Bodies on Display: Gender and Sexuality in 1970s‒1980s Athletics, Politics, and Entertainment

Endorsed by the Business History Conference (BHC) and Women and Social Movements in the United States,1600‒2000

Saturday, April 2, 2022, 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Gender and Sexuality; Social and Cultural; Women's History


The twin revolutions of feminism and sexual expressiveness reshaped private and public American life throughout the 1970s and 1980s. This panel considers the complicated ways that feminism and its multidimensional impacts were inscribed on and debated through gendered bodies in athletic, political, and commercialized sexual contexts. The first paper explores the symbolic torch relay that culminated at the 1977 National Women’s Conference as a deeply significant—and ambivalent—moment in the history of women’s sports and argues that it exposed how deeply embedded were associations between femininity and physical weakness. The second paper analyzes the public debate around a “dumb blonde” secretary embroiled in a 1976 sex scandal to illuminate how political humor reinforced existing power arrangements marked by heteromasculine privilege on and off Capitol Hill. The final paper relates the story of the famous male strip show the Chippendales, which over the 1980s transformed mainstream masculine beauty norms and elevated a highly cultivated physique in part through commodified “role-reversal feminism.” This panel therefore investigates the roles of publicly visible bodies and their representations in media and consumer culture in creating, reinforcing, or challenging gender norms during an era of intense social transformation. Taken together, this research offers new insights into ways that Americans literally externalized debates over the changing roles and aesthetics of men and women. This panel brings together historians and a journalist working inside and outside the academy not only to consider the thematic connections among our projects, but also the ways that we might make historical research and writing accessible to a broader public. In using popular culture and interviews as sources, we cross disciplinary boundaries. Panelists expect a vibrant discussion with audience members around their experiences with journalism, podcasting, social media, and undergraduate teaching as ways to disseminate historical research.

Papers Presented

The “Buxom Blonde” in Political and Popular Culture: Liz Ray and the 1976 Congressional Sex Scandals

In May 1976, a secretary named Elizabeth Ray set off a summer of sex scandal when she revealed to the press that her boss, the powerful congressman Wayne Hays, had kept her on the payroll for sexual rather than clerical duties. While illicit sex had long been a topic of gossip in Washington, the Hays-Ray affair marked a turning point in the media’s relationship to scandal politics, even as it demonstrated how much of the American political culture continued to be defined according to the terms of hegemonic masculinity. This article analyzes the public debate—and the discursive silences—through the lenses of gender and sexuality to explore ways that the twin revolutions of feminism and sexual expressiveness affected the discourse around national politics in this era, including how women’s increased political power was challenging the unspoken privileges associated with white men’s political dominance, as well as the ways that those challenges were defused in order to maintain existing power arrangements. I explore the ways that political journalism and humor intersected with an increasingly “pornified” and sexually expressive public culture around the symbol of Liz Ray. Her objectification as a “dumb blonde” defused the threat that she posed in exposing systemic abuses on and off Capitol Hill during an era of large-scale changes wrought by feminism. Elizabeth Ray’s name and body became part of the shared cultural vocabulary through which Americans in the Bicentennial and scandal-ridden summer 1976 mediated their relationship to a disappointing “establishment.”

Presented By
Sarah B. Rowley, DePauw University

From “They Put Me in Girl’s Pants” to Saturday Night Live: Chippendales and the Making of Modern Masculinity in 1980s America

In a classic 1990 Saturday Night Live skit, Patrick Swayze and Chris Farley audition for Chippendales, the famous strip show that featured men performing for women. The joke is how unaware the men are of the different effects of Farley’s flabby rolls and Swayze’s sculpted physique on their imagined audience. But the skit signified more than a punchline: over the 1980s, the male stripper had evolved from a subcultural figure associated with gay pornography to a mainstream trope hypervisible in shopping malls, nightclubs, and on daytime television, reshaping dominant ideas about heteronormativity, masculine presentation, and female consumption. Chippendales, born in a seedy nightclub in 1970s Los Angeles, was the engine of this transformation. The all-male revue launched in a moment when men who ministered so carefully to their physical appearance were considered stage attractions at best, and effeminate deviants at worst. Yet over the next decade, the Chippendales aesthetic - an unapologetically cultivated, muscular male body - evolved from an aberration from mainstream masculinity to an affirmation of it, thanks in part to the commodification of “role-reversal feminism.” Chippendales’ popularity waned in the 1990s, but its aesthetic and affective legacy endures: in “boy bands,” the “metrosexual,” and even the corporate dad who exercises in expensive spandex. Based on 66 interviews and original research conducted for the podcast Welcome to Your Fantasy, this paper traces this transformation and its implications for historiographies that often marginalize popular culture and the contingent nature of masculinity, and only begin to grapple with the 1980s as history.

