The gym strikes me as a wonderful place to look at daily life and Americans experiencing themselves as physical beings, but also learning about themselves as social creatures.

Martha Verbrugge

Everybody who has gone through high school remembers gym class – the hideous uniforms, the humiliation on the basketball court, the pride in athletic success. Martha H. Verbrugge, a historian of science and medicine, encountered people's vivid memories like these time and again as she researched her latest book, Active Bodies: A History of Women's Physical Education in Twentieth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 2012).

"The gym strikes me as a wonderful place to look at daily life and Americans experiencing themselves as physical beings, but also learning about themselves as social creatures," says Verbrugge. For instance, in the early 1900s, women's basketball divided the court into multiple zones. Players were restricted to different zones so they wouldn't overexert themselves by running too far. Likewise, "stealing" the ball from an opponent was prohibited as unladylike behavior.

"The design of the game conveyed messages about the female body – what it supposedly could or could not do – but also a host of other messages about femininity and gender, race, sexuality, and class," Verbrugge says. Through physical education, "you get a sense of who you are and where you are expected to fit into society beyond the gym."

Modifying sports so as not to tax the purportedly delicate female frame may seem to be a quaint practice today, but the legacy remains. "We have made enormous strides, but I think unresolved issues still exist," Verbrugge says. "What do we think about the athletic female and how can we achieve true equity and justice in the gym, so everyone, regardless of their gender identity, racial background, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other social construct, feels empowered through physical activity?"

Verbrugge sees her work as building bridges between two worlds. "I like connecting developments in science, technology and medicine with broader phenomena in a society at a particular time in its history," she says. Her last name, after all, means "at or near the bridge" in Dutch.

Verbrugge helps students make those connections by striving to bolster the confidence of humanities students, who may enter her classroom intimidated by science, and to develop a fuller sense of responsibility in science and engineering majors. "Most of the scientific, medical and public health issues that we face today are not solely technical," she says. "They have ethical, legal, social and political dimensions. All of us, especially in a democracy, should be participating in that conversation."

Posted December 2012

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