By the mid-Twentieth Century in the U.S., a dominant ideology of natural, categorical differences between women and men was an organic part of the unequal distribution of women and men into domestic and public realms, especially in middle class families. Sport was a key site for the naturalization of this ideology, which I call “hard essentialism.” Since the 1970s, an explosion of female athletic participation mirrored the movement of women into the professions, leading scholars to examine sport as a terrain of contested gender relations. This paper extends that discussion by positing a four-part periodization of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic gender ideologies, stretching from the mid-Twentieth Century to the present. Touching down empirically on contemporary professional class youth sports coaches’ views of children and gender, I identify an ascendant gender ideology I call “soft essentialism.” I argue that youth sports has become a key site for the construction of soft essentialist narratives that appropriate the liberal feminist language of “choice” for girls, but not for boys, thus serving to recreate and naturalize class-based gender asymmetries and inequalities. I end by outlining emergent strategies that spring from the contradictions of soft essentialism.
Messner is professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA.