Transcript for Giving Voice: Cheryl Cooky
Marino: Hello and welcome. I’m Michella Marino.
Pfeiffer: And I’m Casey Pfeiffer.
Marino: And this is Giving Voice. For today’s episode we’ll be talking with Cheryl Cooky, a professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at Purdue University. Dr. Cooky teaches courses in the American Studies Program and the Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, on topics of sport, American culture, and feminism. She earned her doctorate degree from the University of Southern California in Sociology and is the co-author of the 2018 book No Slam Dunk: Gender, Sport, and the Unevenness of Social Change.
Pfeiffer: Dr. Cooky has written numerous book chapters, has been published in a wide array of academic journals and is frequently quoted in both national and international news media outlets. She is the past President of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport and a member of the National Policy Advisory Board for the Women’s Sports Foundation. We’re so excited to speak with you today, Dr. Cooky. Thank you so much for joining us. Can you tell us a little bit about how and why you began studying uh gender and sports?
Cooky: Yeah, thank you. That’s a tough question to answer, because how I got into studying gender and sport isn’t really uh a linear narrative that I can tell, which I think will be probably a theme for this conversation today. But long story short, um I was uh undergraduate at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, had aspirations to go to medical school. Um and didn’t quite do as well as you needed to do in some of those courses, uh and realized that maybe that wasn’t the the pathway for me. Uh however, I really found myself interested in studying human movements, I thought maybe physical therapy would be a track for me. Um and over the course of my education, I came to take courses in um various disciplines related to, you know kind of sport, uh motor development, and sports psychology. Anyway, I graduate with a degree, I don’t really have uh sort of conventional career path, but I knew I loved studying. I knew I loved being a student. I knew I loved doing research, I had some opportunities to work as an assistant in some of the lab’s um at uh Illinois. And, thought maybe graduate school, might be a good route for me. And I had never really taken a class on women’s studies. I hadn’t really um thought that much about gender and gender issues, until it was uh a couple of classes that I took in my master’s program at Miami, Ohio that really got me, thinking about sport and its role in our culture and really um for me quite different ways. Um then I had either thought about before or even been socialized to think about and, you know I grew up playing sports. Um I loved being physically active. Uh my parents weren’t really that involved so I didn’t have you know the helicopter parents on the sideline going to all of my games. Um, I also grew up in a time, in uh place where um you know girls participation in sports wasn’t really valued um in the culture and in the community and in my peer group. And so, I received these very subtle messages that you know while I wasn’t necessarily being told I couldn’t play sport. I was certainly getting messages that it really didn’t matter. And so, I found myself, freshman year of high school um dropping out of sport and joining then what was then called the pom pom squad, essentially the dance team. Um, and it became sort of a supporter of men’s sports, rather than an athlete in it of my own right. And so that experience, really kind of informs um the way I think about sports, um the kinds of topics that I seek out. I’ve done some research looking at girls’ experiences in sport to see if, you know to what extent things have changed over time. To look at the ways in which kind of culture uh sends messages about women’s sports and female athleticism. And so, I think you know again, and not a nice, neat narrative, but uh sort of uh this is where I am today, I guess, you know the rest is history as we would say.
Marino: Well, that sort of segues nicely into talking about our most recent Talking Hoosier History episode, which featured the history of the South Bend Blue Sox, which was a women’s professional baseball team in the 1940s and 50s. Um, the Blue Sox were one of four original teams in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and this was obviously several decades before the passage of Title IX. Um can you speak a little on the status of women’s sports generally in the early to mid-20th century? You know, what opportunities were there for girls and women to compete?
