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Ch. 6: Games and Sports

One of the sharpest distinctions both between the essential characters and the artificial positions of men and women, is in the matter of games and sports. By far the greater proportion of them are essentially masculine, and as such alien to women; while from those which are humanly interesting, women have been largely debarred by their arbitrary restrictions.

The play instinct is common to girls and boys alike; and endures in some measure throughout life. As other young animals express their abounding energies in capricious activities similar to those followed in the business of living, so small children gambol, physically, like lambs and kids; and as the young of higher kinds of animals imitate in their play the more complex activities of their elders, so do children imitate whatever activities they see about them. In this field of playing there is no sex.

Similarly in adult life healthy and happy persons, men and women, naturally express surplus energy in various forms of sport. We have here one of the most distinctively human manifestations. The great accumulation of social energy, and the necessary limitations of one kind of work, leave a human being tired of one form of action, yet still uneasy for lack of full expression; and this social need has been met by our great safety valve of games and sports.

In a society of either sex, or in a society without sex, there would still be both pleasure and use in games; they are vitally essential to human life. In a society of two sexes, wherein one has dictated all the terms of life, and the other has been confined to an extremely limited fraction of human living, we may look to see this great field of enjoyment as disproportionately divided.

It is not only that we have reduced the play impulse in women by restricting them to one set of occupations, and overtaxing their energies with mother-work and housework combined; and not only that by our androcentric conventions we further restrict their amusements; but we begin in infancy, and forcibly differentiate their methods of play long before any natural distinction would appear.

Take that universal joy the doll, or puppet, as an instance. A small imitation of a large known object carries delight to the heart of a child of either sex. The worsted cat, the wooden horse, the little wagon, the tin soldier, the wax doll, the toy village, the "Noah's Ark," the omnipresent "Teddy Bear," any and every small model of a real thing is a delight to the young human being. Of all things the puppet is the most intimate, the little image of another human being to play with. The fancy of the child, making endless combinations with these visible types, plays as freely as a kitten in the leaves; or gravely carries out some observed forms of life, as the kitten imitates its mother's hunting.

So far all is natural and human.

Now see our attitude toward child's play--under a masculine culture. Regarding women only as a sex, and that sex as manifest from infancy, we make and buy for our little girls toys suitable to this view. Being females--which means mothers, we must needs provide them with babies before they cease to be babies themselves; and we expect their play to consist in an imitation of maternal cares. The doll, the puppet, which interests all children, we have rendered as an eternal baby; and we foist them upon our girl children by ceaseless millions.

The doll, as such, is dear to the little boy as well as the girl, but not as a baby. He likes his jumping-jack, his worsted Sambo, often a genuine rag-doll; but he is discouraged and ridiculed in this. We do not expect the little boy to manifest a father's love and care for an imitation child--but we do expect the little girl to show maternal feelings for her imitation baby. It has not yet occurred to us that this is monstrous.

Little children should not be expected to show, in painful precocity, feelings which ought never to be experienced till they come at the proper age. Our kittens play at cat-sports, little Tom and Tabby together; but little Tabby does not play she is a mother!

Beyond the continuous dolls and their continuous dressing, we provide for our little girls tea sets and kitchen sets, doll's houses, little work-boxes--the imitation tools of their narrow trades. For the boy there is a larger choice. We make for them not only the essentially masculine toys of combat--all the enginery of mimic war; but also the models of human things, like boats, railroads, wagons. For them, too, are the comprehensive toys of the centuries, the kite, the top, the ball. As the boy gets old enough to play the games that require skill, he enters the world-lists, and the little sister, left inside, with her everlasting dolls, learns that she is "only a girl," and "mustn't play with boys--boys are so rough!" She has her doll and her tea set. She "plays house." If very active she may jump rope, in solitary enthusiasm, or in combination of from two to four. Her brother is playing games. From this time on he plays the games of the world. The "sporting page" should be called "the Man's Page" as that array of recipes, fashions and cheap advice is called "the Woman's Page."

One of the immediate educational advantages of the boy's position is that he learns "team work." This is not a masculine characteristic, it is a human one; a social power. Women are equally capable of it by nature; but not by education. Tending one's imitation baby is not team-work; nor is playing house. The little girl is kept forever within the limitations of her mother's "sphere" of action; while the boy learns life, and fancies that his new growth is due to his superior sex.

Now there are certain essential distinctions in the sexes, which would manifest themselves to some degree even in normally reared children; as for instance the little male would be more given to fighting and destroying; the little female more to caring for and constructing things.

"Boys are so destructive!" we say with modest pride--as if it was in some way a credit to them. But early youth is not the time to display sex distinction; and they should be discouraged rather than approved.

The games of the world, now the games of men, easily fall into two broad classes--games of skill and games of chance.

