Episode 23: The History of Sex Verification in Women's Sports
Hosts: Anna Reser, Leila McNeill, and Rebecca Ortenberg
Guest: Amira Rose Davis
Producer: Leila McNeill
Music: Careful! by Zombie Dandies
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This episode is all about sports! The hosts discuss the history of sex verification testing in women’s sports, looking at the examples of Stella Walsh and Caster Semenya. They are joined by Amira Rose Davis, professor of History, African American Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Penn State University and co-host of Burn It All Down, a feminist sports podcast. Davis talks about her research on black girls and women in 20th century sports.
The Life and Murder of Stella Walsh, Intersex Olympic Champion by Rob Tannenbaum
Impossible “Choices”: The Inherent Harms of Regulating Women’s Testosterone in Sport by Katrina Karkazis and Morgan Carpenter
The history and current policies on gender testing in elite athletes by Arne Ljungqvist, et al.
Sex Testing: Gender Policing in women’s Sports by Lindsay Parks Pieper
Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography by Rebecca M. Jordan-Young and Katrina Karkazis
The Humiliating Practice of Sex-Testing Female Athletes by Ruth Padawer
Transcription by Rev.com
Rebecca: Welcome to Episode 23 of the Lady Science Podcast. This podcast is a monthly deep dive on topics centered on women and gender in the history and popular culture of science. With you every month are the editors of Lady Science Magazine.
Anna: I'm Anna Reser, co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Lady Science. I'm a historian, a writer, and an editor, and I study 20th century American culture and the American space program.
Leila: I'm Leila McNeill, the other founder and editor-in-chief of Lady Science.
Rebecca: And I'm Rebecca Ortenberg, Lady Science's managing editor. When I'm not working with the Lady Science team, I can be found writing about museums and public history, around the internet, and managing social media for the Science History Institute in Philadelphia.
Leila: So, before we jump into our episode, I have a couple of housekeeping issues. So, the first one is that this month, we are running a science and desire-themed series on the website, and we've got some neat stuff coming up. You can find all of the essays throughout the month on our website, ladyscience.com/essays. So, next month is going to be Lady Science's fifth birthday, not fifth birthday for the podcast, but fifth birthday of Lady Science as a whatever it is.
Rebecca: Media empire. The word your looking for is media empire.
Leila: So it'll be five years. And so we're going to be running a one time donation fundraiser throughout that month, and we're going to have a lot of extra things coming up for it. I don't want to give too much away because some of this stuff is still in the works being planed and then some of it's just kind of special, that I want to save. So be on the lookout for that. And also I just want to give some general reminders about rating and reviewing us and subscribing to us where we get your podcasts. The ratings and reviews on Apple Podcast really help us out. It helps us reach new listeners. So, stop what you're doing unless you're driving and not recommended while driving. Take just a few minutes to please review us.
Leila: Okay. So enough of that, um, we're going to get into this episode today. We're going to be talking about sports. So back in July, the Swiss Federal Supreme Court ruled that the International Association of Athletic Federations had the right to bar Olympic medal winning track star Caster Semenya from certain track events. Semenya had been in the news for about a decade now, and since she was first subjected to medical examinations by the sports governing body, after her gender identity was questioned. It was discovered that Semenya has an intersex condition that causes her to produce higher than average testosterone and ever since she has been fighting with the IAAF for the right to compete in women's track events.
Rebecca: All of us have been tracking Semenya story for a while and this recent decision got us thinking about the history of policing women's bodies in sports and in particular how that seems to be affecting and how intersex women and how intersex women's bodies are being policed in sports. We were wondering why these international sports organizations are so obsessed with strictly defining gender and why does it seem like it's an issue mostly for the Olympics and track and field events in particular, and also have male athletes ever undergone this kind of sex verification testing to ensure that they are really male? Just as spoiler, no.
Anna: I was going to say the same thing.
Anna: Yeah. So a little later we will be talking to Dr. Amira Davis who is a professor of history, African American Studies, Women Gender and Sexuality Studies, all of those things at Penn State.
Leila: All the lady things.
Rebecca: All of them. All of the cool stuff we like.
Anna: She does a lot of cool stuff.
