Sporting Golden State: Women and Athletics in 20th Century California

Cheryl Miller during the 1984 Olympic Games | Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Cheryl Miller during the 1984 Olympic Games | Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Cheryl Miller during the 1984 Olympic Games | Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

In 1971, an adolescent girl in Connecticut sued for the right to compete on an all-boys athletic team. The judge dismissed her argument with a typically gendered assessment of athletics, “sports builds character … we don’t need that kind of character in girls.” 1 Whatever the judge’s assertion, he clearly proved himself to be on the wrong side of history, as one year later one of the most important federal laws regarding gender passed Congress, Title IX. The landmark legislation radically altered American sport; yet, before and after 1972, California and its female athletes have been and continue to be a forerunner regarding issues of gender, race, and sexuality.

Tennis and Surfing

The democratization of elite sports remains one of California’s most lasting contributions to athletics. Southern California’s Mediterranean climate and embrace of Progressive ideals, at least in regard to making sport accessible, enabled women and men to compete in arenas once reserved for the well-off. Take tennis for example. Pasadena-raised May Sutton won Wimbledon in 1907. During the 1920s and 1930s, Centerville-born and Berkeley graduate Helen Wills won eight singles titles at the famed English club, adding seven U.S. and four French championships. Both Sutton and Wills came up largely through public courts rather than private country clubs, developing a “fast and edgy” variant of the game. 2

From 1946-1949, Chinese American Helen Wong, a multisport star in the 1940s and 1950s, won San Francisco high school titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles every year. As a working class Chinese American woman, Wong used tennis to experience the vast expanse of California, secure a college scholarship, and pay for books and fees as an instructor. In 1988 she became one of only seven women and the first Chinese American inducted into the San Francisco Prep Hall of Fame. When inducted into the Northern California United States Tennis Association Hall of Fame, she became one of only four women to earn such a distinction. 3 She served as a role model for not only women, but young Chinese American men as well. One man told her that as a youth he followed her athletic exploits in the local press. “He was so kind. He said I was his idol, watching me play and reading about me in the newspapers,” Wong related to Kathleen Yep. “Now he is an orthopedic surgeon. Needless to say I was tickled to [be] hearing that form such an accomplished grown man.” 4

Billie Jean King, 1978 | Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Billie Jean King, 1978 | Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

In the 1970s, Long Beach’s Billie Jean King challenged stereotypes regarding female athletes through her own professional success and her victories over Bobby Riggs. Finally, one need only look to the Williams sisters for more contemporary examples. Both Serena and Venus cut their teeth on the public courts of Compton, followed by Wimbledon titles and the first all African American U.S. Open Women’s and Grand Slam final in 2001. Both became icons in others walks of life, notably fashion, helping to reject stereotypical depictions of black women in the media and elsewhere, while redefining a sport often associated with whiteness.

California’s beaches also served as a space for burgeoning female athletes. Policeman’s daughter Florence Chadwick honed her talents swimming in San Diego’s public surf, eventually setting new records for traversing the English Channel in August 1950. Around the same time, surfing emerged as an iconic athletic pursuit. The fictional (though based on real-life “girl midget” surfer Kathy Kohner) Gidget became a symbol of the coveted lifestyle. While one might dismiss the character as inconsequential and frivolous, founder of the Black Surfer Association Tony Curley confided that the 1950s female surfer helped him get through his first surfing experience. “I drank a lot of saltwater that day and got hit in the head a few times by the board,” he told Artbound’s Catherine Trujillo, “But having watched Gidget I knew sort of what to do and pearled under the water and caught my first wave.”

While these all remain notable and celebratory accomplishments, one could argue that tennis, swimming, and surfing fit more easily into ideas about what is and is not acceptable for women. Tennis, no matter how democratic, retains a certain middle class respectability, while swimming and surfing hinge in some ways on sexual appeal that has long limited women, athletically and professionally. More radical departures and challenges to the status quo can be found decades prior to these examples: in the 1930s and 1940s women played on basketball, softball, and baseball teams, beginning the long process of redefining female sports, femininity, and eventually, sexuality.

