Don Imus definitely picked the wrong team to call “nappy-headed hos.” And now, amazingly, the infamous radio personality is paying for it and losing his gig. It was 1980 when Coach Vivien Stringer, then coach at the African-American school, Cheney State, voiced a strong protest, objecting to the lack of TV coverage that African-American female teams got, along with their being left out of the Hanes Women’s Basketball Tournament. It was only then that African-American women basketball players had begun to be nationally recognized at all, helped along by superstars Luisa Harris, the dominating center of Delta State, and Lynette Woodard, the amazing scorer at Kansas.
The media focus has been on the racism of Imus’ remarks, but the sexism should not be overlooked. All lady hoopsters have trouble being accepted by American society. They just don’t live up to that “feminine” ideal and therefore are often seen as freaks, lesbians, mannish-or prostitutes. Tattooed women, tough women, they’re just much too much for men like Imus and his” yukker” guy pals. For years, the Imus show has been centered in racist and sexist jokes, skits and attitude. Imus seemed totally mystified to be called out for doing what he’s always done. He has been casually arrogant, casually dismissive, confident that he and his friends can insult and dismiss women, certainly black women, with impunity. This hardly puts him outside the mainstream, which makes all the scrambling righteous reactions interesting to watch.
This is a culture which has never been comfortable with its female athletes, insisting that they be (literally) circumscribed “ladies”-at least “cute” (white?) like the Tennessee “Lady Vols.” The Imus show’s coverage of sports displays a lack of seriousness when it comes to women’s sports, and beyond that, serving up the worst the culture has to offer in dealing with women and African-Americans. And this culture-in 2007-deals very badly with women. And badly with minorities. In pop culture, all women apparently have to be “hos.” That is how they seem to be perceived-in rap songs, in music videos, on TV, as lawyers in courtrooms-women are expected to dress and act and be a certain (sexually) female way. There’s been a severe regression away from smart, independent women. There’s silence on adding an ERA amendment to the Constitution; silence on women’s and minorities’ precarious economic status; silence on violence against women. All of the silence makes sense in a repressed, regressive and undemocratic society. As my sister said to me, “If you fire Imus, where do you stop?” Because he is one tiny tip of an iceberg which is absolutely immense.
Women basketball players have been plagued by accusations of being “wrong” females from the beginning. American women who engaged in sports in the 1890s, from cycling and rowing to baseball and basketball, were likely to be considered less than respectable. Not only were competition and aggression “unladylike,” but also very “unfeminine” and even racy. At Smith College, there were strict prohibitions against males watching through windows while females played basketball. And the (official) women’s game was limited to three dribbles and limited movement to prevent women’s developing too much strength and power.
In the 1920s, for the most part women were supposed to be concerned with being carefree “flappers” or homebodies, but not serious athletes. The dangers were described in an article in “Harpers’ Monthly” in 1929, which described two “hysterical” women’s industrial teams playing in thick smoke before a “leering” crowd of men. By the 1930s and 40s attitudes changed through dire necessities of depression and war. Strong, capable women were more culturally acceptable, and this was the context for the great women’s basketball of the industrial leagues and traveling Red Heads. Basketball became very popular with African-American women, who had club and industrial teams, as well as touring teams starting in the 20s, featuring incredible athletes like Isadore Channels and Ora Washington, in strictly segregated play, but often with men’s rules. Some have argued that in some ways it is easier for a black than a white woman to be an athlete. In the black community, a strong and athletic woman is more acceptable. Or maybe black women have had more to worry about than their “femininity.”
The Red Heads fielded teams who toured and played throughout the country until the 1980s. They played great basketball-men’s rules-and often beat men’s teams. Their won-lost record was about 50% for the 1930 and 40s. They scheduled 185 games in six months, through 30 states. But a “Collier’s” article in 1947 featured photos with women players in short shorts and male players reaching to grab them.. The author said the players wore “sassy red slacks” and reminds the readers: “It’s basketball-not a strip tease!” The tone is sexy and cutesy, apparently making these athletes more acceptable to male readers.
By the 1950s and early 60s, the “lady” was back and society again frowned on strong athletes. Attitudes stressing women’s weakness and femininity reigned. Finally, in the 70s, women’s rules changed to full court play, Title IX created opportunities, and African-American women were finally accorded recognition. But when the first women’s pro basketball league, the WBL, began in 1978, promoters wanted the women to play against Playboy Bunnies. And when America’s Olympic women’s basketball dream team of 1984 took the floor they had not only to win, but to smile and to sell. And in the present WNBA they get to play in the summer when the men aren’t using the court.
Sara Corbett (in her book Venus to the Hoop) has said that women athletes are still “freakish trespassers in a male arena.” Americans cannot seem to equate competitiveness and power with femininity. Women are supposed to appear docile. They still have to struggle for autonomy and respect even though they have proved themselves as athletes over and over again. So in 2007 it’s still tough for ladies to be athletes-for strong, sweaty, tattooed, tough women ballplayers to be respected. Sports, which stress speed, strength and agility, are still considered male. As long as there is discrimination in American culture, it’ll be there in attitudes towards women’s sports on shows like the “Imus In The Morning” program.
LINDA FORD is a women’s historian and bookseller; co-owner of Half Moon Books in Madison, NY. She is the author of Lady Hoopsters: A History of Women’s Basketball in America (2000). She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org