn, through interviews, allows the athletes to tell their own stories of victories within a constraining society. This chapter is even more poignant knowing that many of these women are likely deceased. Cahn’s original edition gave them voices; the second edition gives them a kind of immortality.
Cahn’s epilogue describes the “Paradox of Progress” (281) that she sees in the intervening years between the first and second edition of the book. She compares the vast increases in participation in women’s sport with the continued racial and class disparities that Title IX does nothing to address. Further, she notes the ongoing limitations society places on female athletes. Attractive female athletes receive more media attention and dollars than more talented ones; women who fail to fit societal norms about what a woman is have their very gender questioned and sometimes extensively tested. Cahn concludes that, for female athletes to truly succeed, they need to tie “sports advocacy to broader challenges to the status quo” (314).
I began this review by admitting the book was not what I remembered it to be. It is every bit as well researched, every bit as well written, and, in fact, every bit as good as I thought it was when I originally read it more than twenty years ago...