Leila: Yeah. She does.
Anna: ...at Penn State and we're going to talk to her about how black women in sports have had their gender is policed. But first we want to talk, in this episode about the history of sex verification testing in sports and how this history kind of led into the Semenya decision.
Leila: In 1936, Germany hosted the summer Olympics in Berlin. This was one of the most notorious games in Olympic history. I think we can all figure out why: the Nazis were in power in Germany and many countries debated boycotting the Olympics, and none of them ended up doing it. But along with bigger controversies about the participation of black and Jewish athletes and questions about whether attending the Olympics gave credence to the Nazi regime, the 1936 summer Olympics saw the first significant debate over the sex of an Olympic athlete, and that arose from a sports rivalry between two sprinters, Helen Stephens and Stella Walsh.
Rebecca: Just to back up for a second, in history though the... at the first modern Olympic games in 1896, women were not allowed to participate. In fact, the founder of the modern games called them a "solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism with female applause as its reward"
Leila: Jesus Christ.
Rebecca: Just, it's, yeah. Yeah. But despite his objections, women did compete in 1900, in a limited number of events, but in the ensuing years of the number of women's events grew, and in 1928, women began competing in track and field events like the 100 meter race and the 800 meter race, the high jump, and the discus throw.
Rebecca: It won't surprise any of you to hear that a lot of people, not just the founder of the Olympics, hated the idea of women competing.
Leila: Really, weird?
Rebecca: I know. Shocking. This is still the era when many medical experts claimed that vigorous exercise was bad for women's reproductive organs and which I think we've talked about on podcasts before-
Leila: Episode eight.
Anna: Your uterus will fall out.
Rebecca: Yes, exactly.
Leila: It will explode or fallout. There's just so many things that can go wrong.
Rebecca: So many things. So you just got to stay still and hope for the best. On top of that, there's just like the general cultural idea that people thought that women who participated in sports were mannish and unladylike and generally a danger to society for not conforming to appropriate gender roles. So suspicion of women competing at the Olympics is really baked in from the beginning, because of when it started. These were... women were coming to the Olympics and performing amazing athletic feats and representing their country.
Rebecca: It's this really like weird hyper masculine space. Remember the Olympics were founded on ideas of idealized Greek and Roman athletes. So there's all this weird like masculine nationalist stuff attached to the Olympics. So I feel like that is part of what makes people extra uncomfortable with women participating in them.
Anna: Well, so that brings us to Stella Walsh and Helen Stephens. Walsh actually grew up in the United States, but she competed with the Polish national team at the 1932 Olympic games where she won the gold medal in the a 100 meter dash, and she returned to Poland a national hero and went on to win nine gold medals at the championship of Warsaw. But because we can't have nice things, people on the press started expressing skepticism about Walsh's abilities.
Anna: While she was never formally accused of being a man, news outlets and sports commentators were quick to point out that she had masculine features and that she was just too talented to be a woman. So at the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics, the very, very fraught 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics, Walsh competed in the a 100 meter dash and she came in second place, the gold medal winner was an 18 year old American named Helen Stephens. Not only did Stevens narrowly beat Walsh, she also set a new world record at those games.
Leila: So what happened next has fundamentally changed the way women athletes are policed and categorized in the Olympics. Walsh and Stevens had competed against each other previously and they already had a decent rivalry going on, and after Stevens beat Walsh in Berlin, a Polish newspaper accused Stevens of being a man, insisting that Walsh would have won if she had competed only against women. Further press coverage accused Walsh herself of starting the rumors. While there is no proof that she did, so, she certainly didn't discourage them.
Leila: These accusations were severe enough that Stevens was forced to submit to a physical examination to "prove that she was a woman." She, "passed" but that decision, had repercussions that continue to affect international sports for women today. The story has a fascinating coda to it. Decades later after Walsh died, her autopsy revealed that she had ambiguous genitalia and therefore that she quite likely had some kind of intersex condition. When the athletic Congress tried to strip her of her Olympic medals posthumously, Stevens was the one... who was one of the few people who came to her defense.
