Out of the Ballpark: Women Creating Sexual Diversity in the Upper Midwest

In 1968, the Motown Soul Sisters softball team desegregated Jayne Field in Detroit’s Polish
neighborhood of Hamtramck. The field had hosted only the best white men’s teams until the
Soul Sisters defiantly built a concession stand and broadcast tower for the park and took it over
for their own games every Sunday night. This daring takeover of Jayne Field reflected an even
larger transformation of public space which propelled the diversification of Black, feminist, and
lesbian sexualities during the 1960s and ‘70s. For the Soul Sisters and other top-notch teams, the
foremost goal was to play outstanding softball and spur the growth of the sport. But they could
fulfill that goal only by also challenging white, middle-class norms about gender, sexuality, race,
and uses of public space. Far more than just a sport, softball was a social location through which
women publicly challenged sexual norms and formed distinct but mutable sexual subcultures that
extended far beyond the ball-field.
Just how did women in the Midwest
expand their gender and sexual expression
between 1960 and 1980?
When, years ago, I set out to
research this phenomenon, I
framed my question in terms of
the history of feminism. The
feminist movement, along with
gay and lesbian liberation,
revolved in large part around a
demand for sexual self-determination,
and activists took this
demand into an increasing
variety of public spaces. But
what shaped the vision for “out
lesbian,” feminist lesbian, Black
womanist, gender-bending and
bi sexualities, and what did they have to do
with butch, stud, femme, gay, and
androgynous identities? Little did I know my
questions would take me to some of the
nation’s best softball players, most of whom
did not identify with feminism.
Lesbians and softball: an old cliché. Less
familiar is that the popularity explosion of
softball during the 1960s—and the connection
between softball and dykes—owes so much to
a handful of African American teams. And
feminism’s direct-action, body-oriented politics
is largely indebted to seemingly a-political
athletes. Softball, I realized, provided a
window through which I could trace the
historical emergence of and connections
among an enormous range of activist
communities.
Scholarship in the history of sexuality has
often posited a polarized gulf between lesbian
sexualities of the 1950s and the 1970s. Most of
the grassroots feminist activists I interviewed
likewise sought to distinguish their politicized
sexuality from earlier women’s practices. But
their eyes glimmered as they also recalled
following “butch” softball players all over town.
Emerging feminist lesbians of the late 1960s
perceived “those Class A softball dykes” to
project sexual assertiveness, self-possession,
and indifference to white, middle-class gender
and sexual norms. They had made revered
icons of the athletes on top-ranked teams,
consciously drawing on aspects of softball
culture as they developed their own feminist
and “out lesbian” politics. If subcultural
boundaries were permeable in relation to
softball, the lines demarcating historical
categories of analysis must similarly be crossed
in relation to sexuality. Thus I soon found
myself in downtown Detroit’s raucous
Fuddruckers restaurant frantically scribbling all
the stories that five women could tell me
about their years playing for the Motown Soul
Sisters.
The Soul Sisters were “closer than family,”
they sang songs all through their games, they
outsized other teams, and they cared most
about winning. Black parents of potential team
members feared that their daughters would
“become gay” playing on such an “arrogant”
team, while white parents feared the Blackness
of the team, associating the team’s
competitive style with race rather than
sexuality. Soul Sisters tell me, “you had to be
tough, to withstand everything.”
From 1960 to 1980, Minneapolis, Detroit,
and Chicago all variously witnessed de-industrialization,
increasing unemployment among
people of color, and increasing racial
segregation. Within each city, women claimed
spaces previously reserved for men. As they
stormed the ball-fields, they also spurred the
proliferation of women’s bars, clubhouses, and
coffee houses. While most women’s spaces
reflected local hierarchies and segregation, the
public spaces of softball allowed a diversity of
women to construct recognizable sexual styles.
By the 1970s, teams such as the Motown Soul
Sisters, the Secret Storm and the Ms. Lounge
teams of Chicago, and the Avantis and the
Wilder Ones of Minneapolis, all represented
particular sexual subcultures, often separated by
race, class, politics, and geography. (I selected
teams with Black, feminist, lesbian feminist,
Black feminist, gay, white and ethnic workingclass
identities.) But women also developed
sexual practices and identities through
interactions across differences of race and class.
Softball provided a field for this interaction, as it
was an activity both rooted in “home town” and
dependent on regional travel and hospitality
that allowed extended contact among teams
from different cultural locations.
Women’s sexual practices and identities
grew out of a matrix of social codes in which
sexuality was inextricable from class and race.
The “hard-hitting” Avantis, for example, bore
the reputation of being one of the “dykiest
looking” teams in the 1960s, but their ways of
articulating sexuality were specific to their
white, working class, Minneapolis context.
When they stayed with the Motown Soul
Sisters in Black neighborhoods of Detroit, the
Avantis initially found sexuality in that context
to be obscure. As one former Avanti put it,
“We got an education about ourselves then
too, because we thought we had things
figured out about lesbians and softball. But it
was different for them. Race made it all seem
different.”
Women of color and white women who
forged non-normative sexualities during the
late 1950s and 1960s continued to be cultural
innovators in the construction of women’s
sexualities through the 1970s, playing
formative roles in ongoing changes in sexual
subcultures. On the ball-field and off, women’s
challenge to normative assumptions about the
appearances and meanings of gender, race,
class, and sexuality contributed to the
emergence of newly visible sexual and gender
practices and offered new possibilities for
women as political subjects.
I will continue meeting with activists in
Detroit, Chicago, and Minneapolis. Among
other things, I’m interested in asking, Within
each community, how did women’s athleticism
mesh with race, class and gender norms to
generate a particular sense of deviance and
defiance? To what extent did the intercultural
travel fostered by softball encourage women
to challenge local expectations about their
sexuality? My goal is to contribute clarity to
the actual mechanisms by which sexuality is
constructed, and to further elucidate the links
between sexuality and women’s activism.