The Feminist Case Against Girls' Softball

On Monday, Aug. 28, Columbus, Ga., won the 60th Little League World Series. This is the second year in a row that Columbus has won the LLWS. Congratulations, Columbus! A little more than a week previously, on the 16th of August, a team identified on the Softball World Series website as Central won the 33rd Little League Softball World Series. Congratulations, Central!

But before I break out the celebratory sparkling grape juice, I want to ask a question. Mainly, what team is "Central?" When you click on the link on the SWS site, you arrive at a page that informs you that the winning team is actually Mattawan, Mich. And that questions leads to another one: Why is the baseball World Series site so much more comprehensive than that of the softball World Series?

The sport that is now known as softball was invented in Chicago in 1887 by George Hancock. First called indoor baseball, the sport achieved great popularity in the first year, and the year following, the sport was moved outside and renamed indoor-outdoor baseball. (Pretty catchy, huh?) The game became popular as a baseball substitute, as well as a way of keeping in shape during the winter. The name "softball" originated in 1926, eight years before the foundation of a national softball league was formed.

Both the infield and the entire softball field are smaller than that of a baseball field, meaning that the pitching distance and the length between bases is less. The ball is heavier, the bats are smaller. Base-runners are not allowed to take leads before a pitch is thrown, and those pitches must be tossed underhand.

Today, men and women play on softball leagues. It is a game that theoretically adapts itself to any age or ability level. Let me quote from a rules/history webpage that I discovered while doing research.

Women, as well as men, play. Furthermore, men beyond their athletic prime of life can enjoy informal play at picnics and outings without undergoing the conditioning and practice routines necessary for similar participation in baseball.
Softball is, by general agreement, not as spectacular to watch as baseball when played by top-notch professionals, because of the slower ball and the shorter distances involved. However, when played well, it is an extremely skillful game, and a number of major league baseball stars have graduated from softball ranks.
If you grew up in suburban America, as I did, you'd be surprised about one piece of information above. The one that states that men play softball. Where I grew up, boys play baseball. Girls play softball. The division was clear-cut; there were (and, for most part, still are) NO female baseball players. I never really understand why the distinction must be made. When I was a kid, people always mumbled stuff about how baseballs travel faster, and softballs are easier to hit. Implying, of course, that boys are faster, more athletic, stronger than girls -- and making that distinction during pre-adolescence.

Now, there are differences between men and women -- any feminist theory arguments that say different can, I think, be immediately disregarded. Our biology is slightly different, and that means WE are different. However, this does not mean that we should be playing a different sport when we're 10 years old -- or really ever. (There was a woman's baseball league from 1943-1954, as immortalized in the movie "A League of Their Own." Those ladies could fuckin' play baseball.) Most 10-year-old males have not yet hit puberty. A few 10-year-old girls have, but they are the exception rather than the rule. The differences between 10-year-olds are pretty much nonexistent, developmentally speaking. So why are girls handed a ball the size of a baby's head (11-12 inches), and boys handed a ball the size of a crabapple (9 inches)? Why do boys throw the ball over the shoulder, while girls lob it underhand?

And even if there were developmentally sound reasons for girls to play a slower, less coordinated game than boys, why, oh why, do we pay so much more attention to baseball? It's true that both the baseball and the softball World Series were televised on ESPN and ESPN2, but only the baseball series was shown on ABC. That means that unless you're one of the 90 million households in America to get ESPN (as well as its affiliates) you could not watch the female World Series. (Let's not even go into how the baseball Little League World Series was advertised as a "featured event" on the ESPN website, while you can't even find a mention of softball, even when you search for it.)

Sure, ABC's programming is driven by demand. But why is there less demand for softball? Theoretically, it's an exciting sport. Perhaps it's slower than baseball, but since the field is truncated, the plays happen quicker. Could it simply be because girls -- weak, sissy, girly-girls -- play it?

That thought is troubling, particularly for any woman who thinks of herself as an equal in society.

Almost a year ago, the New Yorker published an adapted essay from Maureen Dowd's then-new book, Are Men Necessary: When Sexes Collide. The essay, about current state of post-feminism backlash, talked about the usual: sex, money, power dynamics, etc. She discussed research studies that showed that women with higher IQs tend to marry less often, that ambitious men marry women in subordinate jobs, and that career woman tend to be childless.

It's a confusing time to be a feminist, a time of mixed messages. We CAN become CEOs, if we're big and strong and fierce enough. But if we do, we get punished with some sort of intimidating, unattractive pheromone. The choice isn't free -- there's a catch to it that we might not even be aware about until it's too late.

These problems with feminism are of course rooted in some serious history, and some argue, very real biology. Yes, generally, men are stronger. Yes, generally women are better at multi-tasking. But that gender-normative impulse begins to develop its very concrete stronghold during childhood development. When a 10-year-old girl is given a softball and told she "cannot" play baseball, she learns that she is different from a boy in very certain ways: She cannot use a baseball, which is smaller and faster and harder. When she is told she must pitch underhand, (for the record, boys can pitch either overhand OR underhand. But it's telling that so few major league pitchers use the underhand style, hmm?) she learns something about how people think she can play a sport. That method of learning ingrains the sexism so deeply that no matter how much someone spouts, "We're equal, we're equal, we're equal," the words can never really mean their intention.

The difference between ABC and ESPN might not mean a huge difference in viewers, but that doesn't matter. The problem is the distinction that is being made, and what that distinction means to little girls and little boys. There's a difference between calling the winning team "Central" and "Columbus, Ga." There's a difference between advertising a series and ignoring another. Each difference, small in and of itself, leads to greater and greater effects. Those effects, in turn, stain each child's perception of gender and society.

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