Presented By
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, The New School

Taking It to the Streets: The Untold Story of the Tumultuous 3,000-Mile Torch Relay to the 1977 Women’s National Conference

In November 1977, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem, and more feminist luminaries—along with delegates from every state and thousands of supporters—poured into the Sam Houston Coliseum in Houston for the much-hyped Women’s National Conference. But before the conference even began, an equally vital public display of women’s rights played out on roads winding from Seneca Falls through the Lone Star State: a relay, in which a diverse group of runners carried a majestic torch 2,612 miles from the site where suffragettes held the first national women’s conference to the coliseum’s doors. In popular histories, this relay is glossed over as a ceremonial starting gun—but as this paper reveals, it was not only a deeply significant moment in women’s pursuit of physical parity but also a tumultuous one. Sponsored by Redbook and Billie Jean King’s womenSports, the relay was, on one hand, a victory lap for women’s running pioneers who had, just a few years earlier, won the right to compete in road races longer than two miles. But it also exposed how far women still had to go to convince parts of the nation they were as physically capable as men, and that strenuous activity didn’t diminish a woman’s femininity. Because once the runners crossed the Mason Dixon line, their course became so rife with obstacles—including threats to their safety—they almost didn’t make it to Houston. Through interviews with women who carried the torch, this paper explores why the relay deserves more than a footnote in feminist history.

Presented By
Danielle Friedman, Journalist and author at Putnam Books (Penguin Random House)

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Meg Devlin, State University of New York at New Paltz
Meg Devlin is Associate Professor of History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at
the State University of New York at New Paltz. She earned her B.A. in history and women’s
studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Ph.D. in history at the University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill. She teaches and publishes in the areas of U.S. women’s history, Native
American history, and feminist pedagogy. Her scholarship has appeared in The Chronicles of
Oklahoma; Tennessee Historical Quarterly; Women’s History Review; Journal of Family
History; Atlantis: Critical Studies in Gender, Culture, & Social Justice; The Native South: NewHistories and Enduring Legacies (University of Nebraska Press); and Teaching History: A
Journal of Methods. Her co-edited book with Kathleen Dowley and Susan Ingalls Lewis is
Suffrage and Its Limits: The New York Story (SUNY Press).

Presenter: Danielle Friedman, Journalist and author at Putnam Books (Penguin Random House)
Danielle Friedman is an award-winning journalist who specializes in telling stories at the intersection of health, gender, and culture. She is currently writing a cultural history of women and exercise, Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World, to be published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons (Penguin Random House) in early 2022. Her book begins in the 1950s and brings to life how America evolved from a culture where sweating was “unladylike” and doctors warned that strenuous activity would make a woman’s uterus fall out to the world we live in today, where millions consider exercise essential to their mental, emotional, and physical health—highlighting the (mostly) forgotten pioneers who paved the way. She has worked as a senior editor at NBC News, The Daily Beast, and Fusion, and as a literary nonfiction editor at Amazon Original Stories. Her feature writing has appeared in New York Magazine’s The Cut, Vogue, Glamour, Harper's Bazaar, Time, Health, and other publications. In 2018, she was nominated for a Peabody Award for her role in co-creating and producing the Fusion TV docuseries Sex.Right.Now., a frank, story-driven sexual education program for adults; in 2015, she won a Gracie Award for her viral NBC News feature breaking the news that Facebook and Apple had begun offering egg freezing as a benefit for female employees, becoming the first companies in the country to do so. She holds a B.A. in English from Duke University and a M.S. from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She lives in New York City with her husband and son.

Presenter: Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, The New School
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is Associate Professor of History at The New School, where she researches and teaches about the politics and culture of the United States, with a focus on issues of gender, race, identity, and class in the postwar era. Her first book, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (Oxford, 2015), explores the roots of the culture wars in American public schools, specifically amid heated battles over sexuality and bilingual education. Her current book project, FIT NATION: How America Embraced Exercise as the Government Abandoned It is under contract with University of Chicago Press. Her scholarly work has been supported by the Spencer, Whiting, and Rockefeller Foundations and has been published in journals, edited volumes, and academic online publications such as the Society for U.S. Intellectual History Blog, BOOM, Notches, Public Books, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. She is also a co-host of the Past Present podcast and the host of the Welcome to Your Fantasy podcast. Natalia frequently comments as an expert historian in diverse media outlets and her writing has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Slate, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. She holds a B.A. from Columbia College and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Stanford University, all in History.

Presenter: Sarah B. Rowley, DePauw University
Sarah B. Rowley is an assistant professor of history at DePauw University, where she teaches a wide range of courses interrogating relationships of power in modern America and where she is affiliated with the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program. Specializing in gender and politics in the recent United States, she earned her history PhD from Indiana University in 2015 with a dissertation focusing on abortion politics. She also holds master's degrees in both U.S. history and gender studies. Her article on the religious, pronatalist Quiverfull movement was published in Feminist Formations, and her chapter “Married Congresswomen and the New Breed of Political Husbands in 1970s Political Culture” Suffrage at 100: Women and American Politics since 1920, edited by Stacie Taranto and Leandra Zarnow. Rowley is currently working on a book about gender and political culture in the long 1970s, which is centered on feminist congresswomen.