Why "A League of Their Own" Is An Overlooked Feminist Triumph

The fact that this is a movie about baseball should have meant I had no interest in it. But this is also a story that tries to capture a cultural watershed moment in history.

Apr 25, 2014 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

At some point in my childhood, my maternal grandmother got to telling me about what she did during the war.
 
The war was World War II; my grandmother was born in 1914. I developed an interest in this part of history in part because of a family story I’d heard most of my life, the story of how my grandfather -- an infantry solider on the Western front -- was wounded and sent home. As it went, a German machine gunner was firing down the line of men, and all the men fell, until at last he reached my grandfather, and suddenly the gun jammed (or possibly ran out of ammunition) after shooting him in the hand, giving him time to escape.
 
A part of me was enthralled with the concept of a world in which the gun continued to fire, and my mother -- and therefore me -- never came into existence. Initially I wanted to hear more about my grandfather’s experiences as a soldier; he had died when I was still very young, so these were conversations I never got to have with him, if he’d been willing to have them at all.
 
Instead, my grandmother told me about her own life during that time, with enthusiasm, recounting her travels to Alabama to follow my grandfather during his training, and then her own solo life once he was gone. She worked as a secretary and stenographer, moving from her lifelong home in Pennsylvania to Starke, Florida, where she experienced an independence largely unknown by many married women who grew up in an era where women of her background were expected to raise a family and to find all the satisfaction they needed in life from that work alone. 
 
Instead, my grandmother spent those years making a wide variety of friends, living with roommates in boarding homes (including sharing a room with one woman who tried to hit on her, to my grandmother's continuing astonishment) and had the experience of many women of the era, working for their own money and directing their own lives with a freedom none of them had imagined possible in their lifetimes, as women stepped up to fill the workforce being vacated by the men going off to fight.
 
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My grandparents in wartime.

I would interrupt to ask her, when she went on about the details of her rooming house in Starke, a small town mostly known for its proximity to a large prison and a military base, what was it like to MISS my grandfather, her husband, to worry about him, possibly being shot at by bad guys, so far across the ocean? My inquiries were always met with a brief, shrugging resignation, an acknowledgement that so many women were in the same situation, and they made the best of it in the circumstances -- and to be fair, it was probably a difficult thing to remember and discuss -- followed by a quick return to her real favorite story, her own.
 
I was always perplexed by her reluctance to focus on what I thought was the more exciting and heroic side of that era. It wasn’t until many years later that I understood why -- that I understood that her experiences were every bit as exciting and heroic, just in different ways. 
 
--
 
There are certain popular films that I've seen so many times that I failed to ever develop an objective appreciation for them -- they've simply been a part of my cultural vernacular for most of my adult life.
 
“A League of Their Own” is one of those movies. I’ve spent a week combing through my memories on the subject but I still cannot recall the first time I saw it, whether it was in a theater, or from a video-rental place, at a friend’s house, or in my own room. “A League of Their Own” was theatrically released in 1992, when I was 15, but in my mind it’s just always been there, a film made by and starring a cast of primarily women, and confronting a subject that would seemingly have no use for so many ladies -- baseball.
 
It would be easy to point out that Tom Hanks, who portrays the gruff, cruel, chauvinistic alcoholic coach of the Rockford Peaches, is one of the stars of this film, and also that because it’s Tom Hanks, by the end he’ll be none of those terrible characteristics anymore. While this is true, that would overlook the real star of “A League of Their Own” -- the true emotional center of this film is not an individual at all, but the relationship between rural Oregon dairy workers and adult sisters Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis) and Kit Keller (Lori Petty), as well as the relationships between all the women on the teams, and the choices they make.
 
Dottie and Kit play baseball together as amateurs in their small town, when Dottie is spotted by a scout (played with immaculate insensitivity and revulsion by Jon Lovitz)  for a new “girls’” professional baseball team -- what would become the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, or AAGPBL -- being assembled by major league executives concerned that the war will eventually cause men’s baseball to shut down, since so many players have left to join the military. Dottie is the sister no one wants, really -- she is the kind of woman the word “statuesque” was made for, but she’s not simply beautiful, she’s also smart, self-assured, and deeply committed to her husband Bob, who is currently serving overseas. Plus, if that wasn’t enough, she’s brilliant at baseball. If Dottie has a failing, it’s that her stoicism can come across as coldness -- but that’s likely just how she’s managing to survive.
 
