Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Football Girl

From Jesse Lynch Williams, The Girl and the Game, and Other College Stories, 1908.

The "football girl" was a type of audience member in the world of collegiate sports at the beginning of the twentieth century. She was defined by a particular historical context involving both the emergence of the "co-ed" on America's college campuses and the growing prevalence of football as the competitive game of choice between institutions in the late 1890s and early 1900s. (Aside from a comic recording by Miss Rae Cox in 1907 titled "Baseball Girl," depicting the ups and downs of a fan's emotions during a game, there is no significant corollary in America's other pastime).

Similar to the matinee girl, the football girl was a common subject of male journalistic curiosity. That someone of the "fairer sex" (gender stereotypes of women as emotional, overly-sensitive, and nurturing were alive and well in the 1900s) would be interested in watching a competitive match involving "brute" physical force was both titillating and confounding for many male writers. Historical descriptions in magazines and books typically described the football girl as separate from "regular" male fans, giving her both "special" and marginalized status, as Freeman Freebush demonstrated in his National Magazine article on football in 1897:
 “…So much for the player. Now for the people who follow the sport. There is an interesting assortment. There is, of course, first of all, the great body of college students, the men who know the game better than they do their alphabet.  At a very respectable distance from them comes the “old grads,” the men who year after year steal away from their business or their profession and “take in” the big matches as religiously as any youth of twenty. On that great day or days they don their colors, swing into line and cheer as lustily as in the days when the world had no care for them. After the above two types comes the average citizen, the man who attends the big games, not always from any great love of the sport but because he makes it a principle of his life to see all the big shows. Anything grand in the spectacular line and he is there. He is the man, moreover, who cheers for the winning team, the “upper-dog” fellow. In his wake, comes the inevitable “little mucker,” always irrepressible, always much in evidence. How some of these urchin-sports manage to secure the price of admission is indeed a sphinx problem, but without them, their antics and their wise remarks, the event would seem sorely incomplete.
  I reserve a separate paragraph in honor of the last and greatest group of spectators—the girls. The world has man creations but none quite so fetching as the football girl. You think you see the American maiden at her best at dances, promenades and summer resorts, but you don’t. She is tame on these occasions compared to the moment when she makes her triumphant entry on Hampden Park or Manhattan Field, a moving vision of bright eyes, sweet smiles, gay colors and a wealth of flowers. A bevy of such starts a cheer from the grand stand all along the line. Excitement and enthusiasm give luster to their faces, anticipation eagerness to their manner. Perhaps they are a trifle conscious of the striking picture they make before such a multitude, and the influence is as wine. Who knows? I’m sure I don’t.” [Freeman Furbush. “Football As We Find It.” National Magazine, Vol. 7, No. 2, November 1897: 161]
Writers regularly marveled at the possibility that women would want to watch football. Commenting on the Yale-Princeton game on Thanksgiving, 1880, for example, writer Henry Chadwick took special pains to note the stamina of the football girls in the audience, who stayed to the end of the game--through a snowstorm--just like the male spectators: 
“…The crowd present to see the match was thoroughly a representative American assemblage. Intelligent in its judgment and in its appreciation of the best points of the contest, full of vim and excitement, and bent on seeing fair play. While partisan feeling was displayed, it was too evenly distributed to exhibit any one-sided prejudices. Both sides were encouraged, and both had a fair filed provided for them. Moreover, there was American pluck shown in the staying powers of the assemblage in facing a heavy snowstorm to see the battle out to its close. In this the ladies present—and plenty of bright eyes gleamed on the manly players in the field from the grand stand—displayed as much spirit as the men. They stood it out to the last, like true American girls, who know no flinching when called upon to countenance their favorites of the opposite sex. Fortunately, the list of wounded in the battle was unusually small, despite the rough mauling and tackling they were in turns subjected to.”
[Henry Chadwick, “Foot-Ball: The College Championship” Brentano’s Monthly, Vol. IV, No. 3,  December 1880: 243-44.]
Conversely, writers rationalized women's presence at such a raucous sporting event by rendering them objects of beauty. As writer Jesse Lynch Williams suggested:
“…A good deal has been said about the American out-of-door girl. She is seen at about her best, I think, at a college football game. Of all the women of all the outdoor crowds in the world, so far as I have had the opportunity of looking them over, these animated faces are the loveliest. Two old bachelors, who are not very ancient, and who always go to games together, have an interesting scheme for deciding which shall pay for the dinner which concludes their day’s fun; they bet on which color will be sported by the greater number of pretty girls. So, as the crowd passes by, they solemnly check off each two girls in turn, according to her colors and her comeliness. That evening they toast all of them.” [Jesse Lynch Williams, “The Day of the Game,” Outing Magazine, 1907: 145]

Image from “The Day of the Game,” Outing Magazine, 1907. Note that the caption suggests that the women are not fans, attending a game for their own pleasure, but rather  the "sisters, cousins, and aunts" of the players. 

An anonymous poem in Judge's Library: A Magazine of Fun focused on the football girl not as a diversion for male audience members but more specifically as a muse for the "strenuous lusty play" of the men on the field: 

The strife is fierce on the gridironed field,
Where the lines of battle sway,
And strength and spirit alike are steeled 
For strenuous, lusty play.
The banner of fame streams forth as prize,
Its beckoning folds unfurl;
But mightier far is the flag that flies
In the hand of the football girl.

And many a stripling chants full oft 
the words of his college cheer,
And many a rival flaunts aloft
His colors of meaning dear.
But, straining phalanx or quivering rows,
Ah, where is the blind, dull churl
Whose heart swells not at the hue that glows
On the cheek of the football girl?

Renown will come to a favored 
The emulous crowd among
Their praise be spread by a generous crew,
In deafening chorus sung.
But, oh, most fortunate he of all
Who, after the furious swirl,
May hear his name as a token fall
From the lips of the football girl.
[Judge’s Library: A Magazine of Fun, No. 173, August 1903: n.p.]

This kind of evidence provides accumulates gender stereotypes and romantic fantasies rather than useful knowledge about women's football culture; we only know about the "football girl" through male eyes. It's clear that women were attending college football games in considerable numbers at the turn of the century and that their participation appeared segregated--both in the stands and in accounts of the games. But I'm still searching for evidence that might help us to learn more about the actual motivations and experiences of these female fans. How did they understand their own participation at games? How did they talk to one another about the play on the field? To what extent were they aware of male assumptions about their participation? Did they care? How did they negotiate those perceptions?

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