April 26, 2017

A Girl Is Embarrassed

April 23, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

Smart American girls have traditionally been taught never to reveal that they might know more than boys do. Girls of Eleanor Roosevelt’s era concealed their education, if they had any, because they had been told that boys didn’t like educated girls, who might inadvertently reveal that they knew more than the boys did.

It’s unsurprising to learn that this restraint occurs among girls who played baseball, too. We have known for a long time that a lot of girls grew up playing baseball with boys in their neighborhood. That includes women of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. Those interviewed for Jim Sargent’s new book, We Were the All-American Girls (McFarland 2013) told Sargent about taking part in baseball with neighborhood boys as a child. One woman, Joyce Hill Westerman, said she played with the boys in her extended family while she was growing up. But, she explained, “when I got up to hit, I used to be embarrassed, because I could hit better than the boys. Being embarrassed, I didn’t want to go up and hit, because you weren’t supposed to be better than the boys.”

This memory reflects a culture of suppression that must have permeated many American homes. I remember hearing it myself, in the twentieth century. How did girls learn that they weren’t supposed to do anything better than the boys could? The adults who taught girls must have instilled the idea in their minds. If their teachers did not, their parents could have.

And why should girls keep their skills or knowledge to themselves and not show their abilities? Because girls were supposed to fit the image of persons whose job in life was not self-realization but to help boys and men in their life passage. Boys were, therefore, more important than girls. And boys should never be shown to be second in anything.

This view was underlined by organized religion of the nineteenth century, which often taught that a woman must be a man’s “helpmeet.” It followed that only men had the ability to lead, create ideas, and shape the world, while women’s responsibility was to assist men; their own creative ideas and abilities were unimportant.

This set of assumptions has surely shaken the self-confidence of many American girls and women. But there is more to this story. The same assumptions have affected boys and men, who were led by these ideas to believe that they are members of the only important sex, that anything girls and women do is insignificant by comparison with masculine abilities and accomplishments. Is there any wonder, then, that when girls and women displayed knowledge or talent, males were displeased?

Not all men accepted this view of the two sexes. And in the twenty-first century many men have gone out of their way tell how much they admire the baseball playing of today’s athletic women and that they believe women will eventually again compete in a professional league, perhaps with men. But in the nineteenth century and the early twentieth, many baseball men reflected a negative set of assumptions about women in baseball.

Joanne Hulbert, a SABR member who collects poems about women and baseball, has found more than a hundred newspaper stories and poems ridiculing women as baseball fans and players, all published early in the twentieth century, and all of them written by men who obviously thought that the idea of a woman playing baseball or even understanding baseball was preposterous.

One poem, published in the Chicago Tribune in 1908, reveals that a man prefers to take to the baseball park a woman who knows nothing about baseball because “she’s pleasanter to stand for than the girl who knows it all.” What male baseball fan would like his date to know as much or more about the game than he does?

Although most of the rhymes in Joanne Hulbert’s collection scorn the idea of women as fan or player, a few do not. One that Joanne found in The Sporting News of 1912 predicts, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that “Some day we’ll read where Pearl or Grace stepped out to take her turn” and that “Lizzie Walsh, the spit-ball kid, had speed and curves to burn.”

But by 1912 that prediction had already been fulfilled, and one male rhymester, published in the Tucson Citizen in 1911, was looking back with nostalgia to watching a Suffragette team beat the “dear old Boston Bloomer Girls,” recalling that “Manager Melinda, of the fighting Suffragettes,” encouraged her team with calls like “Right at ’em, girls!” and “We’ve got to get our eats before the gloaming starts to gloam” (a shout I doubt was ever shouted).

Baseball-playing Suffragettes may not have gone over well with older women fans. In 1915 the Boston Journal published a rhyming story in which a putative Suffragette’s mother, discovering that her daughter had become a pitcher who beat the Boston Bloomer Girls, scolded her: “A woman’s place is always in the grandstand,/She has no business out upon the field.” Whereupon the daughter “flung her glove away” and “went right out and worked for fair for women’s rights and votes” (although she kept practicing on the side). But in the end, the women of her town elected her captain of their baseball team, with pay of “quite some thousand per.”

So men of the early twentieth century were bemused by the idea of women as knowledgeable baseball fans or baseball players, going so far as to write (execrable) poetry about those subjects. Obviously, they felt challenged by the idea that women could ever reach such high levels in their favorite sport.

Remnants of this belief in women’s lack of ability showed up in the familiar pronouncements of Albert B. Spalding and Kenesaw M. Landis, both of whom declared that women simply could not play the National Game. Probably, neither of them had ever seen one of the good female players of their day in action. I wish both could have viewed the playing of Joyce Hill Westerman, a veteran of four teams in the AAGPBL, who as a child was embarrassed to come up to bat because she hit better than the boys.

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