News & Politics

Girl Power?


It’s the first really good Saturday in April but the fifth weekend that the girls of East Harlem Little League are assembling at a field on 112th Street to practice their softball fundamentals. Though the ground is still a little spongy from the spring rain, the sun is bright and warm, and the 11 girls at today’s practice, aged six to 10, are squealing happily as they run and stretch their pre-pubescent bodies. “It’s just fun,” says Iris Garcia, age eight, explaining why softball appeals to her. “It’s better than staying home alone, all bored watching TV.”

On the other side of a chain-link fence, teenage boys are already running baseball drills around a diamond. The girls, meanwhile, stand shoulder to shoulder on their patch of grass, making a semicircular wall of fielders as each takes a turn at bat. More often than not, the ball rolls past them.

But when Eboni Calloway, nine, comes up to the plate, she sends the ball soaring over their heads. Unlike the other girls, whose only vestiary accommodation to the day’s activities has been to sweep their hair out of the way with butterfly barrettes, Calloway sports a blue Derek Jeter jersey and her hair is done up in careful rows of tight braids that won’t come down right after practice. She’s the only kid in the group who owns her own glove— a pint-size Wilson that she picked after hours of scrutiny at Modell’s. Back in the field, she punches her fist against the leather and smiles at the sound of the thwack. “Good tight pocket,” she says.

Calloway’s parents— her mom works for a hospital, her dad for a car service— tell her she’d make a good lawyer, “because I always speak up for my rights.” But she’s already planning to join the WNBA. “This feels like myself, it feels like normal to me,” she says, gesturing at the field. “I’m just born to be an athlete.”

Feisty as one of the little girls giving pointers to the pros in the famed WNBA commercials, Calloway is part of the first generation of nine-year-olds that can dream with such certainty of an athletic future. Without a doubt, she’s a product of the much ballyhooed revolution in women’s sports. Softball is great, she allows between scooping ground balls, but “I just looooove basketball.” She’ll attend a basketball camp this summer and can look forward to junior high and high school team play, then maybe a scholarship to college and even a pro career— all unimaginable only an eye-blink ago.

But in the excitement over the tremendous explosion of opportunities, some early goals of the push for more female access have been swept aside. While there’s no denying the advances made for elite athletes, what about the majority of girls? How much more access is there for kids who don’t harbor hoop dreams but still need the physical and psychological benefits that sports bring to girls, as reams of research have shown? Has sports participation become normalized as part of girls’ culture, making basic skills and the enjoyment of play as much of a birthright for girls as it has long been for boys? Has it widened girls’ range of options for self-expression and gender identity, or has sports been co-opted by an ever more commercialized girls’ culture, providing one more market niche and one more means of pushing conformity with an “ideal” body?

In the early, heady days of Title IX nearly 30 years ago, many pioneering female athletes saw the feminist potential of sports for women, not only in individual terms of building confidence and self-esteem, but in cultural terms as well. Sports was one of few arenas where women could resist traditional imperatives of femininity, according to which they were supposed to be weak, in perpetual need of male assistance, and above all, ornamental. Like a line drive buzzing past an infield, women’s sports, they thought, might break open what they called in those days the capitalist patriarchy. Has that hoary old monster proved gluttonous enough to absorb the rush of girls onto soccer fields and basketball courts? How deep, in sum, has the revolution been?

Calloway’s teammates, who love the unfettered feeling of romping outdoors but lack her passionate identification as an athlete, are not likely to stay in Little League once they sprout breasts. Several studies by sports sociologists show precipitous attrition rates among post-adolescent girls in sports. True, the number of girls involved in some kind of high school athletic activity leaped from one in 27 in 1971 to one in three nowadays, but that still leaves two-thirds of teenage girls sedentary.

Meanwhile, girls who don’t seek out physical activity in special programs might never find it at all; physical education barely exists anymore. Daily PE is mandated for students in only one state (Illinois) and only about 25 percent of high schools offered daily PE in 1995, according to the Surgeon General’s latest statistics. New York City schools fare even worse. Their PE budgets have been decimated, and New York had the lowest rate of sports participation of 15 cities studied last year by the Centers for Disease Control.

The situation is more dire for girls. According to Physical Activity & Sport in the Lives of Girls, a recent massive report by the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, young females are twice as likely to be inactive as young males, even though, the report notes, “physical activity and sport can help girls weather the storms of adolescence.” Indeed, a study by the Women’s Sports Foundation shows that girls who participate in sports are less than half as likely to get pregnant as girls who don’t.

So why do girls bolt away from the goalposts? According to the clinical psychologist Mary Bray Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, pubescent girls enter a “social and developmental Bermuda Triangle,” in which they “lose their assertive, energetic, and ‘tomboyish’ personalities and become more deferential, self-critical, and depressed” as they seek to conform to abiding feminine stereotypes. When Leslie Heywood— a power lifter and author of the sports memoir Pretty Good for a Girl— has taught seventh- and eighth-graders, they have been eager to flex along as she displays her bulging biceps (Heywood bench-presses 230 pounds) while chanting “Girls Rule!” The girls, says Heywood, “interpret their participation in sports as something that really gives them power.”

