American Football and the 1970s Women’s Movement

I am both excited and nervous as I prepare for the 2014 North American Society for Sport History Conference this week in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Excited to see friends and mentors, and looking forward to listening to novel scholarship on the history of sport and physical culture. Nervous as I am presenting on a new topic, one that illustrates important aspects of the lives of the people involved. This project has brought me in contact with many women who have deep connections to the gridiron game. In what follows, I share stories about a few of the women’s journeys into the culture of football, about how they dealt with criticism, how they established themselves as athletes, and how football helped them broaden their horizons in 1970s America. These are their stories, not mine.

What would happen to the history of feminism if we looked beyond the archives of the already known and presumed feminist subject? What if, additionally, we did not privilege the social formations already identified as feminist, but instead sought to understand how those formations worked to consolidate the movement in part by brokering the signs and identities of feminism?

Historian Anne Enke’s provocative passage from her 2007 book Finding the Movement (p. 4) offers a call to look for places of feminism that have gone unexamined for us to truly understand the wide reach of the post-World War II “women’s movement,” what some refer to as the “second-wave” of feminist activism. Describing women who played in the National Women’s Football League (NWFL) in the 1970s offers a place to analyze the intersections between sport and physical culture in the United States and the women’s movement. Women football players challenged gender norms and fought for inclusion in the public sphere, and specifically the public athletic sphere.

The project that I am working on documents the experiences of women who played American football in the 1970s. Women’s involvement in football (a sport usually associated with hyper-masculinity), cuts against gender norms. But in general, while football became the most popular sport in the Unites States in the twentieth century, they have been marginalized throughout the history of the sport. Yet, women football players have stormed the gridiron for over a hundred years in various ways.

So far, I have interviewed twelve women who were on three different teams in the NWFL: the Oklahoma City Dolls, the Columbus Pacesetters, and the Toledo Troopers. I am considering the ways that women’s sport involvement in the 1970s intersected with the broader women’s revolution. Did sporting women demonstrate many of the same ideals as leaders in the movement? How did playing football help shape women’s lives? How did it help them broaden their horizons? And why did so many players (both in the 1970s and today) deny feminism? Answers to some of these questions emerged from conversation with women of the 1970s American gridiron.

Olivia Flores (middle) (1972) (personal collection)

I interviewed Olivia Flores, a member of the offense line for the Toledo Troopers,  who went 68-3 between 1971 and 1979 with seven league championships. Flores grew up in a working-class house that followed a traditional, conservative gender order. Playing football, therefore, offered her a way to remove herself from social expectations.

Still, like many of the other women that I interviewed, and overall like many of the women who were involved in sport throughout the 1970s, she did not associate her football playing with feminist activism or the women’s movement. She said that no one thought “we’re feminist and we’re out here going to prove that women can play football.” But, Flores’ memories about her playing days show the radical nature of her decision to take the field. In reference to why she played football, she stated:

I knew I wanted something more for myself than what my parents could have possibly envisioned. . . . I think if I had followed what my parents had envisioned I would have gotten married at 18 . . . and had kids because that is what you did.

Her playing days made her craft a feminist identify later in her life. Although she didn’t consider herself a feminist in the 1970s, she says that now she does. “I believe that women have the power and the ability and the knowhow to do anything that they want to do,” she says. She attests that her current political beliefs are partly because of her football career.

Other women did embrace feminism while playing football. Julie Sherwood grew up in a working-class family in Ohio. She played neighborhood football with her brothers and later intramural volleyball, basketball, and softball in high school. As a lesbian who was not out to her family, Sherwood often found it difficult to find comfortable places that accepted her. When she attended Ohio State University and discovered the new Women’s Studies Department, she found the Columbus Pacesetters as a place that did not discriminate. For Sherwood, the Pacesetters “was kind of seen as the feminist thing to do . . . It was a way to get attention to do outrageous things, and football was right up there with one of the most outrageous things you could imagine.” She was open about her political stance and saw in football a way to express her thoughts. But even Sherwood had to defend her political position, because as she explained:

As soon as something got labeled feminist, it was diminished. If you were doing [an activity] as a feminist, you weren’t serious about it. . . . Even now, if someone says “I’m feminist” people will [respond] “You aren’t real, you’re just playing at it.”

To admit to feminism, Sherwood concludes, “was to condemn yourself to be trivialized.” Although Sherwood only practiced with the team and then became the long-term trainer, she found in the Pacesetters a novel community that provided new experiences.

One reason for her enthusiasm about the team was that she found in the sport a space where non-normative body types were accepted. Perhaps more importantly, they were valued. As she remembers, “It was the first place that I ever was where your weight wasn’t something to be ashamed of.” She says that in the 1970s, if a woman weighed 175 pounds, she would be discriminated against, but on the football field, “people took you seriously.” She recalls renewing her driver’s license and thinking “I didn’t feel like I had to lie about my weight.”

Laurel Wolf (1979) (personal collection)

Laurel Wolf, a current respiratory therapist in Stow, Ohio, also remembers a childhood of sporting activity. Growing up, Wolf always played backyard sport with other neighborhood kids. She recalls games that consisted of “full-out football.” When she turned twelve, however, her parents banned her from playing football with the boys. Even though she said that she was “not a radical, liberal flag waver” in the 1970s, she used sport and physical culture to find her place in society, something that was exceptional for a woman in the 1970s.

Wolf continued to find in sport places that helped shape her identity. She joined the track team as a distance runner and the basketball team in high school. She ran track at Bowling Green University. Wolf then joined a women’s fast-pitch league and eventually played with the Troopers in 1979 as a wide receiver and defensive back, but only for three games. For the next four decades, Wolf played on local soccer teams and a 1860s Vintage Women’s Baseball team. She still considers sports as important to her identity. She says, “for me, personally, I’ve never been as satisfied, happy or content than when I am playing sports with other women.” As an all-around athlete, Wolf enjoyed the camaraderie of athletic teams and the joy of competition. Specifically, she refers to her football-playing days as a “very short time” in her life, but she says “it played a huge impact” on her, as it helped her construct her social world.

Finally, Jan Hines explained her time as the quarterback of the Oklahoma City Dolls. Hines grew up on a farm in rural Oklahoma. After a childhood of playing football with her three older brothers, she became a four-sport high-school athlete, an exceptional feat as she graduated prior to the passage of Title IX in 1972. She attended the University of Oklahoma and played field hockey and softball, leading the team to the College World Series. But perhaps her greatest athletic achievement came on the football field.

Jan Hines at Quarterback (personal collection)

She calls her decision to play football a “no brainer.” “I basically practiced 14 years before getting to play in my first game,” she says. In four years, she led the Oklahoma team to a 32-3-1 record, winning three league championships.

Hines’ experiences on the gridiron illuminate what many women had to overcome. For example, she recalls that growing up on the farm in rural Oklahoma often included having to engage in “tough” or “strenuous” activities, such that physical labor was a basic part of her daily life. When she decided to play quarterback, however, she remembers that some of her extended family found it “inappropriate.”When women took the gridiron, many reacted in a similar way—evoking residuals of the frailty myth that argued that women could not play physical sport for fears of injury to their reproductive organs and the overall inferiority of the female body.

For many women, football also offered places that did not discriminate based on sexuality. As historian Susan K. Cahn demonstrated in her 1994 book Coming On Strong, sports teams became places where lesbian women could find a home in an otherwise hostile environment during the twentieth century. Indeed, many women described the football teams as a place where lesbian women could create and sustain community in the United States. But heterosexual women also benefited. Hines says she grew up in a conservative, Christian community, and she remembers that the first time she personally knew an openly gay woman was with the Dolls. She remembers:

I have to admit, it was the first time that I—[who] was raised in church and straight myself and . . . [and] had no knowledge of this stuff—found out that a friend of mine was gay. . . . It took me a few days to work through it mentally. And I’m thinking to myself, “I’ve known this person for [a] number of years, and never had an issue. Why should things change that I now have knowledge of something that I didn’t before. Why should that change my relationship?”

Hines saw past differences of the culture from which she had grown up. Her football-playing days effectively changed the ways that she engaged with social politics.

All of the players look back at their football careers as defining moments in their lives. They remember the fields as places where they discovered that there was more to life than following the traditional gender order. This suggests the breadth of the women’s movement. Football also shows how how women’s opportunities flourished in the era that some consider the “second-wave” of feminist activism. The women’s movement did not develop “by master plan”  (Enke, Finding the Movement, 22).  Instead, women who found space in areas previously closed to them forged the movement. The players fought for equality in the culture of sport, and specifically American football, and therefore fought overall for greater equality during the 1970s in the United States.

Women playing football offers questions for historians about memory, about women’s roles in social politics, and about how women engaged with activism in the post-World War II era. What are the tensions between women’s memories about their time on the gridiron, and how modern day scholars envision their role in constructing women’s past experiences (specifically in women’s engagement with the larger women’s movement)? And, what does this suggest about manifestations of gender in the 1970s? As Enke says, scholars need to look for places where women stood up to what previous generations expected of them and to the social mores of the era. Football is a good place to examine this, as women football players did just that.

Andrew D. Linden is a Ph.D. student at the Pennsylvania State University. He is the co-editor of Sport in American History. He can be reached at adl5182@psu.edu and can be followed on Twitter @AndrewDLinden. He maintains his own website at www.andrewdlinden.com.

7 thoughts on “American Football and the 1970s Women’s Movement

  1. This is fantastic, fantastic work. It’s a reminder of why a blog such as this is a Godsend.

    I’m curious: was there any way in which race played a role in the NWFL? As in, did debates about who played what position mirror arguments over, say, Black quarterbacks in the NFL at the same time? I’d assume no, since the simple need for players, as well as the collective exclusion (or near-exclusion, at the least) of women from football, may have prevented such debates from ever starting up.

  2. Thanks so much, Robert.

    This (your first question) is a place I need to do a little more investigating. The twelve women I have interviewed so far break down as identifying as either, white, Mexican American, or they have not identitfed a racial category. Based on appearance only, a large portion of the teams (from pictures, not women I have talked to yet) appear to be black.

    Interestingly, in my interviews, the social category of “woman” in the 1970s was the main way that they identified. They sometimes mentioned a specific class background (typically mentioned that they grew up “working class”). Most of the women who identify as white did not make many comments on racial identity. The few that did, were eager to point out that there was no racial tension between anyone. Of course, this is the experience of those who identified as white in the 1970s, something that I will have to consider as I move forward with the project.

    I would love to be able to interview more women from these teams, such as Linda Jefferson, a black woman who was the star running back of the Toledo Troopers. She appeared on the cover of womenSports and on the Phil Donahue Show while playing football.

    Also (your second question), the media coverage existed, but it was sparse. I have hundreds of articles from papers ranging from university campus and small town papers to some bigger stories in big-city newspapers and some larger circulation magazines. In general, the media continually portrayed women’s football as a novelty.

    They also fell into the trope of emphasizing women’s femininity, and often publishing quotes of women’s “apologetic behavior,” trying to prove that while these women played football they were still “real women.”

    Simply the location of the articles appeared is telling, sometimes in the general interest sections, or the home and health sections instead of the sports pages.

    What is so important about the interviews then, in my opinion, is that the importance and seriousness of football for these women was lost in the media coverage. Of course, I have to consider the tension between nostalgia and memory, but many of the ways that women described their times on the field never appeared in print in the 1970s.

    Let me know if you have any other questions! Thanks for reading!

