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Original Issue

Sporting Chance for Women

Two books offer a historical view of women competing in traditionally male sports

For consciousness-raising, nothing can beat having a front-row seat at a women's college basketball game. Women, one discovers, produce the same board-shaking thud as men do when they crash to the floor. They sweat as profusely as men; they sometimes use profanity and are not above bloodying the face of an opponent with an elbow when provoked.

As recently as the early 1960s, it was widely held that "ladies" could not play basketball by men's rules, that they could not even run the floor. Similar prejudices hampered women's progress in other sports. Only with the passage in 1972 of Title IX, which mandated roughly equal access to college athletic programs for both men and women, were American women finally allowed to fully express their physicality through sport.

The pursuit of this hard-won freedom is documented in two recent books: The Illustrated History of Women's Golf (Taylor, $34.95) by Rhonda Glenn and At the Rim: A Celebration of Women's Collegiate Basketball (Eastman Kodak Co. and Thomasson-Grant, $35), a collection of photographs edited by Rebecca Beall Barns.

Glenn's history of distaff golfers takes the long view—four centuries long, if you count a witty prologue about Mary, Queen of Scots, the first woman to lose her head over golf. Women's Golf is a social history, and the author deftly places her pantheon of golfing greats in context. Victorian women, she writes, "looked nearly comedic swinging a club" because their long skirts and whalebone stays inhibited a free swing. "Most women in their class had never been encouraged to try anything more physical than climbing into a carriage, and that with the aid of a gentleman's arm."

Times changed. By the turn of the century, American women of means were climbing mountains, riding, shooting and driving as well as playing golf and lawn tennis. Margaret Curtis, who with her sister Harriot inspired the Curtis Cup series, was awarded France's Lègion d'Honneur for her work as chief of the Paris bureau of the American Red Cross in World War I.

The Lost Generation? Glenn gives us Jordan Baker, the woman golfer in F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1920s novel The Great Gatsby, "who gave up cocktails when training for a tournament but seemed to spend a great deal of time reclining languidly on divans and making delicious small talk with the glorious Daisy." Baker, Glenn tells us, was based on the beautiful Edith Cummings, the 1923 U.S. Amateur champion.

For the most part, Glenn's history equals and sometimes surpasses the writing of golf historian Herbert Warren Wind, whose influence she graciously acknowledges. An accomplished amateur player herself in the 1960s (and more recently a commentator for ABC), Glenn stumbles occasionally into the first person, but this stylistic shortcoming is redeemed by the high quality of her writing and reporting.

At the Rim, a book of images by 30 women photographers, seeks a more immediate truth in photos taken during the 1990-91 college basketball season. The production values are arresting, with jersey colors and painted floors gleaming through the book's coated stock like wet paint on an Irish door. The photos capture every aspect of the college game: players clamoring for rebounds, coaches jumping off the bench to protest fouls, little sisters being cute, tired players studying in hotel rooms.

If the exclusion of male photographers from the book seems self-indulgent—and it does, since the collection docs not offer a uniquely feminine perspective—we can perhaps excuse the snub by recalling the path of societal indifference and recalcitrance women athletes have had to follow. Taken together, the two books make the case that sport has played a significant role in freeing women from unnecessary constraints. "In this stilling atmosphere," Glenn writes of the Victorian era, "the development of competitive golf for women was a bold stroke. The privileged classes were perhaps blinded to the social ramifications of allowing a woman to choose a weapon, make a mighty swipe at an object, and then chase that object at a brisk pace. Such activities hardly encouraged a female's more submissive nature."

Touring pro Judy Rankin put it more bluntly one day in 1977. "If it weren't for golf," she said, "I'd be waiting at this table instead of sitting at it."