With all these perfect characteristics, Dottie is a nightmare comparison for her younger sister, the tomboyish, hot-headed and passionate Kit, who loves baseball and wants desperately to escape the insular little world in which she will always be known as “Dottie’s sister.” The tension begins when the scout wants to bring Dottie -- who thinks the whole thing is a ridiculous fantasy -- to league tryouts, but not Kit, who wants this opportunity more than she can even say. A deal is struck: Kit can go to tryouts if she brings Dottie with her, and thus the underlying resentment between these two is set to carry us through the entire film.
 
The fact that this is a movie about baseball should have meant I had no interest in it. When I was a teenager, sports held roughly the same amount of appeal for me as as a trip to the dentist, and while things have changed on this front slightly as I’ve gotten older, I’m still not a sports fan so much as I am a fan of human effort and triumph -- or sometimes failure. But this is also a movie that tries to capture a cultural watershed moment in history.
 
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Operating a hand drill at Vultee-Nashville, woman is working on a "Vengeance" dive bomber, Tennessee, 1943. Photo credit: The Library of Congress

Most of us can easily recognize the image of Rosie the Riveter, but the change in the workforce and the economy wrought by World War 2 was unlike anything the US had seen in a modern context. The need for workers to keep industry rolling along -- and that which applied to the war effort was most critically important -- provided an opportunity for women who had never expected to pick up a drill in their lives to do so.
 
It wasn’t simply the ability to work, either -- many women of non-affluent backgrounds had often worked at one point in their lives or another, albeit usually in traditional female professions like education and secretarial jobs. These new circumstances were different because they offered many women the chance to do new kinds of work that had once been explicitly the domain of men, and that they had been shut out of -- industrial work, engineering work, mechanical work. More than that, they were told that they had a patriotic responsibility to take on the more physical roles left behind -- including playing baseball. 
 
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"Women: There's work to be done and a war to be won ... Now! See your U.S. Employment Service." 1944. Photo credit: The Library of Congress

The connection between baseball and the war effort is not clear until we consider the effect of a loss of baseball on the nation’s morale -- baseball is, after all, America’s national pastime, and even in war people rely on sport to entertain them, to offer a pleasant afternoon in which the troubles elsewhere on the planet can be momentarily forgotten.
 
Early on in “A League of Their Own,” the girls’ league is portrayed as initially being met with mockery, but this was not entirely true -- in the real-life version, the league was virtually an overnight success, helped on by the fact the teams traveled widely to small towns in the Midwest that otherwise had no access to live baseball, and war or not, this was a special treat.
 
When I was learning about this era of history in school, the work taken on by American “Rosies” during the war was given only a cursory acknowledgement -- they were going into the workforce exclusively because men were busy with the more important task of saving the world from tyranny. These women weren’t really embarking on careers; they were temporarily supporting the war effort. They weren’t supposed to like it. They weren’t supposed to stay.
 
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Woman working on an airplane motor at North American Aviation, Inc., plant in Calif. 1942. Photo credit: The Library of Congress

 
Obviously, this plan probably sounded very simple on paper, but when you involve real people in such plans, the outcome is bound to change -- especially when they are real people who may be away from home for the first time, people representing a variety of backgrounds, cultures, and experiences, some of whom may have already wondered why they were pressured into a life in which they were expected to find all the fulfillment they could need in raising a family, when that might not be what they individually wanted. Or, it might not be all they wanted.
 
So while the opportunity to play professional ball may have come as a result of the war, to the characters of “A League of Their Own,” this game is part of their life’s dream regardless of the circumstances. 
 
In that sense, this film is also about fighting the expectations and limitations others place on you. The players of the AAGPBL are allowed to play ball for money, but they’re also forced to attend charm and beauty school as part of their contract (this was also true in real life), ostensbily because of the fear that these women might get so wrapped up in baseball that they forget how to be feminine, and the notion that these working women would somehow irreperably ruin their gender in the process was actually a thing some were vocally concerned about.
 
They also have to play in skirts -- actual skirts, and that painful scene in which one player is icing what looks like a massive and horrific bruise covering her entire outer thigh? That wasn’t makeup -- that was a real injury from sliding into base without pants, and apparently it happened quite a lot.
 