And in a society that remains profoundly sexist, that may be precisely the problem. As the President’s Council report concludes, it’s the cultural demands of “heterosexualization” and “emphasized femininity” that shove girls onto the sidelines. “Girls may perceive that it is socially unacceptable to be strong, physical and athletically talented,” states the report in language that seems to belong to another era; “this is the very definition of a popular boy.”

Even in today’s rambunctious grrrl culture, being popular with the popular boys remains most girls’ paramount concern. Teen magazines are, as ever, filled with chatty advice on how to capture your crush. And while many reflect the women’s sports explosion by offering the occasional feature on kickboxing or Mia Hamm, their tips on left jabs and soccer passes are surrounded by elaborate coaching on hairstyling, makeup application, and wardrobe selection. Nike may advertise in Seventeen, but with an image of a little girl puckering rouged lips into a hand mirror. The ad copy asks, “When do we start so desperately wanting to be someone else?” but the visual image it means to mock speaks louder because it so resembles every other page of the magazine. Often, what passes for sports pages are peppy instructions on how to achieve a buff butt and trim thighs.

The world of women’s and girls’ sports itself has not gone far enough, experts say, to counteract these cultural imperatives, and sometimes it even reinforces them. Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, at the University of Minnesota, talks about the “ponytail factor”: The reluctance of female athletes to wear their hair short reveals the persistent pressure to “compensate” for their strength as athletes. “The minute you walk off the court,” she explains, “you can literally and figuratively let your hair down and demonstrate for everyone that you are still legitimate as a woman.” Sports manufacturers read the cultural contradictions well, as capital always does: They are marketing special batting helmets for girls that have holes in the back for ponytails. And even as pro women athletes are beginning to win endorsement contracts, they’re more likely to be seen on TV peddling shampoo than the sports equipment and energy bars that male athletes endorse.

At other levels, too, girls are getting mixed messages in their experiences of sports. Penny Rosario, 28, who played softball for Puerto Rico in the 1996 Olympics, now offers clinics and personal coaching to girls throughout Rockland and Westchester counties and other parts of suburban New York. “One of the main things I try to teach them is aggression,” she says, explaining that girls are too often steered away from that all-important athletic hunger. In batting practice, for example, girls are frequently taught to “just make contact,” and that sort of advice, says Rosario, “leads to bad habits, with girls taking half-swings.” She coaches girls to think that they’re “squashing a grapefruit” when they take a swing.

Women’s sports scholars and advocates remain optimistic. “Right now the dinosaurs still rule,” says Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation. “There are pressures in the system that are anachronistic, and it’s going to take another 10 to 20 years before that stuff is weeded out.” Adds the Tucker Center’s Kane: “Women’s sports has not failed as a social movement. It has infiltrated the culture enough to begin to transform it in a liberal way, to demand women’s and girls’ fair share, though that is not yet complete. It has not yet infiltrated the culture more radically to alter fundamentally what it means to be female. But then that’s the slow nature of social movements. Compared to Jim Crow laws and slavery, our culture is a lot better off, but we have hardly achieved a fundamental transformation of racism.”

Some girls, though, can’t wait for the movement to lumber ahead. Kids involved in the teen chat program ONtheLINE are about to launch a Web site called to provoke a national conversation among female high school athletes. There they will post training diaries, get info on college recruiting, exchange opinions and stories. “There just aren’t any sites that focus on girls’ sports,” says Kris Bonpadre, an eighth-grader from Philadelphia who is helping to develop the site. “We need a space where if you want to talk about sports, it can really be about sports and not the other things the girls’ sites concentrate on.”

Bonpadre may be part of another indication that some girls still yearn for— and insist on— a sports culture that doesn’t bend over backward to assert its femininity: She is one of thousands of girls who have taken up ice hockey in the last couple of years. According to USA Hockey, female participation in the sport has increased fourfold since 1991, to some 24,000— about three-quarters of them under age 16. Currently Bonpadre plays for a local recreational center team, but when she enters high school next year, she’ll go out for the boys’ non-checking team. (There’s no girls’ team yet.) “I’ve been playing softball since I was six,” she says, “and you can just stand around a lot. Hockey is nonstop action. It gives you a certain rush when you get out there.”

A Massachusetts high school player, Jodi Nemser-Abrahams, articulates that rush bluntly: “It’s awesome to be tough.” A competitive swimmer since childhood, Nemser-Abrahams learned how to skate only last year when she decided to go out for her high school JV girls’ hockey team in suburban Boston. She has no plans to pursue the sport as an elite scholarship athlete— “I can’t even make high school varsity”— but looks to hockey for a pleasure and power that are hard to find anywhere else. “A lot of girls in my school are so processed,” she says with an audible sneer. “They cultivate a frail look and act like they’re weak. In hockey, though, girls aren’t afraid of their strength.”

Most Popular