My older sister was a great athlete in the old days (before Title IX), and just retired as the athletic director at a high school. Talking with her the other day gave me the idea for this post, so blame her if you don’t like it (isn’t that just like a little brother?).
I thought I had a vague memory of watching her, when I was 8 or 9 (mid-1960s), play some odd form of basketball. Was I just imagining it? She laughed and proceeded to explain the mysteries of girls’ rules. This meant first that there were six players instead of five, and that two players were on offense full-time, two were on defense full-time, and two were rovers. The offensive and defensive players had to stay on their respective side of half court, while the rovers, you know the two girls in every group who were a little more athletic than the others, were free to run the whole court. When you had the ball, you could dribble only three times, and you had to pass three times before shooting. And I’m sure there were other details.
Anyway, we thought about the assumptions behind these rules. One: most girls shouldn’t run that much, couldn’t run that much, and it was immodest and unfeminine to sweat too much (my mom was told that often in her day). Two: girls weren’t skilled enough to have all five (six) players in the same end at once, and so to spread things out the half-court game was turned into essentially four-on-four. Three: dribbling only three times and passing at least three times simplified things for the less-skilled, and prevented the few more-skilled girls from completely dominating. Maybe there were other explanations too, but these seemed to us likely candidates. Other people may have other memories.
Then there was the clothing, which wasn’t part of the rules, but part of the times when my sister played: long pants only, usually sweats, sometimes jeans, until she was in high school. When shorter apparel was allowed, it couldn’t be shorts that looked like boys’. (When she played tennis at BYU, no shorts either, only skirts, down to the knee. Of course all BYU girls into the 1980s remember the dreaded light blue jumpsuits they had to wear.) Dress standards for church games were slower to change, however. A few years later, in the early 70s, when she was the stake athletic director, she wanted to persuade the stake president to allow girls to wear shorts during basketball games. One afternoon she went over to the church, where she knew a bunch of boys were playing (including one of our brothers), grabbed that brother by his long hair (not really but I like the image) and dragged him into the stake president’s office. My brother was wearing the old sort of short shorts, replete with boxers hanging out both top and bottom, and, since he was on the skins team, no shirt. She stood him next to one of her girls, who was wearing fairly long shorts and a nice t-shirt. The stake president took one look at the likes of him, and said, “I see your point. They can wear shorts.”
She has lots of stories like that, both from church and school. And of course I the intrepid historian had a lot come to mind as well, not only from sports but education and other areas of life. Girls couldn’t run marathons. Couldn’t pole vault. Couldn’t, in recreational volleyball at the park, serve it over in only one try but had to have two. Couldn’t, in that same volleyball game, hit the ball on their own, at least that’s what the boys thought who kept jumping in front of them. Couldn’t study too much lest their brains become overheated (that’s a 17th-century one). And many more.
All of these were of course proved wrong, and all of the assumptions behind them seem silly now. Obviously there are still some differences: ladies’ tees at golf courses are still a little closer to the hole than men’s, the women’s basketball is a little smaller than the men’s, and so on, but these are based ultimately on different average testosterone levels and muscle mass rather than on any presuppositions about a girl’s ability to play sports per se. Overall, girls have shown that the playing field is a lot more even than was long imagined, in sports or in school or whatever, that they’re every bit as tough and determined as boys, and that a lot of things once thought crucial just aren’t (like wearing shorts).
It’s old news to feminists and athletes of course. But that conversation with my sister about girls-rules basketball made me reflect specifically on other girls’ rules, and the assumptions that might lie behind them. Not the really big ones, debated often enough here on T&S. Rather, the ones affecting my nearly 20-year-old daughter, who just finished her second year of college. She likes school, and she runs track and cross country. But she’d also like to go on a mission. And I started thinking: why not now?
I wondered about the assumptions behind having girls leave on missions at age 21? I knew that the age requirement had changed before: the first full-time female missionaries went out in the 1890s, and soon after that the minimum age for them was 25. The age was lowered to 23 sometime after World War I, and then to its present 21 during the 1950s (19 was firmed up for boys only in 1961). That the age requirement had changed before suggested that it could change again, and that it changed when assumptions changed.
Over the years, and in highly unscientific recent surveys, I’ve asked people why they thought girls went at 21, and whether they thought it would be a good idea for them to be allowed to go at 19? And of course I had my own wacky ideas gathered over many years of increasing forgetfulness.
The classic assumption was long that a girl’s mission (I use the old terminology, in keeping with the title of the post) was to start a family. Once in sacrament meeting we sat behind a family with three young children, and the mother stood to bear her testimony. She recounted how she had chosen to forego a mission because a famous authority had told her that her mission was her family. My wife, a returned missionary, who was encouraged to go by a lowly local authority, glanced quizzically at me over the heads of our three young children.
But that didn’t really explain why those who did go needed to wait until 21. My brother-in-law (why can’t I resist in-law stories) once tried to answer that. He said that he didn’t want his girls going on missions because it would delay their starting a family. Stunned, because three of his four sisters had served missions, I guessed that he was saying they all could have squeezed in another child or two had they not gone. I wondered to myself, and should have wondered rudely aloud but I was being unusually polite that day, wasn’t waiting to marry until 19, or 18, a sort of delay as well? Why not start sooner, if that’s the thinking? Why waste one biological moment?
It seems clear enough in modern Mormon culture that family is held up as the first priority for both men and women and not only women. A boy’s most important task won’t be his mission, but we still send him, and he’ll probably learn things that will help his family life. Why wouldn’t that be true for girls, I wondered?
Another assumption. They’ll flirt too much if they’re the same age. Response: Anyone who’s been on a mission knows that if someone wants to flirt, two years won’t stop them.
A third: if lowered to 19, then more girls might go, and what flirting then! Response: Anyone with teenagers knows that boys and girls nowadays are more comfortable at simply being friends with each other than were earlier generations, including mine, in which especially boys seemed to divide the world into potential girlfriends and definitely-not-girlfriends. Sure there’d be some challenges, as if there aren’t already, but if many kids are like the kids I see around my daughter, I think they’ll handle it pretty well.
I also recalled a big practical consideration. My daughter once remarked how difficult it was to choose a major, because she was worried that her mission might give her an unexpected direction in school, as this had happened to several boys she knew (I was one of them, but, alas, she probably wasn’t thinking about me). An American elder would have attended school usually no more than one year before leaving, while an American sister may easily have attended for three years. Changing a major after a mission wouldn’t cause much disruption for a boy, but it easily can for a girl, and mean perhaps two more years of school upon her return rather than one–very costly in the US at least.
And at last I remembered how struck I was, while serving in a freshman ward, by how the culture of the ward revolved largely around the boys getting their mission calls. The girls were excited for the boys. The boys were excited for the boys. But the girls weren’t excited for themselves. They could look forward to their sophomore year. Or waiting to 21. Or getting married as soon as possible (which some did, apparently, it seemed to me, to have something to be excited about). If they waited to serve a mission, then people were excited for them, too, but that freshman culture was striking.
These are some assumptions and cultural changes I thought of. I’m sure there are more. Maybe I’m way off. But maybe it would be no worse than letting girls play full-court basketball and sweat and wear shorts.