The interest and pleasure in the latter is purely human, and as such is shared by the two sexes even now. Women, in the innocent beginnings or the vicious extremes of this line of amusement, make as wild gamblers as men. At the races, at the roulette wheel, at the bridge table, this is clearly seen.

In games of skill we have a different showing. Most of these are developed by and for men; but when they are allowed, women take part in them with interest and success. In card games, in chess, checkers, and the like, in croquet and tennis, they play, and play well if well-trained. Where they fall short in so many games, and are so wholly excluded in others, is not for lack of human capacity, but for lack of masculinity. Most games are male. In their element of desire to win, to get the prize, they are male; and in their universal attitude of competition they are male, the basic spirit of desire and of combat working out through subtle modern forms.

There is something inherently masculine also in the universal dominance of the projectile in their games. The ball is the one unescapable instrument of sport. From the snapped marble of infancy to the flying missile of the bat, this form endures. To send something forth with violence; to throw it, bat it, kick it, shoot it; this impulse seems to date back to one of the twin forces of the universe--the centrifugal and centripetal energies between which swing the planets.

The basic feminine impulse is to gather, to put together, to construct; the basic masculine impulse to scatter, to disseminate, to destroy. It seems to give pleasure to a man to bang something and drive it from him; the harder he hits it and the farther it goes the better pleased he is.

Games of this sort will never appeal to women. They are not wrong; not necessarily evil in their place; our mistake is in considering them as human, whereas they are only masculine.

Play, in the childish sense is an expression of previous habit; and to be studied in that light. Play in the educational sense should be encouraged or discouraged to develop desired characteristics. This we know, and practice; only we do it under androcentric canons; confining the girl to the narrow range we consider proper for women, and assisting the boy to cover life with the expression of masculinity, when we should be helping both to a more human development.

Our settled conviction that men are people--the people, and that masculine qualities are the main desideratam in life, is what keeps up this false estimate of the value of our present games. Advocates of football, for instance, proudly claim that it fits a man for life. Life--from the wholly male point of view--is a battle, with a prize. To want something beyond measure, and to fight to get--that is the simple proposition. This view of life finds its most naive expression in predatory warfare; and still tends to make predatory warfare of the later and more human processes of industry. Because they see life in this way they imagine that skill and practice in the art of fighting, especially in collective fighting, is so valuable in our modern life. This is an archaism which would be laughable if it were not so dangerous in its effects.

The valuable processes to-day are those of invention, discovery, all grades of industry, and, most especially needed, the capacity for honest service and administration of our immense advantages. These are not learned on the football field. This spirit of desire and combat may be seen further in all parts of this great subject. It has developed into a cult of sportsmanship; so universally accepted among men as of superlative merit as to quite blind them to other standards of judgment.

In the Cook-Peary controversy of 1909, this canon was made manifest. Here, one man had spent a lifetime in trying to accomplish something; and at the eleventh hour succeeded. Then, coming out in the rich triumph long deferred, he finds another man, of character well known to him, impudently and falsely claiming that he had done it first. Mr. Peary expressed himself, quite restrainedly and correctly, in regard to the effrontery and falsity of this claim--and all the country rose up and denounced him as "unsportsmanlike!"

Sport and the canons of sport are so dominant in the masculine mind that what they considered a deviation from these standards was of far more importance than the question of fact involved; to say nothing of the moral obliquity of one lying to the whole world, for money; and that at the cost of another's hard-won triumph.

If women had condemned the conduct of one or the other as "not good house-wifery," this would have been considered a most puerile comment. But to be "unsportsmanlike" is the unpardonable sin.

Owing to our warped standards we glaringly misjudge the attitude of the two sexes in regard to their amusements. Of late years more women than ever before have taken to playing cards; and some, unfortunately, play for money. A steady stream of comment and blame follows upon this. The amount of card playing among men--and the amount of money lost and won, does not produce an equivalent comment.

Quite aside from this one field of dissipation, look at the share of life, of time, of strength, of money, given by men to their wide range of recreation. The primitive satisfaction of hunting and fishing they maintain at enormous expense. This is the indulgence of a most rudimentary impulse; pre-social and largely pre-human, of no service save as it affects bodily health, and of a most deterring influence on real human development. Where hunting and fishing is of real human service, done as a means of livelihood, it is looked down upon like any other industry; it is no longer "sport."

The human being kills to eat, or to sell and eat from the returns; he kills for the creature's hide or tusks, for use of some sort; or to protect his crops from vermin, his flocks from depredation; but the sportsman kills for the gratification of a primeval instinct, and under rules of an arbitrary cult. "Game" creatures are his prey; bird, beast or fish that is hard to catch, that requires some skill to slay; that will give him not mere meat and bones, but "the pleasure of the chase."

The pleasure of the chase is a very real one. It is exemplified, in its broad sense in children's play. The running and catching games, the hiding and finding games, are always attractive to our infancy, as they are to that of cubs and kittens. But the long continuance of this indulgence among mature civilized beings is due to their masculinity. That group of associated sex instincts, which in the woman prompts to the patient service and fierce defence of the little child, in the man has its deepest root in seeking, pursuing and catching. To hunt is more than a means of obtaining food, in his long ancestry; it is to follow at any cost, to seek through all difficulties, to struggle for and secure the central prize of his being--a mate.

His "protective instincts" are far later and more superficial. To support and care for his wife, his children, is a recent habit, in plain sight historically; but "the pleasure of the chase" is older than that. We should remember that associate habits and impulses last for ages upon ages in living forms; as in the tree climbing instincts of our earliest years, of Simian origin; and the love of water, which dates back through unmeasured time. Where for millions of years the strongest pleasure a given organism is fitted for, is obtained by a certain group of activities, those activities will continue to give pleasure long after their earlier use is gone.

This is why men enjoy "the ardor of pursuit" far more than women. It is an essentially masculine ardor. To come easily by what he wants does not satisfy him. He wants to want it. He wants to hunt it, seek it, chase it, catch it. He wants it to be "game." He is by virtue of his sex a sportsman.

There is no reason why these special instincts should not be gratified so long as it does no harm to the more important social processes; but it is distinctly desirable that we should understand their nature. The reason why we have the present overwhelming mass of "sporting events," from the ball game to the prize fight, is because our civilization is so overwhelmingly masculine. We shall criticize them more justly when we see that all this mass of indulgence is in the first place a form of sex-expression, and in the second place a survival of instincts older than the oldest savagery.

Besides our games and sports we have a large field of "amusements" also worth examining. We not only enjoy doing things, but we enjoy seeing them done by others. In these highly specialized days most of our amusement consists in paying two dollars to sit three hours and see other people do things.

This in its largest sense is wholly human. We, as social creatures, can enjoy a thousand forms of expression quite beyond the personal. The birds must each sing his own song; the crickets chirp in millionfold performance; but human being feels the deep thrill of joy in their special singers, actors, dancers, as well as in their own personal attempts. That we should find pleasure in watching one another is humanly natural, but what it is we watch, the kind of pleasure and the kind of performance, opens a wide field of choice.

We know, for instance, something of the crude excesses of aboriginal Australian dances; we know more of the gross license of old Rome; we know the breadth of the jokes in medieval times, and the childish brutality of the bull-ring and the cockpit. We know, in a word, that amusements vary; that they form a ready gauge of character and culture; that they have a strong educational influence for good or bad. What we have not hitherto observed is the predominant masculine influence on our amusements. If we recall once more the statement with regard to entertaining anecdotes, "There are thirty good stories in the world, and twenty-nine of them cannot be told to women," we get a glaring sidelight on the masculine specialization in jokes.

"Women have no sense of humor" has been frequently said, when "Women have not a masculine sense of humor" would be truer. If women had thirty "good stories" twenty-nine of which could not be told to men, it is possible that men, if they heard some of the twenty-nine, would not find them funny. The overweight of one sex has told in our amusements as everywhere else.

Because men are further developed in humanity than women are as yet, they have built and organized great places of amusement; because they carried into their humanity their unchecked masculinity, they have made these amusements to correspond. Dramatic expression, is in its true sense, not only a human distinction, but one of our noblest arts. It is allied with the highest emotions; is religious, educational, patriotic, covering the whole range of human feeling. Through it we should be able continually to express, in audible, visible forms, alive and moving, whatever phase of life we most enjoyed or wished to see. There was a time when the drama led life; lifted, taught, inspired, enlightened. Now its main function is to amuse. Under the demand for amusement, it has cheapened and coarsened, and now the thousand vaudevilles and picture shows give us the broken fragments of a degraded art of which our one main demand is that it shall make us laugh.

There are many causes at work here; and while this study seeks to show in various fields one cause, it does not claim that cause is the only one. Our economic conditions have enormous weight upon our amusements, as on all other human phenomena; but even under economic pressure the reactions of men and women are often dissimilar. Tired men and women both need amusement, the relaxation and restful change of irresponsible gayety. The great majority of women, who work longer hours than any other class, need it desperately and never get it. Amusement, entertainment, recreation, should be open to us all, enjoyed by all. This is a human need, and not a distinction of either sex. Like most human things it is not only largely monopolized by men, but masculized throughout. Many forms of amusement are for men only; more for men mostly; all are for men if they choose to go.

The entrance of women upon the stage, and their increased attendance at theatres has somewhat modified the nature of the performance; even the "refined vaudeville" now begins to show the influence of women. It would be no great advantage to have this department of human life feminized; the improvement desired is to have it less masculized; to reduce the excessive influence of one, and to bring out those broad human interests and pleasures which men and women can equally participate in and enjoy.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman