Academic journal article Law and Contemporary Problems

Challenging Gender in Single-Sex Spaces: Lessons from a Feminist Softball League

Academic journal article Law and Contemporary Problems

Challenging Gender in Single-Sex Spaces: Lessons from a Feminist Softball League

Article excerpt



In the small western Massachusetts city where I live, women's softball has been a summer tradition since the 1970s. The founders of our league, the Mary Vazquez Women's Softball League (MVWSL), started it as an intentionally feminist project, an antidote to male dominance of athletic opportunities and an effort to reclaim the athlete label from the exclusive domain of men. To this day, MVWSL retains both formal and informal rules to promote participation by those of diverse skills and abilities, an inclusion tactic as well as an accommodation to women's historical exclusion from the opportunities to develop athletic skills. The rules ensure that participation--and a result, community--is not threatened by the competitive aspect of the games themselves. For example, there are no league standings and any team who cares to know the score usually keeps track quietly. If a batter feels intimidated by the pitch, she has the prerogative to ask the pitcher to slow it down; pinch runners are liberally allowed to accommodate injuries and other running challenges. One team has a policy that forbids player-coaching from the sidelines and redirects constructive criticism to the post-game social hour. Another team identifies as "dry" so that nondrinkers are not alienated from off-the-field team functions. Every player strives to hit, run, catch, and throw to the best of her ability; but community is the centerpiece of the league, not the standings. (1) MVWSL is that kind of league, and players are proud of its feminist origins and feminist quirks.

A few years ago, the matter of transgender inclusion forced MVWSL to revisit and redefine its commitment to feminism. (2) Like other contemporary women's spaces, the league had stakeholders who were not immediately comfortable opening up the community to women who were not assigned female at birth, nor were they comfortable acknowledging that the community already included some who identify as something other than female. (3) To these stakeholders, it was essential to restrict the league to a narrow definition of female participants in order to preserve it as a site of feminist resistance, safety, and empowerment. To others, the realization that the league did not expressly permit some teammates to freely acknowledge gender identities other than female conflicted with strongly-held beliefs about inclusivity and unity across queer identities. It was possible that adopting a trans-inclusive policy would compel some members to leave the league, but the absence of such a policy threatened the same thing.

In the end, the league worked through this identity crisis and reached a peaceful consensus around inclusion. During this period of evolution, I turned to scholarship for guidance and found that adult recreational sport was near-totally omitted from the broader scope of scholarly literature about transgender inclusion in sport. (4) Appropriately, scholars and advocates have considered the role of transgender athletes in the contexts of Olympic, professional, and collegiate sports. But the issue of transgender inclusion is more likely to affect athletes in the recreational context because a significant number of adult Americans report playing sports for leisure, and many of them choose adult recreational leagues. (5) Moreover, the academic debate over transgender inclusion at the Olympic, professional, and collegiate levels cannot be directly imported to the adult recreational context because recreational sports have a relatively stronger communitarian purpose and there is relatively less at stake in the outcomes of the contests themselves. Thus, this article seeks to start the conversation about transgender inclusion within adult recreational leagues.



Adult recreational sports comprise a diverse category. This article does not purport to examine it comprehensively. Rather, by addressing a narrow example (MVWSL), this article demonstrates that it is possible to customize a policy that defines inclusion in a manner consistent with a league or association's history, goals, and philosophy. …

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