Cooky: I that’s uh an important question to ask and I hope to communicate to the listeners that I think there’s a way in which, for those of us who don’t study history, and I’m not a historian by training, uh but certainly I think that the kind of narratives we tell around women’s sports or the stories we tell around women’s sports, are really informed by a kind of um historical lens, such that we tend to see women’s sports in uh kind of linear trajectory and sort of a progressive development of change overtime. In other words, you know I hear this all the time from my students, like oh well you know back in whenever it is were talking about right. At the turn of the 19th or 20th century or during World War II, or you know before Title IX girls and women didn’t play sports, girls and women didn’t have opportunities and they certainly did. Not to the extent which they do today, but I think that when we look at the turn of the 20th century and up and through World War II, certainly girls and women were playing sports. The kinds of opportunities that they had really varied though, with respect to race, social class, the sports itself, and so um, if we look at higher education for example. Women had opportunities to participate in either competitive or non-competitive sports opportunities were happening in that space, certainly I think for women of color, black women in particular, there were different kinds of opportunities to participate in sports. Women were participating in the Olympics, although the events they participated in were certainly shaped by gender and gender ideologies. So, I think when we are looking at…Oh and I should say to, you know social class right. Women of more affluent means were uh able to participate in leisure activities like lawn sports, golf, tennis, so I think that there’s really important distinctions that we need to make when we are talking about women. Uh and scholars use the term intersectionality. Some people may have seen that in uh popular culture and media, but it’s really kind of thinking about the ways in which gender and how gender is shaping our experiences, is also informed by these other social identities and social locations.
Pfeiffer: You talking about um, you know Olympic participation and it being shaped by gender ideology and you know this certain sports that women could participate in. I mean, were there certain ones that were more acceptable for women to play or conversely sports that were highly discouraged at the time?
Cooky: The sports that uh allowed for a kind of performative adherence to conventional femininity right, so when we think about tennis, uh when we think about gymnastics for example those are that we tend to…figure skating, right. Those are sports that we tend to associate more with the kind of ascetic dimensions, which really sort of then plays into our cultural notions of femininity and feminine value being really rooted in appearance right. And that’s particularly so for white affluent women who are able to, you know achieve and uphold right those conventional notions of femininity. Basketball was a sport that was quite popular at the time um, I think that it is one of the first sports that women really kind of gained a foothold in. Certainly, the way that basketball was played at the turn of the 20th century and you know kind of up and through the mid-20th century, is much different than how the game is played today um we hear stories about the different rules that were implemented to take out the contact elements in the sport. So that’s the other part, right. So, one is kind of sports that emphasize the ascetics. The other piece are sports that are perceived to be not contact sports, right and so those are might be more individual sports or even team sports that are played individually. Sports like track and field for example. Um or sports that were popular at the time. This is probably the case today, but certainly scholars have written about the ways in which gridiron American football is highly gendered as masculine, although there are and have been women’s professional football leagues. Certainly, they don’t reach the sort of status or cultural uh level that the National Football League does, right but I think football is one of those sports that have really been resistant to any of the broader changes in our culture with respect to um increasing uh acceptance of female athleticism and women’s sports participation.
Marino: There’s a lot of things I’d like to talk about that you just said in there, but particularly you know you just used that word acceptance and there is this misconception that women you know haven’t been playing sports through much of the you know late 19th and 20th century. And of course, as you note that’s not the case um sports were in fact modified for women or were sort of channeled into appropriate sports for women, um but often time when we’re talking about women’s sports of course you always hear about Title IX and that being sort of this landmark or watershed moment for women’s sports. So, I was wondering if you could just tell us a little bit about what Title IX was and how it alters the landscape for women’s athletics.
