Women as Norm, Dammit

basketballimageAs a former sports writer, I spent some years in the 1990s as a voter on the Associated Press Women’s Basketball Poll. Suffice to say, I know what Pat Summitt did for the game she loved. But for the sake of this piece, I want to put the basketball aside and talk about a way of seeing the world

It stems from a 1998 Sports Illustrated profile about Summitt I just re-read — “Eyes of the Storm” by Gary Smith — and it says this:

“This woman who never raised a placard or a peep for women’s rights, who never filed a suit or overturned a statute or gave a flying hoot about isms or movements, this unconscious revolutionary who’s tearing up the terrain of sexual stereotypes and seeding it with young women who have an altered vision of what a female can be.”

Yes. The altered vision is one that says ‘all things are possible.’ As opposed to, ‘that’s not an option for you because you’re female.’ Empowerment vs. victimhood. Even more, this vision says not only is it possible, you will in fact do it.

If there’s going to be real change, the world needs the placard raisers and the suit filers and the catalysts who form movements, to be sure. But it also needs the people who just go about their lives doing what they feel called to do and not making a fuss about it. What Smith called the unconscious revolutionary.

At the very beginning of her memoir, Sum It Up, written with Sally Jenkins, Summitt declares things she remembers in the face of her challenges with dementia and this is one of them:

“I remember teaching a clinic to other coaches and opening the floor for questions, and a guy raised his hand and asked if I had any advice when it came to ‘coaching women.’ I remember leveling him with a death-ray stare and then relaxing and curling up the corner of my mouth and saying, ‘Don’t worry about coaching women. Just go home and coach basketball.’”

OK. Go beyond the nuts and bolts of a game and the psychology of men and women and ask yourself this – what does that anecdote say about the way a person views life? This is a lens that doesn’t allow for the usual discussion of “differences” or “temperaments.” Dare we say Pat Summitt sees women as norm, not other? People as people? Teach them and let things unfold. Don’t go in with preconceived notions.

Trust me, the usual answer to that question suggests treating female athletes with kid gloves because they’re sensitive. There’s no way Summitt was about to reinforce that.

Further proof?

According to The New York Times obituary written by Jere Longman, Summitt was once approached by Tennessee officials about coaching the men’s team and she dismissed the overture, asking, “Why is that considered a step up?”

She wouldn’t have it.

To be clear, I’m not taking a stance here that there are no differences in the sexes. There are, in fact, lush distinctions that make us who we are.

What I’m referring to is this idea that women are “other” and men are “norm.” We’ve been making strides over the course of my lifetime, but as we’ve seen in the film industry, in medical studies, in salary disparities, and even in what we’ve heard in our presidential debates, women are still an after-thought or a token. That, in turn, means the female viewpoint or experience is as well.

It’s not always done with ill or even conscious intent.

In The New York Times Book Review recently, Simon Winchester wrote a mostly glowing review of a book called No Baggage by Clara Bensen. This paragraph appears near the end of his critique:

“We learn perhaps a little too much about her feminine plumbing crises en route and the history of her various low-­level mental troubles back home among her evangelically minded family. But she arrives back in Texas with her relationship with Jeff intact and her eyes widened to the wondrous realities of the world. I was happy for her, and I hope she travels once more, returning with another well-­furnished notebook.”

Allow me to focus on the first part of the first sentence. Too much about “feminine plumbing?” First off, the author is a young woman who menstruates. Second, the nature of the book is about surviving on an extended trip in Europe with no baggage. The challenge of dealing with her period when her little purse had two tampons in it is pertinent to the story for those of us who menstruate. To me this is a bit like saying I love Billy Joel’s song, Captain Jack, but wish he wouldn’t have referred to masturbation in it. It’s inherently part of the experience and why so many people connect to it.

I get it. The writer couldn’t relate to the feminine plumbing. That’s fair. But just because I can’t relate to all the experiences in the overwhelmingly male literary canon doesn’t mean the very details that make them distinctly male stories are invalid or “too much.”

Our female ‘otherness’ is so ingrained in our culture that sometimes it can be tedious to buck it or even to thoughtfully clarify it. I have a hard time resisting on both counts. That’s why I’m so impressed with Pat Summitt’s way of being in the world. Let the actions speak volumes and leave it at that.

There was no stopping what she came here to do. With or without a basketball.

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