Baseball and Softball

As documented in earlier articles, baseball served as a means for Japanese and Mexican American men, marginalized by racism and ideals of white masculinity, to challenge such stereotypes while crafting their own identities and claiming membership to U.S. society. Women too, took to baseball and softball, battling sexist limitations, racism, and building bridges with other women and men in the process.

“Baseball’s magnetism also infected young Nisei women,” noted Samuel Regalado, “many of whom were themselves competitors in the vast array of softball leagues.” 5 During the 1920s and ’30s, women played for their own sense of competition and a chance to define their own identity, much as men did. For some Japanese American women it enabled them to expand their social networks and, for those so inclined, engage in courtships outside of local neighborhoods. Of course, sometimes women had to call overly boastful young men on their exploits. When one young man tried to claim three hits in a game, the target of his affection called him on it. “No you didn’t … you only got two hits and a fielder’s choice,” she retorted. As spectators too, women would travel long distances to see games: “love of baseball crossed gender lines, a factor that added to the game’s popularity [among Japanese Americans],” reflected Regalado.

Young Mexican American women in Southern California also embraced the game with fervor. Settlement houses, the YWCA, playgrounds, churches and schools introduced the game to Mexican American women. Softball leagues also emerged across SoCal. The Orange County “Los Tomboys,” Corona “Mexico Libre,” and the Los Angeles “Four Star Eagles” serve as just three examples. While men treated the development as a novelty, for these women it occupied a critical place in their lives, enabling them to form female friendships and to gain greater visibility outside the home or workplace. “We used to love playing softball,” one player remembered, “even though some of us players were already married, we still never missed practice.” 6

Today the Women’s College World Series flickers across television screens on an annual basis. Added to the NCAA championship program in 1981, it now draws millions of viewers. While the UCLA men’s baseball team won their first NCAA World Series title this past year, they have a long way to go to catch their softballing counterparts, who have won the title 12 times (counting their vacated 1995 championship) — the most of any school since the World Series began in 1981.

Women's softball team, part of the American Legion Softball League in Wilmington, 1939 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Women’s softball team, part of the American Legion Softball League in Wilmington, 1939 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library


Women’s basketball in the 1930s remained constrained by society’s patriarchal attitude toward female athletes. The free movement that modern viewers have become accustomed to did not exist. Instead, female players were largely forbidden from running up and down the court with one another. Regulations forbade women from double-teaming opponents or blocking shots on defense. Women could not even use two arms against an opponent trapped in a corner or against a wall. 7 Clearly such rules would chafe even the fictional Norman Dale (based on real life coach Marvin Wood) of Hoosier’s fame, and certainly real life coaches like former Tennessee coach Pat Summit.

The spirit of competition, observers of the time argued, remained the preserve of masculinity. As one male doctor asserted in 1931, “[Females in a] combative game like basketball develop ugly muscles and scowling faces and the competitive spirit.” Inevitably, he argued, women athletes would “find it more difficult to attract the most worthy father for their children.” 8 Clearly, American attitudes toward female athletics rested on socially constructed ideas of gender that also reinforced Western concepts of heterosexuality. Despite such attitudes, at least one California team challenged these ideals — the Mei Wahs of San Francisco.

“We spent most of our time scrimmaging with the boys,” remembered Mei Wah team member Franche Lee. “Those games got pretty interesting; somehow the boys always ended up on the ground.” As working class Chinese American women, most players worked manual labor jobs peeling shrimp by the pound at local factories or working in local laundries. As a result, they valued toughness, strength, and stamina, traits that white middle class heterosexual norms eschewed. Working long draining jobs, the idea of weak or feeble women simply didn’t register. They carried this spirit into athletic competition. “Their bodies,” asserts Yep, “furnished a way to develop and articulate a sense of self respect as a member of group marginalized by mainstream and the Chinese community.” 9

Part of a larger women’s basketball scene in the 1930s, the Mei Wahs played an aggressive fast paced style that, though limited by the regulations described above, still pushed back against broader society. They played in Amateur Athletic Union contests, industrial leagues, and against barnstorming professional sides. They competed against a rainbow coalition of opponents: the white Telephone Girls and the Ozark Hillbillies, the 11-time women’s Colored Basketball World Champions the Philadelphia Tribunes, the Los Angeles Japanese American Women’s Athletic Union, and college teams like the historically black Tuskegee University. When playing white competitors, even a single victory represented a small step toward greater equality.

