Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Susan Butcher

Christina Taylor Green has reminded me a lot of myself at her age.  I was deeply, idealistically patriotic as a child and imagine would have been just as proud as she was had my birthday been on such a historic day.  Thinking about how excited she must have been to meet Rep. Giffords and the optimism she had in our government's system makes losing her so  heartbreaking.  A lot is being made in the media about her dreams of becoming the first woman to play baseball in the major leagues.  When I was a little older than her I dreamed of becoming the first woman to walk on the moon.  Not so much because I was deeply into space aviation, but more so because I really wanted to be the first woman to do something.  I felt like that was a noble aspiration and it seems like most people think little girls wanting to break into a male field should be strongly encouraged.  But is it actually encouraged?  What real evidence do we have that makes us believe these are goals women should actually work to achieve? 

I started working at Northwestern University right before the big football game against Notre Dame that was held at Wrigley Field.  I didn't watch much but was out at a bar that happened to have it on.  Apparently, football at baseball stadiums was the theme of the evening because two schools were playing at Yankee Stadium that same night.  I was struck by what a cool experience it would be for a college football player to have.  Suiting up in the famous/infamous Yankee clubhouse, running onto the baseball field to play a football game.  Once in a lifetime for sure.  As I imagined how neat that would be, how bright the lights must have felt, and how loud the crowds cheers must have sounded, I was stung by the realization that no matter how much we as women say we are equal and have earned the same types of rights as men, none of us would ever have such an experience.  Sure there were cheerleaders, but that's not the same; the focus wasn't/isn't on them.  

Then the double whammy (remember "Press Your Luck"?)  realization hit when I remembered that not only would I never be allowed to play college level football in general, let alone at Yankee Stadium, I would also never be allowed to be a Yankee baseball player.  Then all of the sports scenarios in which I could never participate started flooding my mind:  the Super Bowl, holding the Stanley Cup*, becoming the Heavyweight Champion.  The waves of realizations will keep hitting you if you let them.  

This personal awakening is 100% delayed.  MANY other women who are more athletically predisposed than myself have struggled with these barriers for some time.  The sports world remains decidedly for men.  Yes, I know we have our own leagues that allow us to participate but that doesn't take away from the fact that the athletic realm is unquestionably, dominantly male.  Christina's recognition of these walls and her dreams to reach beyond them makes me proud to be female.  

Very few female athletes compete against men in equal competition.  Our national athletics leagues are so rigidly established it's hard to know how a woman would go about breaking into the fold.  Dreaming of becoming the first female POTUS is a more rational goal than aspiring to be the first woman to lead a team to a Super Bowl victory as a starting quarterback.  I don't care what Oprah says either, Zenyatta shouldn't count as one of the best female athletes in the world no matter how inspiring her tale.  If she was a jockey, then maybe we could talk about it.  She is a HORSE and there are plenty of male horses that have had incredible successes and you would never find them topping the list of greatest male athletes.  Many women have dedicated their lives to their chosen sport and it's a huge insult to not only be included with, but usurped by an animal.  

As a kid, I played just about every sport there was for at least a season.  I liked basketball a lot and played on a co-ed league with the Boys and Girls club.  I also played T-Ball and soccer with boys in elementary school.  It wasn't that the guys weren't nice to me or didn't want me to be there, but it was understood that no matter what, I was second tier and that was true for all of us girls.  As we got older of course, we were relegated to our respective genders teams.  Co-ed sports are a thing of childhood and aging rec leagues.  

My first SBD year with a 4th place finish!
The Soap Box Derby seemed to me to have no gender bias, at least not one that I could pick up on.  Girls could win, and did win, just as often, if not more so, than the boys.  It was a great competitive thing that I was involved with as a kid.  The actual racing world however, seems to be much much more macho even with Danica Patrick making some kind of name for herself.  She gets a lot of criticism for not really winning that much and overly sexualizing herself but I still think its an accomplishment for her to compete in a mostly male environment.  Racing in this context challenges the physical idea of sports, though.  When you are in a car, you may be competing, but it isn't considered to be that athletic among some circles.

You'd be hard pressed to find a critic of the athleticism behind Susan Butcher's race medium. Butcher is the second woman to have won the Iditarod and one of sled dog racing's most famous athletes.  

My parents moved to Alaska after they were married.  They lived in a  village called Unalakleet where they worked at a Christian boarding school for native Alaskan kids.  Back then, public schools were not common out in the bush so most students attended schools that were set up by private organizations.  My mom and dad, along with my aunt and uncle were teachers and dorm parents.  I came along in '84, born in Anchorage, and lived in Unalakleet for a year until Covenant High was closed due to Alaska's public school expansion.  My childhood was full of many, many Olson family folk tales from my parent's glory days in the tundra.  
Unalakleet, AK
One such story was about Susan Butcher and the night she spent at my parent's house while she was competing in the Iditarod.  Mushers can stay in host houses during the race when they are close to a town or village checkpoint.  Butcher was one of the star competitors so of course my parents were really excited to have her.  Since she was relatively well known, reporters kept harassing her for an interview.  My dad heroically fended off Pat O'Brien and his notoriously obnoxious harassment of Butcher.  We're all still very proud of him. 

