Monday, September 10, 2018

Policing A Victorian Institution Built By Upper-Class Men

pbs |  Upper class men built and curated the U.S. Tennis and Lawn Association, now the USTA, toward the end of the Victorian era. Even though women played, men led the association for more than 100 years, wrote its rules — what players wore, when women played, how many sets in a match and more — and enforced them.

One of the first examples of this appears as an asterisk in its rules from 1903, clarifying that, “it was (officially) decided that ‘all matches in which ladies take part in tournaments … shall be the best two in three sets.’” Men continued playing five.

Historian Warren Kimball, a former volunteer for the association who spent years curating the association’s history for his book, “Raising the Game,” said he never found a documented explanation for this rule, but feels certain that men just decided that “women were not strong enough.”

That rule persisted for the better part of tennis’ history and still exists today for the biggest championship under the association’s governance: the U.S. Open. Except now, Thompson said, some traditionalists use this disparity as an argument to push against equal pay.

The association was also ignoring if not rejecting black players, even though Tuskegee Institute, an all-black college, held tournaments as early as the 1890s, according to the book. 

While it had black players on its Ivy League teams, it declined Howard University’s application for membership in 1922, according to minutes published in the book, because “southern clubs would ‘see red’ on that … there would be no chance in the world of a club of negros [sic] getting membership in the Association.”

By the late 1940s, white women were struggling with rules policing their femininity and how they should look on the court. American Gertrude Augusta Moran, known as “Gussie,” wanted to feel more feminine, and reached out to a top designer ahead of her Wimbledon tournament to ask for a colorful ensemble. 

The designer, knowing Wimbledon’s strict, all-white rules that are almost the same today, instead designed a short skirt and lace-trimmed underwear, which she wore for the first time at a pre-match tea party.

“Gorgeous Gussie’s Lace-Fringed Panties No. 1 Attraction on Wimbledon’s Courts,” was the headline that ran in The New York Times reviewing the party.

By the time she had to compete, she walked onto the court with the racket in front of her face, while photographers pushed for space on the floor to get a shot of the lace. She was eliminated from Wimbledon early and the designer was banned from hosting and dressing other players.

Even though she ranked fourth in the nation at her peak, because of the reaction to her lace, her legacy as a sex symbol consumed her reputation for talent. 

“I really couldn’t handle the pressure,” she told the Orlando Sentinel nearly 40 years later.