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“Lipstick should always be on.”
This was one of the rules of conduct for players in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, along with “boyish bobs are not permissible.” These standards were keeping in line with the motto of the women’s baseball league owned by Philip K. Wrigley: Play like a man, look like a lady.
This month marks the 75th anniversary of this historic league, the only women’s professional baseball league in US history, which ran from 1943 to 1954. To commemorate it, a new makeup brand called SPoRT is releasing its very first collection, called “Girls of Summer”: a pillow-box set that includes a 75th-anniversary signature lipstick, three nail polishes, two blushes, and four eyeshadows. The box honors the five Midwestern AAGPBL teams: the Kenosha Comets, Milwaukee Millerettes, Racine Belles, Rockford Peaches, and Chicago Colleens.
According to the press release the company provided to Racked, “SPoRT makeup began with a simple desire to honor the Rockford Peaches 75th Anniversary with a Signature lipstick, called ‘Peach Diva.’” However, “once … archival photos were discovered that emphasized the role that makeup played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, it was decided to add a broader range of makeup products to reflect the League’s insistence that players had to ‘look like women and play like men.’”
While there’s nothing wrong with a makeup collection that honors baseball — OPI released a Major League Baseball–branded nail polish collection in 2014 that was really well-received — choosing to recognize the AAGPBL with one is an interesting decision, particularly because this tagline and the policy that required the players to “ALWAYS appear in feminine clothing when not actively engaged in practice or playing ball” has been pretty roundly criticized over the years (as has the oft-overlooked fact that Negro Leagues player Mamie Johnson and her friend were turned away from AAGPBL tryouts because they were black).
The AAGPBL’s “Charm School” was made famous by the scene in the film A League of Their Own. “Some of us could have used a little polish, but it was hard to walk in high heels with a book on your head when you had a charley horse,” Lavonne “Pepper” Paire said, according to Lois Browne’s book Girls of Summer: In Their Own League. “This we were required to do in the evenings, after we’d been busting our butts for 10 hours on the field.”
The league hired Helena Rubinstein, who owned a chain of beauty salons that made her name synonymous with femininity, to run the Charm School. And while the school was discontinued after a few seasons, a 10-page booklet written by Rubinstein’s staff continued to be handed out. “Women can be athletes, and still be feminine and charming, and therefore a double attraction. Men do not want to come to see women in athletic competition who look like men,” the booklet read. It also came with a beauty kit — which included “cleansing cream, lipstick, rouge medium, cream deodorant, mild astringent, face powder for Brunette, hand lotion, [and] hair remover” — and instructions for how to apply the products.
“I was not used to wearing lipstick or makeup at all,” says Ruth Kramer Hartman, a pitcher and utility infielder who made her AAGPBL debut with the Racine Belles in 1946. “So I put a little on just because I thought I had to.”
One player even remembers being held back from going to the plate during a high-stakes inning until she had refreshed her lipstick, according to Cait Murphy’s book A History of American Sports in 100 Objects.
The instructions for applying the required lipstick stated that “every woman wants to have an attractive and pleasing mouth.” Players were instructed to “open your mouth and outline your own natural curves. If your lips are too thin to please you, shape them into fuller curves.” The directions ended with a warning. “Caution: Now that you have completed the job, be sure that the lipstick has not smeared your teeth.” The guidebook has a paternalistic tone that speaks to the players as women who don’t know how to properly care for themselves, as opposed to athletes who have been hired to play ball.
“Female athletes of the 1920s to 1940s were frequently described by journalists as talented athletes who still possessed their ‘feminine charm’ or who still ‘hoped to find a husband,’” says Donna L. Halper, an associate professor of communication and media studies at Lesley University. “Wearing makeup was undoubtedly part of the effort to say to the people of that era that female athletes were still [stereotypically] female — ‘Look, even though she’s an athlete, she still loves to wear makeup and a dress, so don’t worry!’ It was an effort to allow the female athlete to play sports without being perceived as too threatening.”
The threats of unfeminine women are tangled in homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny. In addition to the stereotypes about women who play sports automatically being lesbians, “back in the 1920s, when more areas of society were opening up to women, the belief that because women menstruate, they are too fragile to play sports was still accepted by many medical personnel,” explains Halper. “There was a further stereotype that women who played sports would become ‘mannish’ and unable to have children. Male members of the clergy in particular were worried about women leaving their God-given female roles and becoming more like men.”
