Almost 100 years ago, Virginia Woolf remarked on the food served to men and to women in the elite colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. In the richly endowed men’s college where she was not invited to lunch (but told to keep off the grass), the meal began with sole, “over which the college cook had spread a counterpane of the whitest cream.” It continued through “partridges, many and variable, with all their retinue of sauces and salads,” and on and on until at last the gentlemen scholars were served “a confection which rose all sugar from the waves. To call it pudding and relate it to rice and tapioca would be an insult.” At the women’s college where Woolf ate her dinner, the first course was soup, “a transparent liquid” through which the pattern on the plate would have been visible if there had been a pattern – but the plate, too, was plain. Next was served beef that suggested “the rumps of cattle in a muddy market, and sprouts curled and yellowed at the edge.” Prunes and custard were offered for dessert, followed by dry biscuits and water. After such a meal, no one stayed around to talk: prunes and custard accompanied by water do not, Woolf stated, supply the nourishment for mind and body that promotes relaxed and stimulating conversation. “The human frame being what it is, heart, body, and brain all mixed together… a good dinner is of great importance. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well,” Woolf asserted – or, one might add, run, pass, or shoot a basket.
When I read about the gross disparities in the facilities for men and for women in the bubbles arranged by the NCAA for March Madness in a pandemic, it was not the weight rooms that sent me back to A Room of One’s Own: it was the food! Today we probably wouldn’t and certainly shouldn’t serve course after course of beef, cream, sugar, and wine to anyone. But young athletes of any sex do get hungry, and training tables are supposed to offer healthy choices – the food ought to be at least reasonably good, and varied enough to appeal to different tastes. In the women’s bubble, the dinner skewered by Sedona Prince and her teammates in a hilarious viral TikTok looked like airplane food in economy class, back in the days when airlines served food.
Several years ago I posted here an enthusiastic comment on the positive developments in womens’ basketball since my long-ago days in high school. Back then there were six girls on a team; we couldn’t cross the center line, so guards never took a shot; we could bounce only once – no dribble. The “reasons” behind the restrictions began, as usual, with Aristotle, and were re-invented with the changing times. Girls’ rules were mostly concerned with “protection,” especially of female reproductive potential – or with keeping women in a confined space, depending on your point of view. Women are “safer” when confined: it’s best, for example, if they don’t walk around at night by themselves. The NCAA appears to have been confused by the space issue; actually there was plenty of room for the women to work out, but none of the necessary equipment was supplied. The comments have ranged from bitter to hilarious: Brianna Turner, now a pro but recently a Notre Dame star, tweeted that the women’s weight room looked like the gym in a senior care facility. An NCAA spokeswoman tried to explain that the “bubble environment” made it difficult to organize the weight room, although that obviously was not an issue for the men. Thanks to the athletes, and to their savvy with smart phones and social media, the NCAA was forced to equip the women’s weight room. They added pink lighting along with the weights.
The history of “concern” for the protection of women’s health has always co-existed with a degree of callous disregard, along with well-intended if mistaken prescriptions and proscriptions. In the old days, the habit of depriving women and girls of the opportunity for vigorous exercise did none of us any good. One might, I suppose, grudgingly accept an explanation based on ignorance – after all, in the 1950s we didn’t recognize the importance of exercise to human mental and physical well-being. However, the absence of equipment in 2021 cannot be chalked up to ignorance. And whatever lame “explanation” is offered, there is no excuse at all for the gender difference in the Covid testing supplied by the NCAA. The mens’ teams and their coaches and trainers – the whole entourage – are tested by state-of-the-art PCR tests; the women with cheap, fast antigen tests which sometimes miss positive cases.
The entire story of March Madness 2021 seemed almost funny at first, in a gallows humor, “well, what did we expect?” kind of way – mostly because of the wit and skill with which the young players recorded their frustration. It stopped provoking even a sardonic laugh when it turned out that the nasty inequities of the NCAA include – or did, before they got caught – glaring indifference toward women’s health, and even their lives.
To move from the devastating to the ridiculous, what about those swag bags? Talk about adding insult to injury! Women get puzzles with 150 pieces; men, 500. Do women have tiny little brains as well as tiny little muscles? Maybe that’s what the great minds of the NCAA believe, but it’s much more likely that small puzzles are simply cheaper. The bottom line, as always, is the bottom line – and in the case of women’s sports, the bottom line adds up to a scandalous con game.
I’ll give Virginia Woolf the last word: “the colleges for the sisters of educated men are, compared with their brothers’ colleges, unbelievably and shamefully poor.”