Cooky: So, Title IX is federal legislation that was passed in 1972 that essentially says that any educational institution that receives federal funding cannot discriminate on the basis of sex. So, often we associate Title IX with athletics and certainly the legislation had a really visible impact in terms of as you said kind of shifting the landscape for women’s sports and women’s sports participation, but Title IX itself doesn’t specify or isn’t exclusive to athletics and in fact pertains to any um educational opportunity that is apart of uh higher education or part of the high school educational experience right. So, that you can’t um you can’t have a club that would not allow girls or women to be members of that club. I think Title IX over time has expanded um into thinking about the ways in which things like sexual harassment and sexual assault can impact educational experiences, but really Title IX is about expanding opportunities for um for the underrepresented sex and in this case girls and women right. So, what Title IX did within the scope of athletics was to dramatically expand opportunities, such that the year prior to Title IX’s passage 1 out of every 27 girls participated in high school sports. Today, its I think its 1 out of ever 2.5 girls are participating in high school sports. Uh, its certainly had a significant impact in terms of expanding participation opportunities at the collegiate level as well. Title IX also applied to things like uh resources um and the quality of opportunity so its not just about giving girls and women a spot on a team, but its also about ensuring that that team has the resources to…you know access to practice fields, it has a team bus. It has um uh coach, the coach is paid. If it’s a scholarship sport, that the athletes are getting proportional amounts of scholarships and so on. So, I think for me what Title IX did was twofold, one was to expand opportunities right and that was really the intent of the law and then we had this sort of corresponding change that happened along with that when you get girls and women, now having the legal right to access to opportunities that comes with a sort of shift and change in the culture and so on a mass level, what we saw was an increasing acceptance of girls and women in sport and female athleticism. This didn’t happen overnight, it didn’t happen whole sale um its certainly an issue that we’re confronting, even today, but it definitely shifted the landscape so that the idea that girls and women shouldn’t be playing sport was really challenged in very powerful ways.
Pfeiffer: Yeah, I think that that is a great way to phrase it and you know I think we can all agree that obviously there’s been so much forward progress uh, so many gains made in women’s sport um, since Title IX passed in 1972, uh but their still is a lot of discussion, you know particularly through the end of the 20th century around this idea of apologetic or compensatory behavior for women athletes. Can you explain a little bit what that means for women athletes and how they’ve had to navigate social expectations surrounding athletics even in this post Title IX period?
Cooky: Sure, so the female apologetic is a term that was coined I believe by uh uh a historian um in the early 1970s to describe the ways in which, girl and women athletes have to sort of um navigate the gendered expectations of sport, with the gendered, broader gendered expectations of the culture. So, one of the really important things to understand about sport when were talking about gender and sport, um gender and history and sport, is that sport in the United States in terms of its modern development in the 20th century, was really uh uh, served a really important cultural function of socializing, young men and and boys and young men into what scholars call hegemonic masculinity or dominant forms of masculinity. So that during the great social upheavals, at the turn of the 20th century increased urbanization, industrialization, the expansion of education, all of these really fundamental social changes that were happening, were accompanied with a kind of so called crisis of masculinity, right, and so you know sort of long story short, sport is an institutional space by which our culture invests in the sort of maintenance of masculinity that’s kind of built on physicality, dominance, competitiveness, aggression, assertiveness, and so on. We know though that sort of broadly speaking those qualities and characteristics which are essentially human characteristics are highly gendered and gendered as masculine. So you take this institutional and cultural space of sport, which is really sort of steeped in these hegemonic understandings of masculinity and you put girls and women into that space. Right, and so there is this kind of conflicting message between the expectations that are required of girls and women on the playing field and the expectations for girls and women off the field and those expectations are not incongruence, as is the case with male athletes right, there’s actually a conflict. And so, the female apologetic, describes the ways that girls and women navigate those right and so there’s this cultural pressure, whether sort of real or perceived for girls and women to then really emphasize and highlight femininity. Right, so it’s through clothing, it’s through playing style, it’s through appearance and sort of portrayals um the roles that girls and women play on the field and off the field that then, sort of say I might be really tough and competitive and aggressive when I’m on the field, um but I’m gonna wear my hair in a ponytail. I’m gonna have long fingernails, I’m gonna wear uh you know are uniforms are gonna be such that they show that we are women or girls on the field. Were gonna have short skirts, were gonna have tight fitted jerseys, were gonna have short shorts, right to kind of show off our our bodies in ways that appeal to compulsory heterosexuality. And then off the field, I’m going to appear seminude in a photoshoot in a magazine. I’m gonna be, you know make sure I go out with my boyfriend or my husband, I’m gonna highlight in kind of the media things that I do. I’m gonna highlight that I’m a mother that I have children right and the media kind of plays into that. And that’s really, I think, sort of encapsulates the female apologetic. I think what’s important here though for me as a sociologist is to sort of think about agency. And so, its not that you know, that there are these cultural pressures, but certainly individual athletes have agency to either conform to those cultural pressures or resist those cultural pressures. So, I think female athletes particularly in this moment are much more able and willing to assert their own agency and to construct a kind of public image that may in fact actually run counter to what we would associate with conventional femininity or or the female apologetic and the increased visibility of lesbian athletes, I think is a great example of that. The increased visibility of athletes who are um embracing kind of more what we would call androgenous modes of appearance, I think is another way in which female athletes, women athletes are kind of resisting the hyper sexualization in sports. Um, we just saw that with the German gymnastics team, you know sort of resistant to wearing leotards and wearing the unitard instead. And so, I think that’s um, a really important point to acknowledge that those cultural pressures might exist, but athletes themselves have agency to either conform or resist.
