Building Muscles While Building Minds:
Athletics and the Early Years of Women's Education
(September 20-December 22, 2005)

Keeping Our Heads Above Water:
No Buoys Allowed

A Feminist Scholar and Swimmer
Reflects on 21st Century Athletics at Bryn Mawr

November 15, 2005

Responses to the Talk
On-Line Forum for Continuing the Conversation
Further Resources:

How many of you are Bryn Mawr graduates?

How many of you passed the
swimming requirement for graduation?

What else did you do here, that would give you
100% correlation with graduation?
(Not even the freshman writing requirement...)

What do we make of this "synchronicity"?

Why does Bryn Mawr require swimming proficiency,
for graduation from the College?

What does it mean?
And what does it matter?

The college's swimming requirement is not mentioned until the course catalogue of May 1901...Although legend has it that the requirement came about in response to the drowning death of a Bryn Mawr student, there is no particular event cited in any of the college's records that makes this story credible. (Barbara Grubb, Visual Collections Specialist)

The opening of the pool precipitated a crisis that Thomas feared would damage the College's reputation as a moral institution. On May 10-11, 1896, Thomas wrote to Mary Garrett that she had been interrupted at dinner "by the excitement of naked students in the pool. It seems about 20 do it & are fast persuading others to do it. Of course it must be stopped at once as it wd do us more harm than any thing I can think of but there is really no harm in it." (Thomas Archives, BMC)

I want to think out loud with you this evening
about "what harm is in it":
what harm there is in attending to the body,
in a place devoted to the life of the mind--
and what happens when you don't.

I want to think out loud, more generally,
about the historical relationship of
women's bodies to women's minds,
both on this campus and elsewhere,
and what that relationship looks like today
in a range of locations:
in our lives,
in those of our daughters,
in those of women 'round the world.

To begin with my own...

Twenty-six years ago

...I began to swim.

Twenty-six years later,
I swim the same length (16 laps),
in the same time (20 minutes),
the same number of days (5x) per week.

Am I an athlete?

What is an athlete?

According to Sam Dalke (Haverford College '07), an athlete is
someone who competes (against himself or others) to improve his performance.

According to the Oxford Encyclopedia English Dictionary,
L athleta f. Gk athletes f. athleo contend for a prize (athlon)

1. a skilled performer in physical exercises,
especially in track and field events
2. a healthy person with natural athletic ability
3. athlete's foot: a fungal foot condition
affecting the skin between the toes

Can we work together toward a new definition?
One deriving from women's experiences @ Bryn Mawr,
including both those of the student athletes
on the Centennial Conference honor roll
and my own?
(Am I competing against aging?
It takes more effort to swim 32 lengths--
in the same amount of time--
than it used to!)

Amy Campbell, Director of Athletics and Physical Education,
Body + Mind @ Bryn Mawr:
Athletics...are central to a rigorous liberal arts experience.....We need to continue to provide programming...that emphasizes the benefits of physical well-being for the life of the mind....developing an athletics...model that complements Bryn Mawr's academic mission....The Challenging Women campaign seeks...funding [that] will allow us to hire coaches and teachers who understand the role of sports and fitness at a rigorous undergraduate the future of a strong athletics and physical education department that fosters the important link between mind and body.

But how do we understand that link?

The late 19th century theory saw it as managing a closed system.

Edward Clarke, Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for the Girls (1873):
both women and men had closed bodily systems with only finite amounts of energy. Studying...for young developing women...pulled blood, nourishment and energy away from reproductive the fragile and critical stages of maturation.

M. Carey Thomas, Address on "Women's College and University Education" (1907):
We did not know when we began whether women's health could stand the strain of college education. We were haunted in those days by the clanging chains of that gloomy little specter, Dr. Edward H. Clarke's Sex in education. With trepidation of spirit I made my mother read it, and was much cheered by her remark that, as neither she, nor any of the women she knew, had ever seen girls or women of the kind described in Dr. Clarke's book, we might as well act as if they did not exist. Still, we did not know whether colleges might not produce a crop of just such invalids. Doctors insisted that they would. We women could not be sure until we had tried the experiment. Now we have tried it, and tried for more than a generation, and we know that college women are not only not invalids, but that they are better physically than other women in their own class of life.

So: what was the role of physical activity
in the early years of the college?
(Preventing invalidism?)
And what is it now?
(Something more proactive and positive?)

Amy Campbell,
I have been thinking about the role of posture and strength training--how one's carrage is a visible signal and how physically strong women have an opportunity to project confidence and a sense that they have a 'strong' sense of where they are in the world and how to engage in meaningful ways....

Contemporary feminist theory has gone far beyond
women's bodies as "closed systems";
it advocates extension, claiming lateral space.

David Gersham, "A Line on Life: Throwing Like a Girl" (4/26/98)
(on the causes for gender differences in throwing ability)

Cf. "Throwing Like A Girl" Is Total Misnomer
Penn State Sports Medicine Newsletter (10/16/97):
The sports expression "throwing like a girl" is not only politically incorrect, but also biologically incorrect.... Recognizing obvious anatomical differences between men and women, no scientific data indicates that those differences prevent either gender from correctly throwing a baseball or football. If a person has underdeveloped muscles, is inexperienced or has not had proper instruction, the throwing motion will look strange. "There is no such thing as a throwing-like-a-girl motion," says A. Eugene Coleman, Ed.D., chairman and professor of health and human performance at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. "It is all a matter of strength, flexibility and practice....This is not a gender issue; it's a training and experience issue."

But of course, historically,
one of the genders has lacked
both the training and the experience.

Audrey Dixon, with cat and ball.

Edwin Strauss, "The Upright Posture," Phenomenological Psychology (1966):
The girl of five does not make any use of lateral space. She does not stretch her arm sideward; she does not twist her trunk; she does not move her legs, which remain side by side. All she does in preparation for throwing is to lift her right arm forward to the horizontal and to bend the forearm backward in a pronate position....The ball is released without force, speed, or accurate aim....A boy of the same age, when preparing to throw, stretches his right arm sideward and backward; supinates the forearms; twists, turns and bends his trunk; and moves his right foot backward. From this stance, he can support his throwing almost with the full strength of his total motorium....The ball leaves the hand with considerable acceleration; it moves toward its goal in a long flat curve.

Iris Marion Young, "Throwing Like a Girl" (1977):
...girls do not bring their whole bodies into the motion [of throwing] as much as the boys do. They do not reach back, twist, move backward, step, and lean forward. Rather, the girls tend to remain relatively immobile except for their arms, and even the arms are not extended as far as they could be. Throwing is not the only movement in which there is a typical difference in the way men and women use their bodies...body frequently a failure to make full use of the body's spatial and lateral potentialities....Women are generally are not as open with their bodies as are men in their gait and stride....Though we now wear pants...women still tend to sit with their legs relatively close together and their arms across their bodies....we also tend more to keep our hands and arms touching or shielding our bodies....girls and women most often carry books embraced to their chests....

"Throwing Like a Girl": Twenty Years Later" (1998):
A look at my daughter's growing up and young adulthood shows me that a great deal has changed. Jeans have been her normal daily wear since she could seems to me that she and her friends move and carry themselves with more openness, more reach, more active confidence, than many of my generation did. She has been able to take athletic opportunities for granted. There is at least as much danger of sexual assault for her as there was for me, but acceptable norms of male street behavior seem to have altered such that she endures fewer vocalized objectifications than she might have twenty years ago...

The [1977] essay assumes a rather instrumentalist account of the motility and spatiality of the lived body. Its body as subject is a purposive actor, with specific objectives it moves out into the world to accomplish....privileges plan, intention, and control.....In the world of this essay, women are inhibited, hesitant, constrained, gazed at, and positioned....One could imagine a less limited, more self-conscious project of philosophically describing feminine body comportment, motility and spatiality...might look for specifically feminine forms of amazing passage from one of Tillie Olsen's short stories, for example, describes a kitchen dance in which a farm woman cans her tomatoes while mindful of the colicky baby she holds between her arm and her hip. The movement is plural and engaged, to and fro, here and yonder, rather than unified and singly directed. What might a phenomenology of action look like which started from the mundane fact that many of us, especially women, often do several things at once?

"Women often do several things at once"...
and we often do them in interaction with others.
Remember the image w/ which we began?

Anyone here ever participated in synchronized swimming?
What's the trick?
What makes it work?
How do the swimmers coordinate their movements?

Far more interesting (as an idea!)
than sporting events in which everyone does the same thing,
in accord with a predetermined script,
are those games in which everyone has to work together,
in response to what everyone else is doing--
both those you are playing against and those you are playing with.
These are games in which order is dependent on randomness,
in which the unexpected is countered with, and managed by, coordination.

Jen Shillingford, Director Emeritus of Physical Education,
"A Century of Empowering Women Through Sports"
First talk in this series (9/20/05):
all team games are spatial

(Here's the punch line:)
Learning to play together on the field
can model ways for scholars to
learn to play together in the classroom.
Here's how--and why.

Donald Siegel, "Play, Games, Sports and Athletics"
observes that the experimental quality of play, an "original and basic. . . fundamental phenomenon of existence," both enables individuals to experiment with finding ways out of situations in which they appear to be "stuck" and serves "society's need for innovation." Its psychological rewards are intrinsic in the doing, rather than in the "exchange value" of what is produced by playing; when players are totally absorbed in a game, they (not so) paradoxically both lose a sense of self-consciousness and feel "in control" of what they are doing: "a sense of ego is lost but concentration is vastly increased."