Undoubtedly the Mei Wahs inspired countless numbers of women, but Chinese American men of their day also took notice. “I got to see [the Mei Wahs]. And they were something.” Alfred Lee also reminisced about the Mei Wahs, in particular Franche Lee’s talents. “Franche … was the greatest … No one could touch her. She was like Flo Jo … he told historian Kathleen Yep in an interview, “these are my idols, you know … They were doing things that we dreamed about doing.” 10

In the decades that followed, beginning in the postwar period, Japanese American basketball leagues popped up all over Southern and Northern California. While both boys and girls competed, the league gained greater recognition as an incubator for female players with fully supportive parents. A long way from the gendered rules that so constrained the Mei Wahs, players like former USC star Jamie Hagiya and three-time UCLA captain Natalie Nakase sharpened their competitive instincts and skills in these leagues. Nakase later became the first Asian American to play in the WNBA, while also becoming the first female coach in Japan’s top men’s professional league.

Girls' basketball game at Holy Family School at Holy Family Catholic Church in Wilmington, circa 1952 | Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Girls’ basketball game at Holy Family School at Holy Family Catholic Church in Wilmington, circa 1952 | Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Sport and Sexuality

Finally, one more aspect of California’s role in female athletics deserves recognition. Throughout the 20th century, sport and its values remained tied to concepts of heterosexual masculinity. Yet, few spaces afford for homosocial interaction for both men and women like team sports. Without a doubt, there have been gay male and female high school, college, and professional athletes competing and contributing for decades. In the early twentieth century, simply being a competitive female athlete drew negative connotations. Yet as Suzanne Cahn pointed out in her landmark work “Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth Century Women’s Sport” (1995), mid-century women athletes wanted only to “create new ways of being female in a society profoundly afraid of women’s sexual autonomy and collective power.” For lesbian athletes, fields and courts enabled them to forge bonds and relationships with women that otherwise would have been impossible. “Lesbian athletes used the social and psychic space of sport to create a shared culture and affirmative identity,’ in a society that sharply limited straight women let alone those with different sexual orientations.” 11

Babe Didrikson
Babe Didrikson

In the 1940s, terms like “muscle molls,” used to describe prominent female athletes like gold medalist Olympian, professional basketball player, and golfer Babe Didrikson, operated as code words for lesbianism. Didrikson herself, attacked on frequent basis for her perceived mannishness and contravention of feminine social norms, eventually married prominent wrestler George Zaharias in the 1940s, though this failed to ward off rumors and derogatory comments about her sexual orientation.

Helen Wong found herself often juxtaposed with Didrikson. “Helen is a tennis champion of the Chinese colony, though she isn’t big enough to be rated a muscle moll or Amazon,” noted one newspaper. The San Francisco Chronicle made more direct comparisons: “The ladies champ is Helen Wong, a sort of Celestial Babe Didrikson … so gifted in all forms of athletics that she was deemed a muscle moll,” the paper reflected. “Actually, she is a little gal and now is a lady of substance.” 12 As these examples demonstrate, a dash of orientalism also surfaced in such comparisons.

