On Sunday, as I was driving down I-95 to see Sky Blue FC host the Los Angeles Sol in its inaugural WPS match, I was reflecting on all the women who challenged archaic and suppressive notions in the last century regarding athletics. Ten years ago, even considering going to a professional women’s soccer match would be inconceivable. I was grateful for all the women who sacrificed to help make this possible, not only in the sport of soccer, but in other sporting fields as well. Nike is a Goddess: The History of Women in Sports (Atlantic Monthly Press, NY, 1998) will make you appreciate how far women’s athletics have come although we still have much further to go.
With each chapter written by some of the best contemporary sports writers, Nike Is a Goddess (roughly 318 pages) tells the story of women who paved the way for today’s athletes from track and field, tennis, baseball and softball, golf, skiing, equestrian, swimming, boat sports, basketball, ice hockey, soccer, figure skating, and gymnastics. Each chapter follows the same layout, giving a history of the sport in general then delving into the evolution of the women’s struggle for acceptance, which was a recurring theme in every sport. The writers recounted accomplishments of famous and even obscure athletes in the roughly 25 pages they were allotted. These short narratives will not only give the readers a deeper understanding into the struggles women had to go through, but will also heighten the reader’s interest to learn more about each sport.
There are so many influential women packed within these pages that inspire the utmost awe and respect: Gertrude Ederle who was the first woman to swim the English Channel. Golfer, Kathy Whitworth has 88 victories which is the record for both men and women. She became the first female player to make $1 million. Rower, Anita DeFrantz, who was the first women ever selected to the vice presidency of the International Olympic Committee, protested the boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games. DeFrantz has been influential in getting more women’s sports onto the Olympic Program.
An interesting note is that the book is copy written in 1998, before some major achievements in women’s athletics. For instance, author Elise Pettus reflects on the 1996 Olympics being a huge milestone for women’s soccer when most people would now consider the 1999 Women’s World Cup the more notorious event.
Although the book was well written, I don’t think baseball and softball should have been lumped together. Author, Amy Ellis Nutt examined the history of baseball for about 20 pages and gave maybe 3 paragraphs on softball’s history with the other 2 pages revolving around its 1996 Olympic debut. That was a little disappointing to say the least. Jean Weiss’ chapter on skiing could have been more on the stories behind the athletes and less on who won what. Barbara Stewart, who authored the chapter on ice hockey, was incorrect in calling softball “baseball’s slower, softer cousin.” Anyone who has played the sport will tell you that despite its name, softballs definitely aren’t soft and the sport has actually a much faster pace than baseball. Basketball author, Shelley Smith, perpetuates feminine myths in sports with this wincing remark: “…little girls saw that being a player was not only acceptable but also revered by the American public. These women were beautiful and feminine and tough as nails on the court.”
Nike is a Goddess is an inspiring read and I would recommend it to those who also want to learn about Wilma Rudolph’s career in track and field, the inception of the LPGA, Babe Didrikson’s sport hopping, why Olympic swimmer Dawn Fraser stole the Japanese flag from the Emperor’s Palace during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and that Kerri Strug really didn’t need to perform that last vault. It’s important to learn the history of women’s athletics to understand who laid the foundation for female athletes today.