Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Women who Ran: Fire on the Track

by Roseanne Montillo

When the modern Olympic games began in 1896, women were not allowed on any team. Gradually, over the years, a few women's events were instituted, with the first track and field women's teams in 1928. Roseanne Montillo shares the stories of the women who competed for the United States (and one for Poland) in the Olympic Games in 1928, 1932, and 1936. She weaves personal information on the women gleaned from diaries and interviews with broader strokes revealing the America of the Great Depression and the contentious environment in which women athletes began to train and excel. A few of the athletes were women of color and some of their additional struggles are mentioned as well.

For someone interested in early women athletes and the environment in which they participated, this is a nice introduction to the women of track and field. It brings together a huge amount of sources and stories though sometimes I found it a little difficult to follow all the stories as it jumped from one woman to the next.

Originally, I thought I might share this book with my daughter (currently in fifth grade), but there are a number of references and topics that would make this book best suited for more mature readers. Early in the book, one of the coaches is described openly as having affairs, and sexual promiscuity is mentioned as one of the "advances" of the 1920s, along with shorter hair and dancing the Charleston. One of the athletes, Stella Walsh, suffered terribly as a result of her mixed anatomical physical appearance (a hermaphrodite), which is integral to part of her story as an athlete.

The most disturbing experiences are those of Helen Stephens. When she was nine, she was assaulted by an older male cousin. Two years later (when she was eleven), she was again abused by a female teacher while she was staying at Helen's home. In both cases, the book describes the experiences not necessarily as something devastating and morally wrong that happened to Helen, but as experiences that confirmed her own identification as a woman attracted to women. That may be how Helen described them later, as a adult, but I feel like the author might have been more objective in the telling. The latter experience in particular would rightly today be recognized as an egregious wrong against an eleven-year-old girl, and I certainly wouldn't want my daughter to encounter something like that as it's described in the book.

Unfortunately for me, these few pages shifted my feelings about the book from interested and appreciative to ambivalent. If you can see your way past them, the rest of the book could be quite enjoyable.

I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review. The opinions above are my own. The links above are not affiliate links, but the book is also available at Amazon (affiliate link).

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