Fox-Genovese: Baseball

Marjorie Murphy Campbell

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese nurtured and contributed to “difference feminism” in her writing, speaking and thought.  In deference to the season, here is an excerpt from her Feminism Without Illusion:  A Critique of Individualism (1st Ed. 1991).

During the twentieth century the importance of the biological differences between men and women have lost most of their power to explain and justify the social, economic, and political differences between men and women.  The modern technological and contraceptive revolutions have radically reduced the significance of biological difference for most aspects of life.  Modern methods of contraception ensure that women no longer need bear more children that they choose, and most women in developed societies like our own choose to bear few.  Modern technology ensures that there are very few occupations that women cannot perform as effectively as men.  In what way, after all, is muscular strength a prerequisite for pushing the button that will unleash nuclear warfare?  Or for flying a jet bomber?  Women have proved fully capable of becoming astronauts.  There is no biological reason that they should not serve at the highest levels of military command or business administration or political power.

Those who wish to argue from physiology to social role are rapidly being forced to argue that although men are indeed better suited than women to serve in the infantry or in heavy labor, they are hardly better suited to sit behind desks, making important decisions and earning mega-salaries.  One of the most tricking aspects of our society lies in the declining relevance of men’s physical strength to the most important business of life, including the exercise of economic and political power.  In an age addicted to weight lifting and body building, we are loathe to talk very much about this simple fact.  We might even fairly be charged with engaging in a vast cultural deception, but the facts are as inescapable as we seem to find them unsettling.  Men do retain the advantage of physical strength over women, but the significance of the advantage has steadily decreased and is now questionable.  Many men have found this change disturbing, especially since it has been accompanied by a significant increase in women’s potential independence and economic power.

The women’s movement and feminism have permitted us to displace the problem of the declining value of men’s physical strength into a discussion of the differences between men and women.  Typically, many people associate the pursuit of women’s rights with the decline of femininity and the increase of female aggression.  Women, it is said, no longer know how to be women, do not want doors or coats held for them, do not want to be women.  Women who display serious concern with their careers or, heaven forbid, seek advancement in them risk angry denunciations as “power bitches.”  The epithet suggests that when woman pursues a goal with determination, she has automatically removed herself from the category of woman, has, in some way, masculinized herself.  We – women as as much as men – remain deeply uncomfortable with the idea that a woman might want to win, much less that she might want to beat a man.  For when a man beats another man, the contest is accepted as one between individuals, whereas win a woman beats a man, the contest is seen as representative of the battle between the sexes.  Even women, who in general have not been reared to understand the pleasures of winning, themselves remain anxious about the prospect – almost fearful that winning will indeed prove that they are not truly women.

It took me longer than I care to admit to understand that women were entitled to win and that winning could be as much fun for women as for men.  And goodness knows I had an object lesson close to home.  For years, the quality of my life depended upon the fate of the San Francisco Giants, who for the last two decades have proved on balance disappointing, notwithstanding the promise of Will Clark, Kevin Mitchell, and, if all goes well, Matt Williams.  After all these years, I still have not been able to decide if the ignominy of marginally .500 ball is better or worse that the anxieties that attend their occasional, but ultimately unsuccessful, heroics.  Years ago I learned that for a baseball fan the virtues of hard work, courage in the face of defeat, discrete displays of excellence – how, in short, you play the game – matter little, if at all.  The point is to win.  And if baseball infects fans with this passion, what must it do the players?

Among its other virtues, which I think are legion, baseball embodies a dramatization of the beauty and daring of physical strength.  I do not say that it could never be a woman’s game, especially since in 1989, for the first time, a woman made a competitive college baseball team.  But . . . I remain doubtful that many women could ever successfully compete against men for spots in the starting lineup in the major leagues.  I do, in other words, think that baseball will predominantly remain a man’s game, not merely in the sense of men as players but also int he sense of dramatization of an important aspect of male identity.

In baseball, male physical strength indisputably matters, as do physical and moral courage.  Those who doubt the “moral courage” would do well to look into the astonishing career of the Giants’ pitcher, Dave Dravecky, whose pitching arm had a cancer cut out of it but who, in defiance of every medical prognosis, returned to the major leagues eight months later.  A devoutly religious Christian, his determination cost him a broken arm and a renewed threat of cancer that has forced his permanent retirement, but the outcome hardly diminishes the valor of his effort.

Roger Kahn, in his wonderful book The Boys of Summer, poignantly details the dimensions of and like between physical and moral courage and their significance for boys and men who are themselves ball players.  He skillfully interweaves a running account of his own fears, as a child, of the fastball his father threw at him with accounts of the players on the spectacular Dodger teams of the early 1950s.  Suddenly the reader can see and feel what it took for Jackie Robinson, the first black player in the majors, to stand day after day at second base awaiting the tear of cleats on his shins.  Day after day, Jackie Robinson took his place at second base, and day after day he held his ground.  When it was over, thanks to Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, baseball was integrated.

Women are unaccustomed to such tests of physical strength and endurance.  Our models of courage are different, although no less important in their way.  We need only think of Rosa Parks, who quietly, simply refused to move from the seat on the bus that was reserved for white folks.  Women, too, can appreciate baseball.  Indeed I unhesitatingly count myself a fan.  But watching baseball, we are not generally watching our own kind, not shaping our own identities.  As fans, our enthusiasm, like that of men, is for a lived contest between spirit and flesh and for a competition women are unlikely to enter directly.  Why should we recoil?  Why should women not appreciate a specifically male version of the human condition?  Why should we not recognize that, notwithstanding all the changes our world has undergone or may undergo, differences persist and can be enjoyed?


Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism is widely available, now in its Third Edition.

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