Marino: Well, that’s really interesting because I mean I think, in a lot of ways this female apologetic, or this apologetic behavior has been going on even pre-Title IX of course as we saw in our episode with the South Bend Blue Sox, but you know continued at least through my time playing sports in the 90s and 2000s and I think you still do see it somewhat in sport today, but as you note, you know individual players and athletes do have that agency to make that decision and I think in some ways, you know are supported when they resist and pushback against that too. So, I think our final question here is what else needs to be done to sort of level the playing field for female athletes?
Cooky: Oh my gosh, so much work needs to be done (Laughs). That could be a whole other episode in it of itself, but I know we don’t have a whole lot of time. You know I think what’s important that I would want to communicate is, I think that there are ways in which many of the issues and problems and challenges that girls and women face at the beginning of the 20th century are not that different than the issues that girls and women face at the beginning of the 21st century. Certainly, there’s been a tremendous amount of change over that time frame, but there’s ways in which women I think still occupy a second-class status in sport. And so, you know I could talk more about the really important gains that we’ve made and the changes that we’ve seen and we talked a little bit about that with Title IX, but I think certainly the distribution of resources, um weather those are economic resources, whether that is cultural resources in the form of media attention and media coverage that is certainly an area that needs to be addressed. We talked about Title IX earlier and Title IX is important and has expanded opportunities, but when we look at all those resources and the quality of opportunities. What we find is that most institutions in higher education and in high schools as well do not comply with Title IX. In the sense of those resources, so certainly I think um expanding the investment uh economic investment and girls and women’s sports is important and I think the other piece that I’ll say here that I also think needs to be addressed and your podcast is helping to do that right, is to you know increase visibility of girls and women’s sports, within sort of the cultural discourse and within media spaces and so you know having the opportunity to learn about women’s sports um and to do so in consistent ways, I think is gonna go a long way in terms of hopefully seeing some real shifts and changes uh in the culture over the next 100 years. I think the other piece that I also want to say here, you know we needed to think about changing the way we think about gender in our society. Um, and I think that the issue of trans athlete participation um is really going to bring forward a number of really important conversations around the sex segregated nature of sports. Um and I think that’s uh really important space and potential for change uh as well.
Pfeiffer: Excellent, well this has been fantastic I think it’s a great follow up to our um most recent episode of Talking Hoosier History and I feel like what you said in terms of just sharing this information. Women have been participating in sports for well over 100 years and they will continue to participate in finding those opportunities for them too, uh whether it is, you know in terms of access, just making sure that those gains continue to be made, but really appreciate you sharing your insight with us today and really taking the time to talk with us.
Cooky: Thank you so much for having me its been a pleasure.
Marino: Yeah, thank you Cheryl. We appreciate it.
Show Notes for Giving Voice: Cheryl Cooky
Learn more about Dr. Cooky’s work here: https://cla.purdue.edu/directory/profiles/cheryl-cooky.html
See more of Dr. Cooky’s work here: https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=kw2zExYAAAAJ&hl=en
View a Ted Talk about women’s sports here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPS2YoXWMSs