'Hail Mary' deftly embraces the queer history of women's football
REMINDER: Tonight at 7:00pm ET, Zoom Q&A with NWFL star Linda Stamps and "Hail Mary" authors Frankie de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo.
Hi, friends! First off, a reminder that TONIGHT IS THE NIGHT for our Power Plays Book Club zoom Q&A!!
It features Columbia Pacesetters founding member Linda Stamps and Frankie de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo, authors of “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.”
Click here to register for the event.
It starts at 7:00 p.m. ET and will last about an hour. If you haven’t been to a Power Plays Book Club event before, I can assure you they are very fun and chill, you will learn SO MUCH about a part of women’s sports history that is often overlooked, you can ask questions directly to our guests (or through me), and there are no pop quizzes, so even if you haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, join us!
If you’ve missed some of our Power Plays Book Club fun over the past couple of months, in past newsletters we’ve looked back at the history of women’s football and how women with large bodies found acceptance in the NWFL that they didn’t find in everyday life. Then last week, we looked back at a Columbia Pacesetters program from 1977, which is an absolutely fascinating peek into the world of the NWFL.
But before we all come together tonight, I want to take a minute to highlight what I think is one of the strongest parts of “Hail Mary” — the way that de la Cretaz and D’Arcangelo wrote about queerness in the NWFL.
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When looking at the history of women’s sports, the role of the LGBTQ+ community is often either talked about in hushed tones and vague language, or ignored completely. And the intent isn’t always malicious. Sometimes it’s done this way because the writers and reporters aren’t comfortable with the subject, or because they believe it’s somehow inappropriate or even disrespectful to address it at all.
But de la Cretaz and D’Arcangelo take a different approach, tackling — pun intended — the subject head on, while adding important historical context and nuance along the way.
The Dallas Bluebonnets played its first game in 1973, a year before the NWFL officially launched. But according to “Hail Mary,” the seeds for the Bluebonnets were sown a year prior at a lesbian bar in Dallas, Texas. (Emphasis mine)
At the time, there were several women's bars that dotted the blocks comprising Oak Lawn, known as Dallas's gayborhood. It was 1972 and the blocks that would eventually gentrify and be considered a trendy place to live were still gritty and seedy. The bar where the Bluebonnets were born was without pretenses: the bulk of the joint was taken up by the bar itself, the rest by a small dance floor and some pool tables. Groups of women chatted, pairs of women flirted, and everyone had one eye on the door. Should the police show up and raid the place, the women would be ready to keep their hands and eyes to themselves at a moment's notice.
Among the fold was D. A. Starkey, a hard-drinking, loud-talking butch woman — a self-described "dyke"— who was always looking for some kind of fun. Or trouble. That night, one of Starkey's friends brought in something she'd found in the Dallas Times Herald, an ad that caught her eye: it was two lines in the personal section, looking for women to try out for a professional football team.
Starkey had never played football before, but she did play softball, so she knew she could catch, and was intrigued by the idea of playing such a physical sport and having an excuse to push and shove people around.
That night, Starkey and many of her friends at the bar decided to try out for the team. They weren’t the only lesbians who were drawn to the sport, and de la Cretaz and D’Arcangelo provide insight into why that is.
The women who played in the NWFL bucked convention in ways that went beyond simply taking the football field. While it is not true for all of them, of course, many of the women who played in the league were gay.
It’s a common assumption that women who play sports are lesbians. And this assumption is often meant as an insult, so as to demean these athletes for breaking out of the conventional roles and expectations of women. Yet while this isn't always the case, it is true that many queer women often do play sports. And historically, as as Susan K. Cahn writes in her 1994 book Coming on Strong, sports teams have often been places where lesbian women could find community and acceptance in an otherwise hostile world.
“Hail Mary” notes that the NWFL’s launch was “just a few years removed from the Black Cat Tavern uprising of 1967 and Stonewall Inn uprising of 1969.” There weren’t many places — especially in the small, rural towns where many NWFL teams were located — where it was safe to be gay in public. But Dallas had five lesbian bars at the time that provided a galvanizing space of self-acceptance.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that so many of the women who hung out in the gay women's bar scene at that time were drawn to the Bluebonnets. Many of the women were athletic and played on various sports teams, like softball and soccer, that were organized through the bars. They saw football as an extension of that. But more than that, these women were experts at creating community spaces when the world was a hostile place for people like them. In that way, the teams and the bars served much the same purpose.
These bars were such big supporters of the league, and the players were such an integral part of Dallas's lesbian community, that local women's bars bought ad space in their game-day programs.
“Hail Mary” stresses that while the NWFL was forming during a crucial period for the gay rights movement, as counterintuitive as it might seem today, activism wasn’t at the heart of every decision these women were making. Many of them, like Starkey, were just trying to live their lives.
(Side note: I very much want to be friends with Starkey.)
But not everyone in the Dallas queer bars was following the queer liberation movement, or was even aware of the shifting political tides. Dallas "wasn't like Stonewall." Bluebonnets quarterback Barbara O'Brien says today. For her part, Starkey was too busy getting drunk and picking up women to pay attention to politics. She left those details to other people in the community; thinking too much about being up against the world would spoil her fun, and that was all Starkey wanted in life. She was constantly chasing the next adrenaline rush, whether it was on the field or in the bars.
Of course, the Bluebonnets weren’t the only team in the NWFL that had a number of lesbians on the roster. And “Hail Mary” doesn’t shy away from the occasional complications that arose from the resulting interpersonal relationships, either.
Romances, hookups, and interpersonal drama sometimes made their way into the locker room as a result. There was at least one hookup between Los Angeles Dandelions players. Two members of the Dolls were a couple. And Rose Motil, the quarterback of the Columbus Pacesetters for three games in 1974 (until she tore her ACL), lived with her partner, Pacesetters fullback Mary Morrison, in an apartment on Ohio State University's campus near German Village. Motil graduated high school in 1971 and came out the following year, and frequented popular Columbus women's bars in the seventies, including Summit Station and Mel's.
One player for the Columbus Pacesetters in the 1980s, Vickie Pardue, remembers the team's trainer "wrapping her ankle too good," after which the two slept together. "And we all know how that turned out," the player smirked on a Facebook post. Then Deb Fry started playing, and her girlfriend Suzanne became the team's money girl. After Fry and Suzanne split up, Suzanne and Pardue dated for the next seven and a half years.
There is a lot more on this subject in the book, which I hope you all will read if you haven’t already. But overall, I just hope more writers and documentarians who are covering women’s sports history (and present!) follow the blueprint “Hail Mary” set out and address the role that the queer community plays in women’s sports with respect, context, and candor.
I hope to see many of you tonight! Again, you can register here. There will be a full replay and transcript available later this week for paying Power Plays subscribers.
I really enjoyed the book. Not a football fan but the book club pushed it up to the top of my TBR and got me out of a reading slump. Looking forward to tonight.