Lady Vols CountryRoundup
tags: sports, womens history, basketball, Appalachia
Jessica Wilkerson is a writer and historian from East Tennessee. She is the author of To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice (2019). She is currently completing her second book, A Women's History of Appalachia. She teaches at West Virginia University.
I spent my childhood in the country about fifteen miles north of Knoxville, Tennessee. The center of our little community was Harbison Crossroads, on one corner a gas station and the other the IGA, where one could purchase pickled eggs and handmade clothes for Barbie dolls. Once my friends and I could drive, we went to the closest Walmart and browsed magazines—Cosmopolitan, Allure, Teen. The more sophisticated knew where to find markets off two-lane roads where merchants sold cigarettes and beer to teens. The Internet didn’t arrive until I was about to graduate high school, and when it finally did, it was too slow, and I was too impatient.
Our dads built, fixed, and sold stuff. Our mothers worked as secretaries, nurses, and dental assistants, in food service, and at department stores. Everybody went to church, mostly Methodist and Southern Baptist, an occasional Presbyterian. The pastors—white men ministering to white congregations—read scripture and told jokes with moral lessons. To get to our house, you turned off the main two-lane road across from one Southern Baptist church and turned right just before you reached another. For a month of every year, the one on the main road decorated its church lawn with dozens of tiny white crosses that represented aborted fetuses. My parents were not particularly devout, but they let us go to youth groups with friends and cousins, virtually the only place to socialize outside of school. During my teen years, the focus of youth pastors was on abstinence and the necessity of saving boys from the sin of sexual desire. Homosexuality and abortion were the two worst sins one could commit. I remember the first time I heard this, during a Bible school I attended with a friend. The youth pastor, red-faced and sweaty, screamed at us, a group of distracted kids sitting quietly on the polished wooden pews and eager to return outside, beyond the gaze of the adults who perceived our bodies as threats.
These were the years of third-wave feminism. But in the country north of Knoxville, Riot Grrrl, zines, and coffeeshops did not exist. Instead, there was full-on cultural backlash that never appeared as backlash so much as a continuation of how things had always been—a man’s world, and we were living in it. Adults around us communicated that feminism of whatever wave was dangerous, was a joke, was ridiculous, with one glaring exception that could never be identified as such: the success of Pat Summitt as head coach of the University of Tennessee’s Lady Volunteers basketball team. For nearly one hundred years, women had been assumed too weak and dumb to play the sport competitively, but the Lady Vols, led by Pat, helped to change that.
By the Nineties, softball and basketball had become rites of passage for girls in our community. At the nearby ballpark or in the old high school gym, my younger sister and cousins—girls with tanned arms, knobby knees, and French-braided hair—practiced skills that would prepare them for high school teams. Some even attended sports camps in Knoxville, begun by Pat in 1977 amid ongoing challenges to the legitimacy of women’s athletics. Many would go on to win regional and state championships. There was nothing special or startling about these scenes of girls’ athletic excellence. They were part of everyday life, the most visible evidence of a changing society that coexisted with messages that constrained girls’ existence.
Sports are not just about sports. They encompass a battleground for determining how gender manifests in the world, how women and girls can use their bodies, and who can access self-determination. For many of us, even those, like me, whose imagined future arena was not in sports, Pat and the teams she led sent low-wave frequencies of possibilities for a different kind of life. I received these messages as a girl in East Tennessee. Feminism was not a word spoken much around me, but I saw an important representation of feminism as a thing a person did (rather than what they were) in Pat’s career.
I attended my first Lady Vols basketball game in the Nineties, when I was a teenager and when the team was on its historic run, winning three national championships in three years. Pat wore a power suit and her hair short, and she was legendary for her stare that contained multitudes. She exuded a version of womanhood I had never seen. On my way to the game, an older male family member had told me to be careful not to get kidnapped, insinuating that lesbians lurked in bathrooms at Lady Vols games. This same family member would just as quickly exclaim that Pat Summitt was the greatest coach of all time. So good, in fact, that the NBA tried to hire her as a coach. So excellent that she was qualified to give men advice.
This was but one example of the paradoxes we lived with in Lady Vols Country—a deep pride in the woman who dominated college basketball, men’s and women’s, alongside anxiety about the meaning of a woman-controlled space. Pat had made a career of navigating these contradictions, but it all started with the simple act of her parents giving their daughter permission to live the life she craved.