Rebecca: But back to 1936, following all of this controversy, Avery Brundage the US Olympic Committee precedent, who was a real piece of work from everything that I read about him, requested that a system be established to examine female athletes to ensure that they were in fact female. In the early 1940s, the International Olympic Committee or the IOC began requiring that countries certify that all women athletes had been examined by doctors and were "biologically female." By the 1960s, the IOC had taken over those examinations themselves, and that was because of the Cold War. The Soviet Union started competing in the Olympics and basically no one trusted those damn Commies to follow the rules.
Rebecca: Which, you know, I feel like some things haven't changed?
Leila: Firs it's the Nazis and then it's the Commies.
Rebecca: Yep. Yep.
Leila: Around the same time, the International Association of Athletic Federations, which is the track and field sports organization that feeds into the Olympics, also began requiring similar examinations of all women who wanted to compete.
Anna: So at first these examinations were literal physical examinations of a woman's genitalia by doctors that were chosen by the IOC and the IAAF... Oh God. If women refused, they were not allowed to compete. In 1968, the IOC instituted a chromosome test, which theoretically was less humiliating and, of course, more "scientific" but even at the time, a number of geneticists objected to instituting these tests, noting that chromosomes are actually terrible indicator of biological sex. I remember learning in high school biology that your chromosomes determine your sex. I'm sure that's what most of us learn. But the truth is that even 50 years ago, scientists didn't think that chromosomes were actually all that good of an indicator of sex.
Anna: In fact, many medical researchers weren't sure if there could even be a strict definition of biological sex. So while the majority of people with XX chromosomes possess other traits that are associated with being female and their versus to the majority of people with XY chromosomes have traits that are associated with being male. That's just not universally true. In fact, it's entirely possible for someone to have XY chromosomes, but otherwise appear and identify as a woman or for someone to have XX chromosomes and appear or identify as a man. So it's kind of like a shitty test if you're trying to determine "biological sex." So good job IOC.
Leila: Despite these significant problems and what I could assume would be very loud objections from not just the medical community but the women athletes themselves. Beginning in the late 1968 Grenoble Games, the IOC officially began requiring all female athletes to have a chromosome test done before competing. They continued the practice until 1966 Atlanta Olympic Games.
Leila: The IAAF required chromosome testing until 1992. Why then did Semenya come under fire almost a decade later? Well when the IFC and the IAAF stopped chromosome testing every female participant, they left themselves a big loophole basically saying that they could test any athletes that they thought appeared suspiciously masculine.
Rebecca: There's something so weird about this. Where on the one hand, you're like, "Oh, okay, good. They stopped making everyone do it." But then they're just like, "But we can also do it whenever we feel like it for like random reasons."
Anna: Sure. I'm sure there's absolutely no kinds of biases or racism involved in how people are determining who looks too masculine. I'm sure that's not happening.
Rebecca: No, not at all.
Leila: So since then, the IAAF in particular has continued to expand a lot of energy "catching" women who are intersex.
Anna: Oh my God.
Leila: But they are no longer focused on women who have XY chromosomes. Instead, they have turned their focus on women like Semenya, who have higher than normal levels of testosterone.
Rebecca: So in 2018, the IAAF released a new policy regarding, intersex female athletes. Interestingly, the policy only applies to a handful of track and field events, which are deemed to be most effected by testosterone levels. Though again, like the reasoning behind that has also been questioned by medical experts. But it basically states that if a woman's testosterone level is over a certain threshold, then she must medically lower her testosterone level below that threshold if she wants to compete. But that's not all. The IAAF does generously provide women two other options. They can choose to compete in male events or they can compete in a special category just for intersex women, which doesn't currently exist.
Rebecca: This is like, this part kind of blows my mind because there's this thing where it's like, well, if there was ever an intersex category, they could do that even though there is no such thing and that would also be absurd. To make this even more weird, the IAAF insists that this is not a gender test. In their statement about the policy, they say, "The regulations exist solely to ensure fair and meaningful competition within the female classification for the benefit of the broad class a female athletes in no way are they intended as any kind of judgment or on questioning the sex or gender identity of any athlete.
Anna: I'm just... how do people determine then which athletes are presenting a suspiciously masculine if it's not about gender, gender presentation and-
Rebecca: Yup, yup, yup.
