Pioneers in women’s baseball
The long road to sports equality began long ago
Bloomer Girls: Women Baseball Pioneers, by Debra Shattuck.
University of Illinois Press, 2017.
The role of women in sports has traveled a somewhat winding road, occasionally strewn with potholes and detours. The women of my baby-boomer era played few sports in high school or college. In the early 1970s, the passage of Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 began a process that brought women into the full sporting world at the college and high school levels.
The struggle to make women equal participants in sports continues as professional franchises struggle to achieve parity with their male brethren. Professional women soccer players are treated as second class athletes both financially and professionally. Women soccer players receive far lower financial payments than their male counterparts. Ironically, the American women are far more successful on the field but earn less than the U.S. men. During the last World Cup there was significant debate over playing conditions with women being required to play games on artificial turf, a field prohibited for use by their male counterparts.
Last month the USA women’s hockey team stood up to USA Hockey and threatened to boycott the world championships unless they received financial benefits comparable to the male team. Their threat of a boycott was successful and, perhaps most importantly, supported by male athletes in hockey and other sports.
Debra Shattuck’s Bloomer Girls: Women Baseball Pioneers, is a scholarly but readable work that focuses on one important part of the struggle for women to attain their rightful position in sports. Shattuck writes of the decades after the Civil War through the end of the 19th century when baseball became an American pastime. During its infancy baseball began as a gender-neutral sport but it matured as a game for men. How and why this occurred is the subject of Bloomer Girls. That history tells readers far more than how attitudes towards women brought about their exclusion from playing baseball for a century. Seeking to keep women out of baseball was a precursor to keeping women out of many athletic venues. The attitudes and mechanisms that kept women on the sidelines could be found in virtually every athletic endeavor.
Bloomer Girls is not a fan’s book. It is not baseball gossip about players, owners and fans. It is scholarly baseball history. Slightly more than 300 pages, it includes 120 pages of notes, bibliography and appendices. But it makes critically important points that women’s baseball was intentionally ignored by societal attitudes and by the male-dominated media organizations of the 19th century, the newspapers. This was an era when women and sports were viewed as mutually exclusive. Physical activity was considered detrimental to women and beauty was anathema to athletic women. All of these views made exclusion of women from baseball very easy. Author Zane Grey, who began his writing career with baseball stories, not westerns, observed that, “All boys love baseball. If they don’t, they’re not real boys.” When Little League baseball was organized in 1939, the founders simply banned girls from playing. It was easy to do and drew no voices in opposition.
Bloomer Girls is a thoughtful book for true baseball historians and those fans whose appreciation of the game includes its darker history. It is also a valuable source of material for those interested in the future of women’s sports. Looking into the future begins by understanding the past.
Retired Judge Stuart Shiffman is a frequent contributor of book reviews for Illinois Times.