There is also a small but powerful moment in “A League of Their Own” that acknowledges the women who didn’t even have the opportunity to make that compromise, when a stray ball rolls to a side fence where a handful of black people are watching the game -- no doubt because they were not allowed to sit in the stands -- and a black woman picks it up and elegantly fires it over the heads of two waiting players into the glove of another, much further away.
 
Although the film doesn’t extrapolate, this woman is said to have been inspired by Mamie "Peanut" Johnson, who attempted to try out for the AAGPBL in the early 50s but was turned away, because she wasn't white. (She did eventually play with the men’s Negro League for three years -- as a starting pitcher, in fact. Where’s our Mamie Johnson biopic? That seems overdue.)
 
But then just when the league seems to be hitting its stride, and the players are beginning to trust and value the teams and relationships they've built together, the film threatens to take it all away. Walter Harvey, the fictionalized team owner and league founder, suggests that the league will be shutting down soon. He says the US is “winning the war,” and therefore the AAGPBL with cease to exist next year (never mind that he asserts this in 1943, which was a little premature considering the league ran until 1954). 
 
Watching a game from the stands, Harvey says to the league’s manager, “I love these girls. I don’t need them, but I love them,” and it’s like he’s referring to a litter of kittens. But this was legitimately how many people thought of women’s participation in the war effort -- it was cute, and useful, but ultimately an aberration, as the role of many women upon the war’s end would be to return to traditional roles as wives and mothers. It's also a reminder that all of this AAGPBL business happened at the behest of men trying to turn a profit.
 
However, to the players in “A League of Their Own,” the war is an omnipresent but distant concern. Dottie hasn’t gotten a letter from her husband in weeks, but she remains stoic even in the face of what must be crushing worry. 
 
Dottie also struggles with her own ambivalence about playing -- on the one hand, it’s hard not to love playing a game when you play it well. On the other, Dottie genuinely never wanted to be a professional anything, least of all a ballplayer. She battles with the fact that she is a part of this movement but really only half on the bus.
 
At the film’s beginning -- which takes place in the modern era, prefacing the flashback that comprises most of the story -- an older Dottie tells her adult daughter that it was never really her thing, this league. She only played for one season, and she doesn’t feel right participating in a reunion when she was never as committed to it as the other girls. Dottie doubts that she really belongs with them.
 
This ambivalence is reflected in Dottie’s experience at the time, as well. At one point, one of the girls on Dottie’s team receives a telegram informing her that her husband has been killed in battle, and for a terrible moment, Dottie believes that telegram is for her. The team gathers to support their sobbing and wailing friend in what is easily the most difficult and heartbreaking scene in the entire film.
 
Later, Dottie sobs inconsolably, alone in her bedroom at the team’s rooming house, and it’s the only time we see her break down emotionally -- but it’s enough, because it serves to demonstrate the enormous pain she must be managing on a daily basis, but keeping it all together because that’s what she thinks she has to do.
 
Fortunately, this is a movie, so her husband Bob suddenly appears at her door, wounded but very much alive, and Dottie, certainly feeling an enormity of relief, decides to leave with him to drive home the next day.
 
When Dottie tries to explain her leaving on the eve of the World Series to her coach Jimmy Duggan -- that’s the wonderful Tom Hanks -- he is flabbergasted that she could leave it all behind so readily. Dottie asserts, "I don't need this. I have Bob," because all she ever wanted was to have her husband and a family in rural Oregon. Dottie believes she can just dump her teammates, that she doesn't need them and therefore they don't need her.
 
Jimmy is unconvinced, telling her, "Sneaking out like this, quitting. You'll regret it for the rest of your life. Baseball is what gets inside you, it's what lights you up. You can't deny that."
 
Dottie replies, "It just got too hard."
 
"It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great."
 
BAM.
 
It helps that it’s Tom Hanks delivering this line, a line that in a lesser actor’s mouth could sound hackneyed and saccharine. And there is some irony in the fact that it is the only primary male character telling a woman struggling under a thousand conflicting emotions about what she thinks she is supposed to want and what she actually wants that she should just deal with it being “hard.” But it works when Dottie leaves anyway, because this is her choice.
 
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Dottie and Kit.

 
Throughout all of this, Kit has still been standing in her sister’s shadow, listening to everyone talk about how perfect and brilliant Dottie is, always feeling like second best. Whether Dottie is pulling her sister off the mound for being too tired to finish a game, or getting her (unintentionally) traded to another team in the league manager’s botched effort at resolving the “tension” between them, Kit always seems to get the short end of the stick.
 
Eventually, in a fight, Dottie yells angrily at Kit that she wouldn’t even be in the league if Dottie hadn’t gotten her in. Kit’s frustration is explosive. She asks her perfect sister, “Why do you have to be so good?” Stuck in a cycle of constant comparison, Kit can never be anything more than adequate so long as her perfect sister is around.
 
The two have their final confrontation at the last game of the World Series, a game that -- naturally, because this is a movie -- Dottie has turned around and come back to play in, and a game in which Dottie’s team is playing against Kit’s team for the title. When Kit faces her sister from the mound for the first time, her conviction begins to waver, and when Dottie fires a hit that nearly takes Kit’s head off, Kit starts to break down completely, and is soon sobbing uncontrollably in the dugout while her impatient teammates tell her over and over again to shake it off, because she has to hit.
 
Kit has always been the sweeter, more impulsive, and more sensitive sister, the one who wants to fight when Dottie wants to let things lie, the one who wants to kick and scream when Dottie stands there stonefaced and still. Her crying at this critical moment seems to suggest that Kit doubts that she actually can beat her sister, that she could ever top anything Dottie has done -- it’s as if her whole life of feeling inferior and second-best is crashing down on her at the worst possible moment.
 
Kit’s team eventually wins, when Kit makes an incredible hit and Dottie drops the ball at home plate. Dottie’s team -- the team we’ve come to know and love over the course of the film -- are devastated, but as Dottie watches Kit’s teammates carry her off the field, her face is positively lit up with joy for her sister’s success.
 
Later, when they have their first civil conversation since early on in the film, Dottie tells Kit, "You beat me, you wanted it more than me." And Kit doesn’t know how to take such an acknowledgement except to be grateful. Dottie is leaving, going back to Oregon with her husband, and Kit is staying in Chicago, with plans to get a place with some of the other girls and try to make that new life she’s always wanted. They seem to know they won’t see each other much in the future, because their paths are different.
 
For me, this is one of the most radical subtexts of “A League of Their Own,” this astonishing idea that both sisters’ choices are okay, that neither is better than the other, that the important thing is to chase your dreams, regardless of whether those dreams are inside or outside the expectations life has laid out for you. Dottie is invested in tradition and is perfectly happy to go back to the farm in Oregon and have kids and spend her life being a wife and mother and never play baseball again. Kit can't imagine doing that, and wants to stick around and get a regular job in the off season and do things her way. Both of these decisions are equally valid;, both of them are equally feminist.
 
This period of history gave women opportunities that culture never would have allowed them to embrace without the intervention of the war, and for some women, it made them realize they didn't want to go back to the way things were, that they wanted different lives, lives they could shape for themselves. Where once they might have thought refusal wasn't even an option, they suddenly came to realize that they were capable of success even outside the expectations social norms had set for them. Like Kit, sobbing in the dugout in the final inning, filled with doubt that she has it in her to get the thing she wants most in the world -- to be herself, independent of her sister, to be good at something, to be an individual.
 
And at the end, when Kit tells Dottie, "Just when I want you to stay, you're leaving." She realizes it was never really Dottie she was competing with, never Dottie who was the cause of all her problems, but rather it was her own insecurity and fear.
 
The film has done a lot to draw attention to this period and place in history, and for the 20th anniversary of the film’s release, some of the All-American Professional Girls’ Baseball League’s original players participated in a reunion game in Syracuse, NY. Even these original ballplayers are impressed by the continuing popular interest in the league so many of them gave their all to. 
 
But I would hazard a guess that it’s about much more than just a league, or a game, or even the people playing it. “A League of Their Own” is more than the sum of its parts, and it is in some respect a ruse -- it is a film that tricks an audience into watching a movie about baseball, only to realize that what they are actually watching is a story about dreams, about women’s lives and the choices they make, and about striving against expectations and assumptions and stereotypes to figure out and become the person you want to be, so that you can one day look back on your life and feel proud of the risks you took, instead of regret over missed opportunities. 
 
They're all for one, they're one for all, they’re All-Americans.