And while the pressure on female athletes to appear traditionally feminine is — and always has been — incredibly great, it isn’t unique to women who play sports. All women are encouraged, in ways both literal and figurative, to conform to conventional ideas of femininity, which includes wearing makeup.
“When we create social norms around beauty, and especially when we gender those norms, we become uncomfortable with anyone who doesn’t abide by them,” says Melissa A. Fabello, a scholar in human sexuality studies and a body image expert. And because sports are generally considered to be something that only men participate in, it becomes especially important for the women who play to be perceived as feminine, attractive, and nonthreatening.
“Beauty standards govern more than just whether or not we’re deemed attractive,” says Fabello. “They govern our access to resources and opportunities. Women with hair deemed unruly — like black women who wear their hair natural — are less likely to be hired. Women who are fat, which is often considered synonymous with ‘ugly,’ are paid less [and] are more likely to be convicted in court.”
With athletes, the financial implications of traditional beauty still apply: In the AAGPBL, players could be — and were — released from their contracts for getting “boyish” haircuts. Today, athletes who are considered more conventionally attractive are more likely to get sponsorships, which is where the big money for female athletes generally come from.
And while forcing athletes to wear lipstick on the field may seem like a relic from a previous era, the idea that athletes should wear makeup continues to persist. In 2008, the Chicago Tribune ran a story about the WNBA’s makeup classes. Renee Brown, the WNBA’s then-vice president of player personnel, told the paper that the players’ “womanhood” was an important component when it came to marketing the league. “You’re a woman first,” Brown told the Tribune. “You just happen to play sports.” This despite the fact that the athletes were the best basketball players in the country, if not the world.
As recently as 2013, the WNBA was still hosting these makeup classes for rookie players, though they were optional. In a profile that year for Elle, when asked about the classes, No. 1 draft pick Brittney Griner said she declined to participate in the session. “I don’t need that shit,” she told the magazine. Today the players have the choice to meet with a stylist the night before the draft.
And while you’d be hard-pressed to find someone today who thought women should be required wear makeup on the field, as in the AAGPBL, I once interviewed an Olympic track athlete who told me that she considered it part of her job to have makeup on and her hair and nails done for a race.
“Once you begin to worry about how the person looks as opposed to how she plays, you’ve crossed the line into dangerous play,” Susan Ziegler, a former Cleveland State professor of sports psychology, told the Tribune in 2008. “We’re not really focused on marketing them as athletes but as feminine objects.”
In the 1940s and ’50s, many of the AAGPBL players tolerated the makeup and beauty requirements because it was what they had to do in order to play ball. As Dottie Collins, a pitcher known as the “Strikeout Queen,” said, according to Susan E. Johnson’s book When Women Played Hardball, “I don’t think we cared. We just wanted to play baseball.”
Today, we see this reflected in the women who play in the Legends Football League — formerly the Lingerie Football League. The players’ uniforms are exactly what they sound like: underwear. As former NFL quarterback Mark Rypien told ESPN after helping his daughter Angela train for the league, “It’s just unfortunate that the lingerie thing is what the league initially has to do to get off the ground.”
Similarly, the women of the AAGPBL put up with the makeup and the etiquette because the patriarchal expectations of the world they lived in required them to do so. Ruth Lessing was known as one of the toughest players in the league and was once fined $100 for hitting an umpire. And yet she agreed to be featured in a newspaper story that featured a photo of her applying makeup alongside the caption, “Applying makeup is important to Ruth Lessing, Grand Rapids Chicks catcher,” writes Johnson. Whatever it took to grow the league.
Of course, if a woman wants to wear lipstick while playing sports, there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem becomes when it’s required and when players are punished for not wanting to perform this version of traditional femininity, as the AAGPBL required. And while most players tolerated the rules and some even agreed with them, it’s worth asking whether a league that forced their players to abide by patriarchal beauty ideals, that focused on their femininity above their athletic skill, should be remembered with a product that calls back to these oppressive policies. After all, things have changed at least a little in the past 75 years.
SPoRT makeup founder Sheryl Almquist Hall did not respond to inquiries about these questions. However, the press release notes that all proceeds from the makeup sales will benefit the International Women’s Baseball Center. In that way, at least, this tribute to a relic of baseball’s past can help contribute to the future of women who play the game.