Academic journal article Journalism History

The "Ladies" & the "Tramps" the Negotiation of a "Woman's Place" in the National Pastime in Sporting Life

Academic journal article Journalism History

The "Ladies" & the "Tramps" the Negotiation of a "Woman's Place" in the National Pastime in Sporting Life

Article excerpt

This study considers the negotiation of a womans place in the national pastime-and by extension greater American culture-in the pages of Sporting Life (SL) and other media outlets in the 1880s. Microfilm of a census of 348 SL issues from the publications inception in March 1883 to December 1889 was scanned for any references to women, ladies, or females in baseball. Ninety-four articles were identified and examined through an interpretative textual analysis. The manuscript illuminates four modes through which SL addressed womens participation in baseball-pronounced skepticism, selective incorporation, backlash, and silence-and the overarching binary that emerged in the representation of female baseball enthusiasts. The piece also considers how debates over gender were shrouded in discourses about class and religion.

On September 24,1883, Sporting Life editor Francis Richter condemned "female base bailers" as "a positive disgrace."1 Less than a year later, he denounced the "ridiculous customs of old American society," which forbade ladies from being spectators at "manly" sporting events.2 To modern eyes, these editorials may seem at odds. It was acceptable for women to attend professional baseball games but not to compete in them. Within the fissures of his argument, however, one can gain insight into the prevailing gender logic in late nineteenth-century America.

As baseball grew into a powerful sociocultural institution, it became an integral site in the cultural struggle over gender. Battles over the bounds of propriety were waged in the sporting arena and in the sporting press, which by the 1880s included newspaper sports sections and specialty sports magazines.3 These skirmishes over sport and sexuality were a part of a larger cultural war over the prevailing gender logic and its material consequences for individual bodies in social spaces. These clashes took place in physical sites such as boardrooms, bedrooms, and baseball fields and mediated ones such as Richter's Sporting Life {SL).4

Since the interpretative turn of the 1970s, scholars from a variety of disciplines from history to communication have considered the role of sports media in the construction of gender.' For instance, in the 1980s, sports historians such as Roberta Park examined how pieces in periodicals such as the National Police Gazette, Scribner's Magazine, and Cosmopolitan contributed to the socialization of women.6 Other historians have examined how medical and religious discourses published in mainstream media outlets were used as a way to discipline the female body and to restrict women's participation in sport and the greater public sphere.7 Many of these scholars have traced the origins of the discussions over the place of women in organized sport and society and the subsequent backlash, known as the "crisis of masculinity," to the 1890s.8 This study locates the discourse surrounding women in sport and the "crisis of masculinity" to the prior decade and considers the negotiation of a woman's place in the national pastime in SL, alongside other media outlets. In doing so, the piece considers how discussions of gender were shrouded in discourses about class and morality.

Following the cue of cultural historians James Carey and Raymond Williams, this study contends that communication and culture are inextricably intertwined; therefore, one cannot be considered in isolation of the other.9 Mediated texts help readers negotiate reality and constitute meaning-making constructs such as those implicated in the understanding of race, gender, and nationality. These cultural products-in the words of Williams, the material traces of a "whole way of life"-cannot be separated from the sociocultural, economic, and political forces at play in late nineteenth-century America and, in the last instance, are historically determined.10

With that in mind, this article considered the negotiation of gender constructs in SL in the 1880s, a pivotal decade in the establishment of professional baseball as a mostly white/ male domain. …

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