Pamela Grundy (pictured with co-writer Susan Shackelford, right) talks about the book Shattering the Glass, which examines the history of women's basketball in the U.S.
In Shattering the Glass: The Remarkable History of Women's Basketball—which will be in paperback reprint in March—Pamela Grundy and Susan Shackelford examine the evolution of the game from the late 19th century to what is currently happening in the WNBA. Grundy talked with Windy City Times about everything from hoops to Sheryl Swoopes.
Windy City Times: I've been looking forward to this interview. I've been following women's basketball for a while, ever since the days of Old Dominion and Louisiana Tech and stars like Nancy Lieberman and Anne Donovan.
Pamela Grundy: Good! That was a great time.
WCT: So what is this book basically about?
PG: It's about the long struggle of women to gain respect as athletes and basketball players. There are these remarkable women who did these incredible things and flew in the face of the mores of the times. I think it's a really inspiring story of these different generations of women.
WCT: And do you feel like they have gotten respect?
PG: Much more than they have. Obviously, they have gotten up to the level of men yet. The country hasn't appreciated women's achievements in the same way they've appreciated men's. Look at the money in the NBA versus the WNBA. The women are as courageous and team-oriented as the men in the NBA. You have strong women in a competitive game.
WCT: Tell me about the research you and Susan put into this book.
PG: Well, we did a lot of oral history interviews, which was the most fun part. For one, I talked with some African-American ladies who were in their 80s and 90s, and who played basketball back in the 1930s. It was terrific because there was an interesting tradition of competitive basketball at Black colleges in the
'30s, a time when most white colleges played intramural basketball because that was considered more ladylike. One of the Black ladies was Alice Coachman, who was the first woman of African descent to win an Olympic medal; she won the gold high-jump medal in 1948. She was a star member of the Tuskegee [ University ] basketball team.
WCT: So your book covers college and pro basketball?
PG: And high school. In different eras, we look at the different kinds of games. Women's basketball took off in high school in the '20s. In rural and working-class communities, women were used to doing physical labor. At women's colleges, people thought you should be more ladylike and they were worried that if you ran too far, you'd hurt yourself.
Competitively, it really doesn't get back into colleges into the '70s and Title IX. For the most recent years, we [ focus on ] professional basketball, including the WBL [ Women's Basketball League ] .
WCT: One of the topics covered in the book is lesbianism. What was your reaction to Sheryl Swoopes coming out?
PG: I thought it was terrific because it's important to acknowledge that there are lesbians playing in [ all levels of ] women's basketball. For too long, women's basketball has tried to hide that. Hiding that is just not good for the sport, I think.
There's a really interesting history to this that's talked about in the book. Playing basketball was always questioned as if it was a womanly thing to do. In the 1950s, there was all of this focus on the sport being unladylike and then there was concern about gay people. For the general public, lesbians were also seen as unwomanly so there was this conflation of two activities that were [ seemingly ] unwomanly. So there was this association between athletics and lesbianism, which doesn't have any real basis. It's been a long road to someone like Sheryl Swoopes.
WCT: You mentioned basketball seeming unwomanly at one time. Similarly, some men think if they come out that they will seem unmanly and that it's harder for them to come out. What do you think of those comments?
PG: I don't know. I think it's hard for women to come out; they do take a risk. They may be more accepted by their team but nobody's going to say that they don't want to play on the same team as Sheryl Swoopes—I'll tell you that.
I remember her saying that she was worried that she might not be a role model for young girls. I think she's a better role model now; a lot of athletes don't have the moral and political courage she's shown.
WCT: Where do you see the future of women's basketball?
PG: They're just going to keep getting better. One thing Susan and I always say is that for women's basketball to become popular, people have to change their ideas about women a bit. They have to take more pleasure in watching strong women showing courage and force as opposed to lipstick, high heels and fancy hairdos. I think our culture still has a way to go [ in that aspect ] .
There's been a lot of progress but one of the things we show is that things don't always get better, like the gender anxiety that took place after the Cold War. I hate to say it, but [ that way of thinking ] could happen again. The players may get better, but you can't take it for granted that the situation would get better.
WCT: What was the most surprising thing you discovered?
PG: First, that there were so many cool women. I think people think that there wasn't much basketball played by women before Title IX, but there are all of these stories of women who played previous to that.
Also, there's a cool story involving [ legendary college basketball coach and Women's Basketball Hall of Fame member ] Vivian Stringer. Her high school had no women's basketball team. She actually tried out for cheerleading to get as close to the field as she could. She was the first Black girl to try out for cheerleading; she didn't make it and the NAACP had to file a protest for her to get on the team. She went on to college and trained to become a coach. The rest is history.