Don Imus definitely picked the wrong team to call â€œnappy-headed hos.â€ 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,
The media focus has been on the racism of Imusâ€™ remarks, but the sexism should not be overlooked. All lady hoopsters have trouble being accepted by American society. They just donâ€™t live up to that â€œfeminineâ€ ideal and therefore are often seen as freaks, lesbians, mannishâ€”or prostitutes. Tattooed women, tough women, theyâ€™re just much too much for men like Imus and hisâ€ yukkerâ€ 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 heâ€™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 â€œladiesâ€â€”at least â€œcuteâ€ (white?) like the
Women basketball players have been plagued by accusations of being â€œwrongâ€ 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 â€œunladylike,â€ but also very â€œunfeminineâ€ and even racy. At
In the 1920s, for the most part women were supposed to be concerned with being carefree â€œflappersâ€ or homebodies, but not serious athletes. The dangers were described in an article in â€œHarpersâ€™ Monthlyâ€ in 1929, which described two â€œhystericalâ€ womenâ€™s industrial teams playing in thick smoke before a â€œleeringâ€ 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 womenâ€™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 menâ€™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 â€œfemininity.â€
The Red Heads fielded teams who toured and played throughout the country until the 1980s. They played great basketballâ€”menâ€™s rulesâ€”and often beat menâ€™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 â€œCollierâ€™sâ€ article in 1947 featured photos with women players in short shorts and male players reaching to grab them.. The author said the players wore â€œsassy red slacksâ€ and reminds the readers: â€œItâ€™s basketball-not a strip tease!â€ The tone is sexy and cutesy, apparently making these athletes more acceptable to male readers.
By the 1950s and early 60s, the â€œladyâ€ was back and society again frowned on strong athletes. Attitudes stressing womenâ€™s weakness and femininity reigned. Finally, in the 70s, womenâ€™s rules changed to full court play, Title IX created opportunities, and African-American women were finally accorded recognition. But when the first womenâ€™s pro basketball league, the WBL, began in 1978, promoters wanted the women to play against Playboy Bunnies. And when
Sara Corbett (in her book Venus to the Hoop) has said that women athletes are still â€œfreakish trespassers in a male arena.â€ 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 itâ€˜s still tough for ladies to be athletesâ€”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, itâ€™ll be there in attitudes towards womenâ€™s sports on shows like the â€œImus In The Morningâ€ program.
Linda Ford is a womenâ€™s historian and bookseller; co-owner of Half Moon Books in