  3. Andrew, this is an excellent start to a promising project. I was unaware of this league’s existence prior to reading your article and now I’m excited to learn more. I have a few questions:

    1. Following up on Robert’s query regarding the role of race, were any of the women (especially black ones) related to former athletes? How did their fathers respond to their athletic endeavors? I’m particularly interested in whether fathers without sons were more supportive of their daughters’ activities than others. Also, there may be a link between these women and local YWCAs in their childhood communities.

    2. Where were the other teams located? Were there any southern teams? I imagine that it might have been more difficult to gain acceptance in the Deep South. How did these players involve themselves in southern politics during this era? Did any run for office? Organize for/against the ERA? Abortion rights?

    3. Lastly, was there any public outrage over on-field injuries in media coverage? I recall that there was some controversy over female wrestlers “cutting” themselves to add color to their matches in the 1970s and 1980s? Did this influence the league’s decline? Or was it their inability to compete with an expansionist and increasingly popular NFL?

  4. Hi Ramon, thanks so much for your comment!

    For your first question, I will basically have to say thanks for providing me with some new research questions! I had not thought of that angle before.

    Most of the players that I have talked to so far mentioned that either they wanted to be athletes like their brothers, and they found in football a place to be more equal, or they said that they were the only ones in their family to engage with sport.

    As far as parents, in discussion most of the players said that either their parents either supported them or did not support them. They never really mentioned differences between parents. So, as far as how fathers engaged with daughters if they did not have sons, I will have to look into that more.

    Here are the teams of the 1970s NWFL: Los Angeles Dandelions, California Mustangs, Dallas Bluebonnets, Forth Worth Shamrocks, Toledo Troopers, Detroit Demons, Oklahoma CIty Dolls, Philadelphia Queen Bees, Houston Hurricanes, Pasadena Roses, Phoenix Cowgirls, and the Tuscon Wild Kittens. We could do critical analysis with just the team names!

    So, it looks like most teams are in the west, the midwest, or the east. I would have to look at some of the other teams that emerged that did not affiliate with the NWFL to see if there are any in the south.

    The only players that were open about engaging with social politics was Julie Sherwood, who was open about being a feminist at Ohio State. Also, Joey Opfer (not in the post) who was a player for the Toledo Troopers told me that her mother “was somewhat of a feminist.” She remembers going to ERA rallies in Columbus. But when I asked her if this connected to football she said “we weren’t out their marching with the National Organization for Women.” I haven’t really found anyone else, yet, that mentioned how they were a part of what many consider the “mainstream” women’s movement.

    People were always scared of women being injured on the gridiron. But they were usually irrational. The trope of “hurting your reprodcutive organs” underlines most of this discussion.

    I think what led to the decline was just simply that women playing football was just too radical for 1970s conservative America. They couldn’t get serious coverage. They couldn’t get enough people to come to their games. Some of the players mentioned there were issues with insurance contracts that led to a decline.

    Even today, most people are unware of the Independent Women’s Football League and the Women’s Football Alliance. Unfortunately, the Legends Football League (formerly the Lingerie Football League) is what most people know of when asked about women’s football.

    Of course, though, in such discussions, we are using “success” and “failure” to align with the historical commerical model (what some call the male model) of sport, that sport leagues are only successful if they make money, if they succeed in surviving in capitalist America. I think what is so interesting about the NWFL is, while it didn’t succeed financially, when listening to women’s stories, it surely succeeded in helping women broaden their horizons.

    Let me know if you have any other questions!

  5. Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    Andrew Linden at Sport in American History has a fascinating post about the National Women’s Football League in the 1970s. Linden is currently collecting stories from former players in the league for a new project on the “intersections between sport and physical culture….and the women’s movement.” Linden argues that by analyzing women who played football we can better understand “women’s roles in social politics, and about how women engaged with activism in the post-World War II era.” It sounds like an interesting project.

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