She went on to place in that race, bowed out due to a moose attack of her dogs in '85, and eventually won in '86, '87, '88, and '90.  Racing in these elements is an enormous undertaking.  The trail is about 1,200 miles long and runs through the brutality of Alaska's winter.  It is not uncommon to break bones, lose dogs, and drop out early due to various complications.  You must not only be physically and mentally up to the challenge, you must take great care of the dogs you are essentially trusting with your life.  It is also a sport where women and men compete together as equals. 
Butcher with her dogs.

My friend Danny spent the night on Friday (relax, he sleeps on the couch, the floor if someone we like better also needs a place to crash ;).  He likes to pretend that he reads this blog ("Don't worry Jules, I read it, I'm gonna read it.") by asking questions like "What is feminism?" and "How are you unequal?"  I have got to come up with some general answers to these general questions because right now I'm terrible at on the spot questioning.  Anyway, I referenced the sports world and the convo at first veered toward the "insane" idea about women playing in the NFL (which is just a distraction from any type of real discussion).  But I somehow turned it into an explanation that football wouldn't have developed as a game in the same way had it been created in a truly gender neutral society.  Which is a really huge concept to think about.  It's almost too broad of an idea, like suggesting if everything were different, things would be different.  However, I think it's more poignant than that and this is the kind of surprise "first draft" idea that stems from off the cuff conversations with my guy friends about my blog.  Most of them are completely open and more than receptive to talking about feminism and my perspective, which of course I love and appreciate.  

Later on, I was gal chatting with some of my gf's and we were talking about the sports world and how we relate to it.  Since, I'd already begun writing this post, it was a great time to bounce some ideas around and get some perspective about what had come from the Danny conversation.  Sure, I'll have to look into what, if anything has been written on the subject of how our patriarchal society shaped the ways in which our games developed.  There isn't an easy way of imagining an average woman playing today's professional sports with men because yes, we are built differently and the games are all built to suit male-specific physical abilities.  But how does that explain why we don't have any sports where women and men play on the same field, in the same game, in interchangeable positions? Surely an equal society would develop something that could entertain the masses just as much as the NBA or the NHL.  In make believe Harry Potter land, Quidditch is played by both males and females in a way that allows them to hold the same positions depending on the individual's abilities.  This can't be a scenario fit only for fictional literature.

Kelly pointed out that the NFL appears to be really proud of themselves for coming up with, producing, and marketing a line of team-wear geared toward female fans.  How long has the National Football League been around?  81 years?  And you just now realized that it might be extremely profitable to develop products for over half of the American population that has supported your organization from the beginning?  Alyssa Milano is very pretty, but it's all just too annoying to buy into.

A lot of my frustrations are directed at the NFL because I grew up watching football and feel like I have more of a connection to it.  Especially the Super Bowl (which I know does not really mean that I was that into it, but still).  The team Jamestown supports is the Buffalo Bills.  Some of you might remember that they lost 4 SB's in a row in the early 90's.  Those games started a Super Bowl party tradition at my house highlighted by my dad's delightful taco dip, sometimes made with venison from a successful hunting trip.  Every year my fam hosts a nice get together which is a tradition I most treasure from childhood. 

Recently, I learned that Super Bowl weekend is one of sex trafficking's most profitable times of the year.  With the event just a few short weeks away, and the Chicago Bear's hopeful participation, I can't help but think about all of the women and children that will be affected in such a tragic way.  And how much fun I've had  in the past ignorant of their suffering.  One woman's warm childhood memory, is another woman's despair I suppose.  I'm not sure how responsible the NFL should be for finding a solution to this problem, however, it's something that won't hurt us to think about when we are at our various parties eating different types of dips.  Our American pastimes aren't always so pure and carefree.

This post is extremely meandering and all over the place.  The topic is probably too huge.  Honestly, I love athletics and competition.  It's fun to cheer for a team and the comradery that is forged is one of the best offshoots of the industry.  However, denying or pretending that I have an equal place in that world is just something I can no longer do.  Most have probably never heard of Susan Butcher and/or the Iditarod.  She is a personal hero of mine, someone I grew up thinking about in mythical proportions the way that I imagine my guy friends thought of Michael Jordan.  She was an extremely talented person and held her own in a way that is empowering for all people.  

Susan was diagnosed with leukemia in 2005.  She died a year later and again became an inspiration for her strength in the face of such adversity.  When asked about the pain of racing compared to the fight of cancer she is noted as saying:
"There was a lot of pain.  I've broken a lot of bones out there, but it was what I loved doing.  I didn't choose to have leukemia.  This is just a battle that was given me." 
The world now has lost both Susan Butcher and Christina Taylor Green.  Our athletes are our modern day warriors and who we look up to and esteem for their strength and courage.  Sometimes they are idealized to a point that no human could ever truly live up to, but there are lots of messages they send us about perseverance and integrity through their chosen sport.  Hopefully kids who know about what happened to Christina will think about what her goals were and how they could also apply to their own lives.  All of us can take away positive messages from the life that Butcher lead.  Thinking about the ways in which we can become better and more progressive are natural subsets of any athletic mentality.  Once we function as a cohesive team, with a level playing field, we can claim a more satisfying victory.  

*Manon Rheaume kind of was allowed to play in the NHL.  Danny let me know this during our discussion by informing me of "some broad" who played professional hockey.  Still no Stanley Cup holding however.   

1 comment:

  1. Allow me to agree with you 100% on Zenyatta, a freaking horse is not a trailblazing athlete. I have been yelling this for months.