TENNIS

Serving the Goodwill: American Women’s Tennis and Cold War Diplomacy

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In 1956, the US State Department launched the Jazz Ambassadors program, a worldwide goodwill tour featuring some of the best jazz artists of the time. The hope was that these multiracial tours would quell discussions of racial disharmony in the country. As remarkable as this program was, it was not the first attempt at citizen goodwill in the country.

As sports historian Ashley Brown writes, “Myriad women were sponsored as goodwill ambassadors…Their tours were concurrent with and sometimes preceded by those of better-known men.” As part of a program that ran from 1941 to 1959, the U.S. government sent female tennis players on an international tour to “portray the accomplishments of American women, the opportunities available to them, and gender and racial equality in American life.

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The main purposes of Cold War goodwill tours were to advance ideas about American forces and dispel rumors about its shortcomings. Tennis was considered a perfect vehicle, notes Brown, since “women tennis players were admired as the most feminine and distinguished sportswomen.”

From its origins with 16th-century European royalty to its growth among America’s Golden Age upper class, tennis has retained an air of sophistication. With the participation of women, more sexualized perceptions of female players – highlighted by the media – converged with this story. “Assumptions of a higher level of femininity fueled fantasies of sexual availability among players,” writes Brown.

The government was more than happy to use this “virtuous-vixed dichotomy,” relying on a World War II version of tennis diplomacy that “relied on the image of the desirable female tennis player. to boost the morale of – and even awaken – male soldiers. This approach, however, risked being perceived as too fit and too gifted for their sport. When seen in person, some athletes were criticized for not being desirable enough.

For example, the press took offense to the play and physique of Alice Marble, who took part in a national tennis tour beginning in 1941 to promote female fitness in support of the war on the home front. Life The magazine lamented Marble’s body (“too long and muscular”) and complained about her aggressive style of play, noting that she hit the ball “harder than most men”. Marble and other female athletes have been subjected to “skepticism, fear and ridicule [and] caused concerns that they were lesbians who sought to disrupt the established gender hierarchy,” Brown writes. But despite these biases against female athletes, their looks and athleticism could still be exploited and “remain star attractions…to sway world public opinion about the United States.”

In many places around the world, tennis stood out among sports as an acceptable game for women, and requests for visits from American female tennis players, especially women, came quickly to the State Department. The State Department was happy to oblige, sending American athletes to conduct exhibition games and workshops “to promote an understanding of the United States that can be enjoyed by thousands.”

Although the program may have claimed to show progress for all American women, with its all-white programming, the tour primarily presented an image of white femininity. The addition of a black player in 1955, in this case Althea Gibson, served to assuage “any doubt as to the sincerity and strength of our professions concerned with the welfare of others, especially the non-white world “.

Gibson was a perfect choice. She had entered the sport at Forest Hills and Wimbledon, as well as winning tournaments sponsored by the Black-led American Tennis Association. The treatment of black Americans was becoming a talking point for Communist propaganda, and Gibson represented “the tennis player who could most effectively change waning perceptions of American democracy.”

These athletes, including Gibson, walked a fine line, Brown says. They had to be strong, but not too strong. Athletic, but not masculine. Fiercely competitive, yet acceptably feminine. Add to that the pressures of racial stereotyping and, as Brown suggests, perhaps the toughest competition has been[ing] against gender hegemony.


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