When Siegel's analysis moves from "play" to the artificially created situations he calls "games," the critical distinction is rules, which structure play, in part, by placing spatial and temporal constraints on the activity. Rules are conceived in such a way as to make the attainment of ends "deliberately inefficient," in order to create challenges for those playing the game. Following Siegel's analysis, I came to understand, and attempted to structure, my classroom not as a space of pure "play," but rather as a site where a very particular sort of game was enacted, one that, when successful, avoided the "attentuated play" of athletics (with its "overemphasis on winning" and "exaggerated emphasis on efficiency of technique"), but also instantiated a set of rules intended to provoke the particularly inefficient, and insistently unending, communal "game" of thinking. (From The Grace of Revision, the Profit of "Unconscious Cerebration," or What Happened When Teaching the Canon Became Child's Play)

Some concrete examples (and counter-claims?):

What might happen, in our minds and to our minds,
if we spent some time this afternoon throwing around


How is this like
(and how is it different?)
from our having thrown ideas around together this afternoon,
as we worked with and off what each other had to offer ?

What is the "victory" here?
Does it have to do with
staving off aging,
proving oneself,
saving a relationship,
building a team,
learning to work off one another's strengths,
helping one another with weaknesses,
winning a game,

What does play look like in the classroom?
What is the game there?
What consistitutes a "win"?

Might we re-think competition?
(Is this particularly hard for women?
Downright shocking on a visceral level?)
Are we afraid that competitiveness will destroy relationships,
that if we disagree fundamentally,
we will find no common ground for shared interests?

From A League of Their Own

Can playing team sports help us learn to set aside personal interests,
to focus on team success rather than our individual starring roles?
Might competition be something we need to "play"
(practice, rehearse innovate, experiment with)
in order to learn to do it well, healthily, ethically, effectually....?

Might we talk about the game of thinking
in terms other than those of winning and losing?

Might it resemble anything like what we've just been up to?

A League of Their Own, from Movie-O

The Story of Evolution/The Evolution of Stories

So: what do you think, now,
is the role of "physical culture" at Bryn Mawr College?

Many thanks to my coaches,
(both in the classroom and outside it),
Amy Campbell, Elizabeth Catanese, Ann Dixon,
Paul Grobstein and Katherine Rowe.

Further Resources:
Women Living Well: Mind and Body Connection
Mind and Body: René Descartes to William James
Being and Thinking: Writing Descartes

Additional "balls" tossed back, both during the talk and afterwards
(for which, to all, many thanks):

  • Consider a different way of conceiving what happens in the classroom: it is the place where one learns the rules of the game, gets experience in practicing playing with them--to put to whatever use one wants. Key here is less the playful back-and-forthness I was emphasizing, more the experience of repeated practice.

  • Beware valorizing competitive sports over synchronized swimming: the latter is actually more demanding. (It doesn't matter how you look when you do a layup for a basket, only whether you get the ball in; in synchronized sports, you have to pay attention to many more details of style and performance.)

  • Is the classroom a zero-sum game, with professors as winners? Or students who earn 4.0's as the winners?

  • Let's explore more the distinction between team sports and those focused on individual performance. Is there a gender difference here (with guys being more invested in teamwork)? Is that difference a result of the "Quaker culture" of Haverford, vs. the "distinguished women" culture of Bryn Mawr? If the Bryn Mawr culture is more focused on individual performance, might this be a reason to highlight the sports teams--as providing a different model of collaboration?

  • Students testified that "what kind of game is being played" depends on the context of a particular classroom: how large it is, how advanced, how invested one might be in a particular discipline.

  • The pleasures of golf include an intellectual dimension: observing how the ball "interacts with its environment."

  • Calling shy or quiet students "selfish" (for refusing to participate in classroom give-and-take) neglects individual variety in pacing: some speak more quickly, others more slowly, and the game needs to be paced so that all can participate.

  • Let's think together some more about the relationship of mind and body: what might be important in the college context is not only the relationship of moving to thinking (that is, of physical to intellectual "movement": a calm mind in a calm body; an excited mind in a wound-up body), but also the relation between emotion and reason, between feeling and thinking.

  • Let's think, too, about the different kinds of collaborative work-and-play we engage in: for example, is the collaboration of scientists mostly hierarchical (w/ one person dictating what others need to do?) Might we imagine some more lateral sort of interchange?

  • See The Swim Test for an on-line account of the origins of the legend common to many colleges that swim tests were mandated by a wealthy benefactor whose own child had drowned.

  • Did you get lost in the center part of this talk? Was that a distracting--or an essential--part of the game we were playing together?

  • Here's a great alternative image: "in order to swim efficiently, you shouldn't keep your head above water....At the end of your talk, I wanted to bring up this image, of putting the 'mind' down or forcing the 'mind' to become immersed and allowing the body to float. In other words, the hydrodynamics of swimming... demands undoing the instinctive keeping our heads above water....swimming is particular in this way: there's something about the whole immersive/absorptive environment of the water that allows for the body to better lead the mind. If you did think to lift your head above water, you'd come to a halt. So, here's to...keeping our heads *below* water!"

On-Line Forum for Continuing the Conversation: Please add your thoughts!

Return to
Building Muscles While Building Minds:
Athletics and the Early Years of Women's Education
(September 20-December 22, 2005)