That woman was known by many names during her life: Mildred Ella Didriksen/Didrikson/Zaharias, but was most commonly called "Babe."
In late June, I first heard about Babe Didrikson thanks to an NPR story and helpful friend who made sure I heard the NPR story. In early August my book club selected Wonder Girl: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, by Don Van Natta Jr., as our book of the month.
I finished most of the book on a recent flight, and have been struggling to write a review that does the story justice.
Despite teaching Sociology, and understanding the finer points of gender inequality, I found myself aghast at the breathtaking gender stereotypes Babe faced in building her athletic career. For example, I am aware that women were barred from the Olympic marathon until 1984. However, I was not aware (until reading this book) that the level of gender disparity was so stark that one of the founding fathers of the modern Olympics (Baron Pierre de Coubertin) is quoted as saying:
"The Olympic Games must be reserved for men" and the winners should look forward to "female applause as their reward." Women competing in sports "violated the laws of nature"... a sweating female athlete was "the most unaesthetic sight human eyes could contemplate."By 1912 women were permitted to participate in a few events (though several were only exhibition events), such as figure skating and gymnastics, because these sports were "ladylike activities and aesthetically pleasing."
Fortunately for Babe, by the time the 1932 Olympics rolled around in Los Angeles, the rules about female competition had been relaxed somewhat. She won two golds and one silver in track and field events. (The silver medal was for a tie in the high jump. The record was later changed to reflect the tie for first place.)
Unfortunately for Babe, public sentiment at the time was still extremely gender biased. Many sports writers attacked her personally and publicly for her athletic abilities. Joe Williams, of the New York World-Telegram wrote that:
...many male high school athletes could have easily beaten her in Los Angeles... "in athletics women didn't belong"... and "it would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring."(Is it just me, or does Joe sound jealous?)
The part about high school boys stings, in particular, because it wasn't true. But what reader at the time would know that? And Williams wasn't alone in his criticism of Babe's womanhood. Many writers piled on with unflattering physical descriptions of the Olympic medalist, and insinuations that she wasn't "much interested in boys."
(Can't a girl catch a break?)
To be honest, in reading this book, there are times when the author suggests that Babe lived up to her rought-and-tumble reputation. In fact, if there is anything I finally tired of in the book, it was reading over... and over... and over again... that Babe was a pushy, loud, and aggressive competitor. (Particularly in her early golf-playing years.) By about two thirds of the way through the book, I wanted to throw up my hands and yell "enough already! I get it!"
Despite the fact that the author, Van Natta, is seemingly trying to shed light on the gender inequality Babe faced, he seems to fall into the same trap of focusing on the "indelicate" aspects of Babe's personality. Maybe the historical records focus exclusively on Babe's tough demeanor in the 1930s and early 1940s, but there is plenty of evidence that she took good care of her parents and siblings (financially and personally) and that she had close friends. The beginning and end of the book are nicely balanced, but the middle threatens to mire down the whole book.
That said, the end of the book brings us back around to a balanced story.
And what runner girl doesn't want to read about a woman who was named Woman Athlete of the Year SIX TIMES by the Associated Press -- a feat no other woman or man has ever matched.