Back around the middle of the 20th century, when I played high school basketball, we were not allowed to cross the center line. There were six girls on a team, three forwards and three guards, all rooted in their own half of the court. Guards never took a shot – they couldn’t. They struggled to get the ball from the opposing forwards, then threw it across the line to their own forwards, who got the glory, what there was of it. We were not allowed to dribble – one bounce, that’s all you got – and there was no such thing as a point guard. I went to a small girls’ school with a tradition of (relatively) serious attention to sports: our basketball rivalry with a neighboring school dated all the way back to 1901. But we played by girls’ rules, of course; nobody crossed the center line until 1971, just before Title IX, when all the rules changed.
I’ve often thought that “Crossing the Center Line” would be a fine title for a memoir for someone who came of age in the 1950s and lived through second-wave feminism in the 70s. In adolescence and beyond, we lived by girls’ rules. Like most people in those days, born too soon for the “Question Authority” t-shirt, we pretty much accepted the rules that were handed down. Most of us didn’t ask why girls and boys played basketball or anything else by different rules, and no one bothered to explain it to us. I gathered from the murky atmosphere around the question that it had something to do with bodies. Ours were strangely vulnerable; there was a vague threat that too much running around might damage our female organs, make us unfit for marriage and maternity. What a great metaphor for mid-century female experience: restricted to half the space available on behalf of imagined potential motherhood!
What’s worse, it turned out to be a thoroughly misguided notion. We now know that young women who participate in athletics are less likely than others to smoke, drink, take drugs, or have to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. In later life they are less likely to develop breast cancer or osteoporosis. If you pay attention to the real world, you have to notice that cheerleading is much more dangerous than basketball: between 1982 and 1997 (when girls used the full court), cheerleading produced 34 fatalities and catastrophic injuries in female players; basketball, only two. But gender rules have little to do with physical reality; they’re about power and place, about keeping women from taking up too much space.
Physiological rationales can be entertaining, though, and sometimes perversely enlightening. To begin with Aristotle, as so many have, “we should look upon the female state as being as it were a deformity, though one which occurs in the ordinary course of nature.” Moving forward a couple of millennia, Dudley Sargent MD* wrote in The Ladies Home Journal in 1912 that sports and exercise tended to broaden shoulders and develop muscles, making “women’s figures more masculine.” It was of even more concern to Sargent that the “mental and moral qualities” that accompanied such physical development were also masculine – qualities like “will, concentration, loyalty, grace, courage, strength and endurance.” Not to worry, though – careful regulation of such physical circumstances as distances run (the full court) and of training programs would prevent such unwelcome development. Women, Sargent opined, cannot stand physical or mental stress: hard training and vigorous competition might help them succeed, but such success would come “at a fearful cost to themselves and eventually to their children.” [*Thanks to Helen Wheelock at Women’s Hoops Blog for the excellent timeline, and the link to Dr. Sargent!]
I guess I was right to suspect that our sports and games were governed by rules enforced by threats to our unborn children, threats proclaimed by Aristotle, Sargent, and many, many more. It was not all about sports and games, of course. In the bloody academic infighting of the 1980s, women who were struggling to cross that center line referred among themselves to the “boys’ rules” and “girls’ rules” that seemed to govern promotion and tenure. For those of us of a certain age, the metaphor works pretty well across the board. We grew up with girls’ rules, fought to break out of them, and now observe and frequently rejoice at the consequences.
In recent years I’ve become a devoted follower of the UConn women’s basketball program and of successive versions of their teams. I’m not alone: UConn has legions of gray-haired fans (known to my elder daughter as “fangrans”) who regularly attend their home games and sometimes even follow the team to the site of the Final Four. I’ve been watching the Connecticut women for more than ten years now, and most of the time I’ve watched them win. They’re incredibly good – fast, strong, smart. It’s a joy to see those muscled young bodies move around the court – running, dribbling, jumping, shooting. It’s a special pleasure to watch one of their gifted point guards – think Sue Bird, Moriah Jefferson, or – now – Crystal Dangerfield! – take a pass from one of the six-footers under the basket and run the length of the gym, finishing her journey with a stylish layup.
Interviewed last summer, after her great season as a Little League pitching star, Mo’ne Davis said she wants to become a point guard at UConn. I’m already looking forward to watching her run the ball down the full court, unrestrained by the center line.
Have you crossed the center line? I’d love to hear from you. Comments welcome, below.