This type of thinly veiled homophobia persisted into the late 20th century, hounding star USC athlete Cheryl Miller, for example. Of course, Miller not only excelled at basketball at Riverside High, and later USC, but also played a key role in developing the skills of fellow Hall of Famer, her brother Reggie Miller. Reggie openly admits that shooting over his imperious sister as a boy made clearing the outstretched arms of NBA seven footers much easier. Cheryl later emerged as a talented broadcaster for TNT and WNBA coach, while defining femininity for herself, refusing to play by society’s dictates. As head coach and general manager of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, she often appeared on the sidelines of WNBA games wearing suspenders, ties, and vests, not typical sartorial choices by female coaches or sideline reports, pointed out Darcy C. Plymire and Pamela J. Forman in a 2001 article. Though Miller has kept her sexual orientation private, for many lesbian fans she serves as an icon of athletic and professional excellence. 13

Obviously, basketball offered an important cultural touchstone not only for athletes, but also spectators. Los Angeles’ own WNBA squad contributed to greater openness regarding sexuality, by rejecting homophobia and embracing the team’s lesbian fans. In the summer of 2001, the Sparks partnered with the 12,000 member Girl Bar, a popular lesbian association in Los Angeles. On May 4th, 2001, Sparks players appeared at Factory, a dance club on the city’s west side. “The music throbbed and strobe lights flashed,” noted journalist Marcia C. Smith, while over 500 women cut a rug and got to hang out with the team. While teams in Seattle and Miami had held events welcoming gay women a year earlier, and Sparks officials admitted the move resulted more from a desire to expand their ticket audience than anything else, the partnership and event nonetheless represented progress. 14

“I think our going to Girl bar was a positive thing,” then forward Rhonda Mapp told Smith at the time, “but it probably came off as negative in some people eye’s … It rattled people. You need something like that in order to get attention. It was a great idea and we’ve got to realize that a lot of our fans are lesbians.” Indeed, as one attendee and former college athlete told Smith, the team offered a refuge from a society still brimming with discrimination. “Sparks games are the one place I can sit back and feel like I’m not a part of minority … For three hours, I don’t have to worry about hiding who I am. Outside of here there’s homophobia.” 15

From the public tennis courts and beaches of California, to its softball and baseball diamonds, to its countless gyms and outdoor basketball courts, women in the Golden State have long harnessed sport to reject dominant ideas about femininity and sexuality. Depending on factors such as race and class, as individuals and collectively as teammates, this has meant different things for different women. Over the course of the 20th century, women have moved the meter toward gender and sexual equality, one inch at a time. Each pick up game, match, or competition serves as one drop of equality amid an ocean of sexism, homophobia, and misogyny. To borrow from David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas,” “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” 16 Overlooking the Pacific, perhaps the women of California know this better than anyone else.

1 Judith R. Holland and Carole Oglesby, “Women in Sport the Synthesis Begins” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences (Sept., 1979) pg. 81.
2 Kevin Starr, California: A History, (New York: Modern Day Library, 2007), pg. 300.
3 Kathleen Yep, Outside the Paint: When Basketball Ruled at the Chinese Playground, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009) pg. 116.
4 Ibid., pg 108.
5 Samuel Regalado, Nikkei Baseball: Japanese American Players from Immigration and Internment to the Major Leagues, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2013)
6 Jose M. Alamillo, “Peloteros in Paradise: Mexican American Baseball and Oppositional Politics in Southern California, 1930-1950”, Western Historical Quarterly 34 (Summer 2003) pg. 195.
7 Ibid., pgs. 67-68.
8 Ibid., pg 68.
9 Ibid., pg 75.
10 Ibid., pg. 78.
11Suzanne Cahn, Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth Century Women’s Sports, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995) pg. 206.
12 Yep, Outside the Paint, pg. 111.
13 Darcy C. Plymire and Pamela J. Forman, “Speaking of Cheryl Miller: Interrogating the Lesbian Taboo on a Women’s Basketball Newsgroup” NWSA Journal 13.1 (Spring 2001) pg. 2.
14 Marcia C. Smith, “Reaching Out to Lesbians”, The Spokesman-Review, June 18, 2001, 12.
15 Ibid.
16 David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, (New York: Random House, 2004) pg. 509.

This article originally appeared in the Intersections column at KCET Departures.