Leila: Well, and also strange because in general women who play sports aren't going to look like women who don't play sports. So what is the, I guess the normal a femininity for women who play sports? You know what I mean? Like this is completely arbitrary measures of femininity. And they just keep moving the fucking goalposts.
Rebecca: Right? Yeah. Yeah. And like there's also like language in the IAAF statement about how we will not accept people being policed based on race or sexuality or gender presentation. This is really just about the science.
Anna: Oh, God.
Rebecca: But yeah. Again, it's... but how do you get there, and when you look at some of these cases, obviously it hasn't been a lot since 2018 but before 2018, along with Caster Semenya ,the cases of women getting flagged for this, you see language about, "Oh, they're not really a woman." Or clearly the human beings on the ground who are doing this are thinking about this as a gender test. Even if in language they pretend it's not. There's certainly the idea that also that, "well, you can just compete in the male event," certainly gives a gender cast to the whole thing. But we will... we'll be sure to link to the entire statement regarding the policy in the show notes so you can all enjoy. It's like absurd back flipping. No, we're not sexist weirdness.
Anna: I almost think that if sports continue to push this, they're going to end up self-owning really hard when they keep investigating various like bodily substances that actually don't have anything to do with like whether you're a man or a woman, like they're just doing all the work for us, going through all of this like junk science for us. Like thanks, I guess.
Leila: I think like... I can't get over just how humiliating so much of this is. Like first that they examined this woman's body after she died and looked at her genitalia to say what she is and what she is not. Then subjecting female athletes to these genital examinations and then all this stuff that's been said about Caster, that is so incredibly humiliating. Women's subjected to this examination of their genitals, is just, it's abhorrent and it's just incredibly humiliating.
Anna: Yeah. And not to mention like they're trying to make Caster perform these hormone replacements and medical procedures to change her body.
Rebecca: Like yeah- It's like the whole, like you, it's okay, we have a solution for you. Just do have a medical procedure or take medication that is in no way medically necessary, do that thing, and then it'll be fine. Right?
Leila: Well, and it's like targets, high-performing women because they are so good. Then,, of course with Caster it adds on an issue of race that you have a black woman beating a bunch of white women in track and field in these events. And so this is just another way, not to just police women's bodies, but to police a black woman's body as well.
Anna: And white women track athletes have not been shy about saying exactly what they think this is all about. There have been a lot of stories this summer about white women athletes getting beat by black athletes. Then just like getting up on the podium and saying like, they shouldn't be competing against us because they're like they're too strong and too masculine and too black, and it's not fair, which is just like, and they're just like saying it to the press very openly.
Rebecca: One thing I think is fascinating in all of this, fascinating in the terrible way, is like you were saying Leila about like, you're already starting from a place of like women athletes are not going to look like most women because they're athletes. I feel like that also brings up the fact that all like elite professional and semi-professional athletes don't... like their bodies are like weird monster alien bodies and in like various ways. People talk about the fact that like Michael Phelps has an absurd arm span and giant feet and that's part of why he wins swim meet after swim meet.
Leila: Well, and there's been a thing with Michael Phelps comparing his case to Caster because doesn't his body produces more lactic acid?
Rebecca: Yes, yes. That's it.
Leila: ...than like, "normal body or average swimmer" or whatever. But no one's has investigated and submitted him to or subjected him to any sort of humiliating examinations or ordered him to do something that would make him lactate...? That's not it...
Rebecca: Lower the lactic acid-
Leila: Yeah. There you go.
Rebecca: ... production. That's still sounds weird. I don't know. But yeah.
Leila: You know what I mean. It's definitely not an equal playing field at all.
Anna: Right. And no one is saying, is Michael Phelps part of fish? We must investigate.
Rebecca: Right, right. And I-
Anna: I mean, I am, because I frankly I have questions. Have you seen that guy's shoulders?
Rebecca: Yup. Yup. And not only but when these stories come up, it's kind of like, "Oh, isn't science cool? Aren't bodies weird?" It's this kind of like fun pop science. This makes him kind of interesting. And not like, "Oh, he's cheating."
Anna: Right? But if you're Venus or Serena Williams, you're like some kind of freak of nature and your performance in your sport is so abnormal that it's not fair or something.
Rebecca: Right. Right. Exactly.
Leila: Yeah. And this brings me back to the point that what you said earlier, have men had to do any sort of gender sex testing? No. No. They haven't because if they had to undergo examinations of their balls and their penises, then I guarantee that test would have lasted maybe five hours.
Anna: It's also, it also reveals that like the underlying assumption of the test at all is that we associate any kind of high athletic performance with men and that women who exceed what we expect, they're like are abnormal and therefore we had to make sure that they are not themselves.
Leila: Yeah. No one's testing low performing male athletes to see if they're actually women.
Rebecca: Yup. Yup.
Leila: Exactly. Well, so to just kind of like wrap up on these tests, we kind of mentioned earlier that on the surface it seems like things have improved because there is no universal mandatory test for everybody. So maybe it could seem like an improvement, but it also means that who gets tested is incredibly subjective. If you want to read some about this, this problem was laid out really thoughtfully in a 2018 article called Impossible Choices, the Inherent Harm of Regulating Women's Testosterone in Sports. Katrina Karkazis and Morgan Carpenter, the paper's authors, observe that this kind of regulation encourages and actually even requires the policing of women's bodies. Any woman who isn't feminine enough in appearance or behavior runs the risk of being targeted. So that's a little extra reading on this if you're interested.
Rebecca: And in in the show notes, we'll include some more interesting articles about this, more about Stella Walsh's and Helen Stevens's story, which is fascinating, and some more news about some of these more recent incidences of along with Caster Semenya's of sort of women getting flagged for being too masculine in especially track and field.
Leila: All right, well, let's move on to the interview.
Rebecca: So now we are excited to welcome Dr. Amira Rose Davis to the podcast. As we mentioned earlier, Dr. Davis is a professor of History, African American Studies, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Penn State University, and she is also one of the co-hosts of the Burn It All Down Podcast, a feminist sports podcast.
Rebecca: Amira, thanks so much for joining us today.
A. Rose: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.
Rebecca: Just to get us started, can you just share a little bit of background on kind of what the focus in particular of your research is?
A. Rose: Sure. So my research focus really centers on black girls and women. Historically, so I look at the 20th century, really early in the 20th century, 1900s all the way up to the 21st century. So, I studied multiple different kinds of sports, different athletic contexts from armature games to professional sports to Olympians, to girls who play sports through the YWCA's. Generally, that is like my narrow focus, but if you zoom out a little bit, it's all kind of hitting the intersection of race, gender, sports, and politics.
Leila: So in general, how was the participation of black girls and women in sports seen in the middle of the 20th century?
A. Rose: Yeah, so it's interesting. You had conflicting views. There wasn't kind of a monolith, there wasn't kind of a unanimous decision, but you did have a little bit more progressiveness or openness about the participation of black girls and women in the mid 20th century. So on one hand you had arguments about them playing sports, that make mainstream arguments, fears that being too athletic or competitive would somehow hinder a girl's ability to reproduce later, that it was somehow on the feminine, antithetical to being a woman. But then on the other hand, you had sports being kind of identified as a key facet of life for racial uplift, and this included women's sports and girl sports. So the ability to harness athletics to prove fit citizenship or to prove that African Americans were equal, were not inferior in any other ways, dates back very far.
A. Rose: It was a tradition that black girls and women also were a part of. So at the same time as you have somebody like Jack Johnson in the boxing ring proving kind of or disapproving, I should say race science by not only competing but winning against white boxers. You have the same kind of celebration being harnessed for black women in particular when they were in international or national competitions vs white women, you could still have the same narrative that black sports writers really kind of took and ran with, about how they were ambassadors of the race.
A. Rose: They were showcasing the possibilities of the race and that opened up avenues for participation in schools in city-based organizations like the YW or the Police Athletic League. It opened up a more permissibility and opportunity there. And so by the time you get to the mid century, one of the only places you can get athletic scholarship as a girl was at a black college, mostly located in the South. So it wasn't just a kind of idea about that it was okay but it was met with resources and support as well.
