Sporting Bodies and Bodies Politic: Gender and Soccer in Latin America
Conference on Latin American History 18
From the time of soccer’s arrival in Latin America in the late nineteenth century, it has served as a way both to reflect and to project idealized images of Latin American societies. Journalists and political elites early saw the crystallizing potential of the sport and began crafting narratives about the body politic and emerging national cultures around it. These constructions were not gender neutral. Rather, as Latin American societies continued to hold to the belief that women’s role was to stay in the home reproducing healthy citizens, soccer became a quintessentially male domain. And in the face of rising women’s participation in the educational, political, and social realms in the early twentieth century, the need to police gender boundaries became more pronounced. In soccer as with the nation, women’s place was supposed to be in the stands, not on the field. Thus, though women began playing soccer in Latin America in the early 1900s, for most of the century they were discouraged from playing and women’s presence at soccer matches became increasingly problematic. Indeed, into the late twentieth century many in the region sought to suppress women's participation completely. In Brazil, for example, politicians so feared the social impact of young women playing soccer that it banned them from playing the sport for over thirty years. Yet, while the role of soccer in constructing masculine national identities in Latin America has been recognized since the mid-1990s, little work has examined the role that women played in this phenomenon, either as players, fans, or rhetorical foils. The papers in this panel represent a new direction in soccer scholarship in the United States, examining the intersection of gender, sport, and nation in unique ways. Comparing beauty queens to the beautiful game allows us to highlight the racial nature of Brazilian society in sharp relief: according to the Brazilian press, while white beauty queens lost pageants through no fault of their own, Brazilian soccer losses fell squarely on the shoulders of Afro-Brazilian members of the squad. In Mexico, women struggled for space to play as gendered perceptions of women’s soccer and women soccer players helped suppress the sport even after top three finishes at the 1970 and 1971 Women’s World Championships. Meanwhile, in Argentina, women shaped men's soccer to their own purposes rather than demanding a parallel sport system. In so doing they challenged the central premise of Argentine sports culture and transgressed the gendered boundaries it intended to create.