The Gender of Cheerleading

“At its inception in the mid-1800s, cheerleading was an all-male sport. Characterized by gymnastics, stunts, and crowd leadership, it was considered equivalent in prestige to that flagship of American masculinity: football. As the editors of the Nation saw it in 1911:

The reputation of having been a valiant “cheer-leader” is one of the most valuable things a boy can take away from college. As a title to promotion in professional or public life, it ranks hardly second to that of having been a quarterback.[1]

Indeed, cheerleading helped launch the political careers of three U.S. presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan were cheerleaders.[2] Actor Jimmy Stewart was head cheerleader at Princeton. Republicans Rick Perry, Tom DeLay, and Mitt Romney all led cheers for their schools’ teams.

Being a cheerleader was a “great responsibility” and a “high honor.”[3] Comparing cheerleaders to Pericles of ancient Athens—statesman, orator, and military general—the New York Times in 1924 described Stanford University’s all-male cheerleaders as “lithe, white-sweatered and flannel-trousered youth” projecting “mingled force and grace” and a “locomotive cheer.”[4] As late as 1927, cheerleading manuals still referred to the reader exclusively as a “man,” “chap,” or “fellow.[5]

The men of the Yale University cheerleading team stand proud in 1927.

Women were first given the opportunity to join squads when large numbers of young men were deployed to fight World War I, leaving open spots that women were happy to fill. The entrance of women into the activity, though, was considered unnatural and even inappropriate. Argued one opponent in 1938:

[Women cheerleaders] frequently became too masculine for their own good. We find the development of loud, raucous voices . . . and the consequent development of slang and profanity by their necessary association with [male] squad members.[6]

Cheerleading was too masculine for women.

When the men returned from the war, there was an effort to push women back out of cheerleading. Some schools even banned female cheerleaders. In 1939, Gamma Sigma, the national college cheerleaders’ fraternity, refused to include female cheerleaders or recognize squads that did. “Every year there is a campaign to take them in,” said the fraternity’s president, “but every year we keep them out.”[7] Ultimately, of course, the effort to preserve cheer as an exclusively male activity was unsuccessful. With a second mass deployment of men during World War II, women cheerleaders were here to stay.

By the 1960s and 1970s, cheerleaders were primarily female and the activity became less about leadership and more about support and sexiness.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Instead of changing how we thought about women, the presence of women in cheer changed how people thought about cheering. Because women were stereotyped as cute instead of “valiant,” cheerleading’s association with women led to its trivialization. By the 1950s, the ideal cheerleader was no longer a man with leadership skills; it was someone with “manners, cheerfulness, and good disposition.” In response, boys pretty much turned away from cheerleading altogether. By the early 1960s, men with megaphones had been replaced by perky girls with pom-poms:

Cheerleading in the sixties consisted of cutesy chants, big smiles and revealing uniforms. There were no gymnastic tumbling runs. No complicated stunting. Never any injuries. About the most athletic thing sixties cheerleaders did was a cartwheel followed by the splits.[8]

In the span of a hundred years, cheerleading evolved from a respected pursuit to a silly show on the sidelines. As it became more female, its value and prestige declined. By 1974, those same Stanford cheerleaders were described as “simple creatures” who needed only two things: “blondeness, congenital or acquired, and a compulsively cute, nonstop bottom.”[9]

We’ve seen similar changes repeatedly in recent American society: in leisure activities like cheer, but also in occupations like “secretary,” and in literature and the arts. We may even be seeing such changes right now, as women are increasingly entering college majors like biology or careers like law. The “demotion” of an arena of life as it undergoes a “sex change” is common. Understanding these demotions requires exploring the relationship between gender and power.”

Wade, Lisa and Myra Marx Ferree. 2015. Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. [“The Gender of Cheerleading,” pp. 126-129. Notes reproduced below.]

[1] Quoted in Natalie Adams and Pamela Bettis, “Commanding the Room in Short Skirts: Cheering as the Embodiment of Ideal Girlhood,” Gender & Society 17, no. 1 (2003): 76.

[2] Rebecca Boyce, “Cheerleading in the Context of Title IX and Gendering in Sport,” The Sports Journal 11, no. 3: (2008).

[3] Quoted in Mary Ellen Hanson, Go! Fight! Win! Cheerleading in American Culture (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press), 13.

[4] Ibid., 2.

[5] Ibid., 17.

[6] Quoted in Laurel Davis, “A Postmodern Paradox? Cheerleaders at Women’s Sporting Events,” in Women, Sport, and Culture, ed. Susan Birrell and Cheryl Cole (Champaign: Human Kinetics Press, 1994), 153.

[7] Quoted in Mary Ellen Hanson, Go! Fight! Win! Cheerleading in American Culture (Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press), 16.

[8] James McElroy, We’ve Got Spirit: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Cheerleading Team (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), 15.

[9] Ibid., 2–3.

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