Leila: Were there specific kinds of sports that were maybe seen as more appropriate or more accessible or was it kind of just like an open field? No pun intended. Good Lord.
A. Rose: Yeah. Yes. Although I appreciate your puns and yeah, certainly there were... certain sports had different connotations and these won't really surprise you because I think they've really endured. So sports that were seen as clubhouse sports, had a kind of class politics attached to it that was aspirational. So golf, tennis especially swimming to a lesser extent, golf and tennis, really were I think that the crowning sports, and you saw a lot of class battles within that in Baltimore for instance, middle-class aspiring class black people petitioned Baltimore to get their own time on the tennis courts. And they said, part of the argument was, if you give us these passes to be on the tennis court at this time and desegregate the court in this way, we'll keep the "less desired" element of our race off the courts at a later time.
A. Rose: And so those sports would definitely see not only as kind of upper class, but they were seen as inherently more feminine. You were wearing tennis whites, and at that time, it was a skirt that went all the way down basically to the court. Look at some of the pictures. It's like how do you even move in that thing? Then sports like track and field, basketball were seen as a little less feminine, but there was still space for you to compete within those spaces. You just had to go out of your way to continue to perform femininity, I think, over and beyond what you needed to if you were doing something dainty or like tennis.
Anna: I wanted to ask about a specific sport because if any opportunity you have to talk about baseball. You wrote a really great piece, a really awesome article, about the women who joined the Negro Leagues in the 1950s, Toni Stone, Connie Morgan, and Mamie Johnson. Can you just maybe tell us a little bit about how and why these women were able to join these previously all male teams and just kind of a little bit about that context?
A. Rose: Yeah, sure. Women, these three women in particular, had a love for baseball, were playing in the game. If you think about women in baseball, you might immediately go to think about a League of Their Own. That's actually an okay place to start with them because people like Mamie actually tried out for the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, and it was a segregated league. That's not to say there wasn't a color line. There was a Cuban woman for instance, who played in the AGB... Can't do acronyms. The professional girls baseball league...there are Cuban women who played, but by all other purposes, it was very much segregated, and the color line was drawn around not letting black women into the league. But that didn't mean that black people didn't play baseball. In fact, one of the earliest professional teams, male or female, that we have at the end of the 1800s was a team called the Dolly Vardens, a black woman's team located just outside of Philadelphia in Chester.
A. Rose: So there's a long history about women playing baseball, and Toni Stone before she made it to the Negro Leagues, played semi-pro on male teams. But how these three women came to be playing in the Negro Leagues is really a story about the cost of integration. And so at the time that Major League Baseball was finally integrating after sports, black sports writers and politicians had been leading this charge to integrate Major League Baseball. A lot of the men who are playing professional baseball moved over from the Negro Leagues, and the Negro Leagues by the 50s themselves in a really hard spot. A lot of the money, a lot of the black dollar, a lot of that business that had made them one of the premier institutions in the black community had now shifted over. One of the things that people reached out for were gate attractions.
A. Rose: In particular, a man in St. Pollock on the Indianapolis clowns had an idea to throw together, a team that included people who were clowning, people who would dance, people who'd perform, think of it kind of like a baseball's versions of the Harlem Globe Trotters. Within this mindset, he reached out to Toni Stone who, like I said, was playing semi-pro who could play and brought her up. It was a gate attraction; tickets certainly sold to see Toni stone play, and the next year Mamie as well as Connie Morgan entered the league as well. While these women were gate attractions, all of them really could play. And I think that the significant thing that I point to was that he reportedly had a gal file, and their presence in the league inspired so many black women to write in and say, "give me a try out" that despite only three of them playing in the league, you actually can see kind of glimpses of a much wider kind of sporting community and the desire of black women to play this game.
A. Rose: But that's really how they ended up on the team. The entrance ticket, if you will, was because of the idea that their presence in the male space would be such a spectacle that it would make people come out to the ballpark to see and that was a calculation that proved to pay off.
Rebecca: You mentioned earlier about women athletes performing their femininity in different ways, especially if they're not playing sort of more dainty, traditionally feminine sports. So what are the ways that that sort of played out for Stone Morgan and Johnson as when they were in the Negro Leagues?
A. Rose: Certainly. So I'm, one of the biggest ways was how they were styled off of the field. Famously, you might, if you see pictures of them, they're actually wearing pants and that was a whole stand off. That was one that they won. Toni Stone said, "No, I'm not actually playing in this skirt. Like I won't do it." So she wore full trousers like the men did. But if you also look at promotional pictures that are sent out, there's pictures of her powdering her face, and that image would be circulated, accompanied with a cute headline like "Diamond is the girl's best friend" or something catchy that played up this kind of supposed a duality. There's also ways that colorism came into play before Connie Morgan was even on the team. She was included in a photo shoot next to Jackie Robinson aimed at giving legitimacy to the women as players.
A. Rose: The reason she was chosen over Toni Stone was because she was lighter, because her hair was straightened a little bit more. She looked more conventionally attractive in the uniform, and she wasn't even on the team yet and she was kind of drafted into this position. You can also look at some of the media that they had around them. There was a spread on Toni Stone in a popular magazine that insisted that she was depicted wearing the dress. There's one picture where she's laying face down, but bare chested with her husband giving her a back rub, and they go out of their way, not only to ensure that she's feminine, but that they're heterosexual as well. So they're like, "Here's her husband giving her a rub down." So you see these ways in which it's not just the women, but it's the framing of their participation that does the work of insisting that they're feminine, insisting that they're heterosexual.
A. Rose: This is a playbook that was used as much as I mentioned before about the permissibility of black girls and women in sports. It didn't come without restrictions. This I think was very familiar, very common. I wrote about black track women for instance, who had scholarships to run and were in the Pan American Games and the Olympic Games. But famously one of the best coaches at temple would say, "I want foxes not oxes." And he would insist that they powdered their face and straighten their hair before a reporter took a single picture of them. So while that box for their participation might have been a little bit easier to get into, it was still fairly restrictive in which... that it dictated how they had to carry themselves, off the field as well.
Leila: Do you see, maybe you can talk a little bit about what specifically you see, some parallels between your historical work and what black women in sports are facing today as far as their femininity?
A. Rose: Yes, certainly. And so one of the things I say is if the performance that they had to do with the mid century was to get in the game, I think one of the ways the goalposts have shifted a little bit now is the performance of femininity is really tied to endorsements. So you see that there are a number of stories. There's just a story this week about a young woman who's bathing suit fit her differently. She was curvier and was called out, disqualified for being "immodest" by the fact that she was wearing the team issued bathing suit. So I think that's definitely a spot where we could still see a policing femininity to be in the game. But largely the way it manifests is something like Serena Williams' endorsement deals being millions of dollars less than white counterparts that are more say typically, conventionally beautiful, blonde and blue eyed, but haven't, couldn't hold a candle to her on the court.
A. Rose: Young woman who's a back-to-back gold medalist in boxing and there's this clip of her in her documentary T Rex where she's talking to her marketing team, and they're saying, "Okay, yes, we want to market you, we want to put you on Wheaties boxes. But first and foremost we have to soften your image and we want you to stop telling people you like to hit people." She's like but "I'm a boxer."
Leila: It's boxing.
A. Rose: Exactly.
Rebecca: She's actually a boxer.
Leila: That is her job is to hit people.
A. Rose: And so you see there and you know... but she also was young and she was darker and she was from Flint. I think that those are where some of... where you can kind of chart the box now. You saw this in track and field where Lolo Jones commanded a lot of attention and a lot of endorsements, a lot of kind of pre-match hype despite the fact that the black women on her track and field team outperformed her leading up to the Olympics and at the Olympics, and they very vocal about feeling very upset about the disproportionate coverage.
A. Rose: I think that when you're talking about women's sports, especially, in so much of the money to be made is in endorsements is not in league, is not in their pay because it's awful. It's terrible. So it is really in the endorsement deals, and so I think that, that's one of the areas where you can see the legacies of some of this kind of gender performance come into play.
Rebecca: So today in our podcast we've been talking a lot about sort of the history of sex verification tests in the IAAF and the Olympics, and of course there are lots of racial components to who gets tested and who doesn't. I'm wondering if you see parallels between the history that you've been talking about and also who's getting flagged today for a testosterone testing by the IAAF and other organizations?
A. Rose: Yes, certainly. So I mentioned Coach Temple before ,and when I first started doing this research, I will freely admit, and when Coach Temple was alive, I would even kind of joke about this with to him, which is within my history, he kind of took on a villainous role because he was always saying these ridiculous but like also gem quotes to show what was required to be a woman in sports. I used to, when I started approaching this project kind of recoil and say, “What do you mean fox not oxes like, this is terrible.” As I started talking to him in more and reading more about him, one of the things I came to realize is how hyper aware he was, particularly in the late 60s, when sex verification came to the Olympic games that his girls as black girls, black girls from the South, black girls from black schools, black girls who are winning all the time, were disproportionately targeted for sex testing and for drug testing.
A. Rose: I started to see, read back through some of his interviews where he was like very incessant, and saying over and over and over again that there are women that they had boyfriends, et cetera, et cetera. I started being able to read this back in a way where it was a preemptive response. It was a defense because he knew they were being over-tested. So you can see that in the '68 games leading up to the '68 games, he has an entire discussion in Jet Magazine about how his girls are ready for the games and ready to prove that they're women and will have no problem with passing that test. He's saying it loud and publicly because he knows the spotlight is disproportionately on them. I think you can take that in and absolutely look at today's landscape.
A. Rose: Look at the fact that disproportionately black and brown women from the global South are bearing the brunt of these repressive practices from the sport bodies that are trying to crack down on or continuing the long history of gender verification and sex aerification within international sporting events. It's not a coincidence. I think the idea that these black and brown bodies somehow exist outside of traditional femininity or traditional ways of viewing bodies, that they're somehow too big or too curvy, they don't fit, mixed with the fact that people like Caster are dominant invites the spotlight in a way that I can track through history. People have known was coming and then took steps to try to avoid it even if ultimately, unfortunately in Caster's cases unsuccessful.
Leila: Is there any, and I don't even know what this would really look like, that you know of any sort of like activism around this in sports, either from inside or outside?
A. Rose: Yeah, I think the individual athletes really are vocal about it and then there's some kind of... there's not organized pushback, I would say. There's not, that's not present. I think it's an area in which athletes feel very hesitant to speak out, really even with you see Casters case, there's people who've come in, defended her certainly, but there's not a widespread movement. Even back in the Olympics when they would make people hold gender verification cards after they've verified that you were a woman who literally you should see a card, it's like a driver's license. You carried it around. Even at that time people would grumble about it, but there wasn't a kind of widespread movement, which is not to say that people haven't raised their voices, they have, it just hasn't kind of coalesced into an outburst, a public outburst at the same time.
A. Rose: But I think that is coming to a head now and hopefully we'll see more mobilization around it outside of individual cases because a lot of what the conversation has turned to today has rested on Caster's shoulders. That's, I think people are able to dismiss it as isolated case of targeting, even if they're like the targeting is racist and sexist, et cetera. But it's not an isolated case and it might just be the most well known, and she enjoys a lot of support in South Africa. But I think that it's one of those kind of next frontiers where people need to understand that it may not affect you now, but it could affect you tomorrow.
Leila: Is there anything else that you would like to share that we haven't talked about that you'd love to mention?
A. Rose: Yeah. Well, I just really wanted to shout out Katrina Karkazis whose great book Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography that she co-wrote with Rebecca Jordan Young, is really great to think about testosterone in particular and the way that it's been used to bar people out of sports or just like misconceptions around its use altogether. Also, Lindsay Piper has a great book called Sex Testing, Gender Policing, and Women's Sports, and I really recommend those two books to really dig deep into gender verification in particular in the athletic world. So I just definitely wanted to give them a shout out.
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Image credit: 100 m hurdles at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Pictured: Nicole Ramalalanirina (MAD), Lynda Goode (USA), Natalya Shekhodanova (RUS), Brigita Bukovec (SLO), Michelle Freeman (JAM), Julie Baumann (SUI), Kristin Patzwahl (GER), Angie Thorp (GBR). (Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain)