In future years, when the 2010s become a matter of nostalgia and the “What were they thinking?”-related wonder enjoyed by every generation, people will laugh about the neckbeards, and the adult coloring books, and Dubsmash.
When it comes to the increasing fluidity of gender, well, they will probably be over it in a way that, say, the state of North Carolina is not over it right at this moment.
Gender fluidity found one of its first pop culture battlegrounds in sports. In 1960, New York Times sports wag William Barry Furlong went on record wailing about how female shot-putters and the like violated what he called The Image, that is, a traditional female look, body type, and attitude. “Those that frolic athletically in swim suits or brief tennis skirts find it easy to preserve, not to say enhance, that Image,” Furlong mansplained.
Lindsay Parks Pieper dug up that gem for her new book Sex Testing: Gender Policing in Women’s Sports, the new UIP book dropping this week. An epic and overlooked story of female participation in the Olympic Games, Sex Testing examines how the Interational Olympic Committee in particular insisted on a misguided binary notion of gender that privileged Western norms. Testing evolved into a tool to identify and eliminate athletes the IOC deemed too strong, too fast, too successful, or too. . . discomfiting. The system punished gifted women. It also hindered the development of women’s athletics for decades.
The motivations and beliefs behind the IOC’s actions, as well as the actions of the nations participating in the Games, found a variety of expressions, some differing from country to country, but others shockingly similar, even in the case of Cold War adversaries. Pieper writes:
[T]he Soviet Union encouraged women’s participation in sport in order to foster greater worker productivity, ensure military preparedness, and promote new “ideologically correct” forms of physical activity.35 When contrasted against the West, Soviet women in the 1920s and 1930s experienced much greater support for full athletic participation. As historian Kateryna Kobchenko explains, “The concept of sports specifically for women was almost redundant because almost all sports, except for boxing and wrestling, were considered to be suitable for women.” Indeed USSR female athletes demonstrated substantial physical prowess and more muscular physiques than their Western counterparts. Purposefully established as dissimilar from the “bourgeois ladies” of the West, Soviet norms of femininity celebrated “masculine” traits in women.
However, ambivalence trickled into the nation following the war. As a result, Soviet gender affinities started to align more closely with those of the West. When Leonid Brezhnev assumed power from Khrushchev as general secretary in 1964, he initiated several reforms, one of which provided substantial financial support to athletic organizations and fostered the Soviet Union’s dominance in the Olympics. Women’s sport faced contradictory ideologies as the general secretary simultaneously promoted and discouraged female participation. For example, Brezhnev highlighted certain sporting achievements, specifically those earned in gymnastics, while concurrently banning other physical activities.
Most notably, in 1973 the USSR Sports Committee, a state-run sport organization, outlined a resolution that impeded women from competing in events that enticed male voyeurs or harmed female reproductive organs. Notions of femininity thus changed. During the Brezhnev era, zhenstvennost signified a supposed athletic inner beauty possessed by female athletes, comprised of compassion, grace, and motherhood.
Although the Soviet press showcased zhenstvennost as the preferred form of womanhood, this celebration of femininity did not exactly mirror that of the West. In an assessment of Cold War media accounts, scholar Stefan Wiederkehr found numerous similarities between the East and West. For example, all outlets underreported women’s sporting experiences and also implemented linguistic devices that downplayed female achievements. However, one significant difference stemmed from the treatment of “non-feminine” women.
In the Western presses, reporters contrasted “ugly” women of the Eastern bloc against the conventionally feminine, “pretty” women of the West. Journalists from the East ignored all incidences of nontraditionally feminine women. The continued reporting of “ugly” female athletes in the West likely supported the medical commission’s efforts to bolster its femininity testing and doping controls in Moscow.