One night, years ago, I was riding the bus through East Austin, and I saw something I’ll never forget: a group of women on roller skates practicing drills, weaving in and out of small orange cones, their arms pumping for momentum, the voices of team leaders shouting into the fall air. Behind the chain link fence of the sprawling basketball court, the women — wearing colorful helmets and clothes, sporting tatts galore — struck me as some of the toughest gladiators I’d ever seen. I was far too mousey, scared of getting hurt, and staying up past my bedtime to join them, but damn if I wasn’t inspired to slay harder for academic glory. (I was in graduate school at the time.)
Michella M. Marino’s “Roller Derby: The History of an American Sport” (UT Press) is a rockin’ blend of engaging scholarly research and feminist might. The story she brings to the surface is one of an underdog sport filled with underdog athletes, who aim to rise above oppressive societal norms and crush it out on the track.
As it happens, sports fans love a good underdog star, and women who’ve been locked out of athletic competition flocked to Roller Derby. In 1952, skater Loretta Behrens, commented that “[w]hat appealed to her most were the skaters “knocking the shit out of each other.” The 1950’s of course was a time when women were supposed to be homemakers, baking away in the kitchen, but as it happens Roller Derby laid the ground work for other modes of living.
Before then, the 1930s was a surprisingly progressive time for Roller Derby, the trademarked brainchild of Leo Seltzer, who fought to legitimize the sport and make buckets of money while doing so. Women were included from the start. Marino writes that Roller Derby was “born out of the struggles of the Great Depression…[and] founded as a co-ed sport.” Men and women skated side by side, and the money was pretty good: “In addition to a base salary, skaters were given housing, food, clothing, and medical care.” Jobs were so scarce at the time that when skater Gene Vizena Nygra didn’t get hired at Sears, Roebuck, she tried out for Roller Derby. At first, she could barely make it around the track, then her competitive streak kicked in.
Seltzer saw that audiences wanted entertainment to escape the grind of everyday life. Marino writes that “[h]e also realized that a large audience demographic was for the most part ignored…Female skaters would attract female fans.” Crowds loved the pushing, shoving, elbowing, that break out moment when one skater pushed out ahead of the pack. It didn’t matter that the rules were somewhat confusing and ever-evolving, families arrived in droves.
Female fans yelled from the stands because it was a great way to blow off steam. Marino includes remarkable anecdotes of women getting so worked up about a game they could be seen bashing their purses against their husbands. In an account of a game at the Chicago Coliseum in 1940, where 3,000 women were seated, female rage was inflamed. Women threw eggs, chairs, ice cream cones, handbags, and vegetables. Urban legend has it that one woman got so worked up, she hurled her swaddled baby at the players — thankfully, a skater named Toughie Brasuhn caught it.
Seltzer made every attempt to make sure that female skaters maintained “ladylike” appearances off the track. In dresses, heels, long gloves, women dressed up to counteract perception of them as bunch of rough and tumble hair-pullers. Homophobic slurs of that era were tossed around, and, for the most part, gay and lesbian players stayed in the closet.
Canoodling between male and female skaters was strictly forbidden. Love affairs blossomed despite separate dorms. Marino writes about how if a female skater became pregnant and didn’t want to be, other skaters would come to her rescue in “a pileup” on top of her out on the track so that with her new “injury” she could sneak away for an illegal abortion. Eventually, Seltzer okayed marriages between skaters after he realized that it was a surefire way to retain female skaters on the team. It also add extra entertainment through “Diaper Derbies,” in which the children of skaters competed on the track as young as the age of three.
Jerry Seltzer, Leo Seltzer’s son, took over Roller Derby in the late fifties. He made several changes that turned Roller Derby into televised and touring machine. TV stations across the country aired prerecorded games, which were intended to drum up enthusiasm for live performances when they rolled into town. Leo also developed a portable Masonite track, which, when assembled, was no wider than a basketball court. Easy setup made for more touring, more games, more exposure, until money started to dwindle and Jerry Seltzer made the call to shut down the organization in 1973.
Roller Derby was revived in Austin, Texas in early 2001. This time around, women took more control of the teams. With a DIY ethic and new wave feminism, players created new rules, new alter egos, and new outfits that were a combo of naughty school girl meets punk rock queen, which not all skaters were onboard with.
Marino writes “the roller derby community continues to evolve in its stance on gender politics. It has grappled with questions regarding co-ed leagues, gender inclusion, sexual expression versus exploitation, and pregnancy and parenthood.” Marino doesn’t delve into issues of transphobia and racism within leagues across the country but she’s laid the foundation for future writer/scholars to further explore the complexities of roller derby.
Her prose is so effortless and engaging because she’s tuned into the nuances of the game that only an insider would know. For three years, Marino played in the Pioneer Valley Roller Derby under the name Coors Lightning. Her personal experience as an athlete adds texture and passion to her writing — it’s easy to be inspired by how much she cares about capturing a sport that began as the only full-contact co-ed sport in America.
She writes: “Women’s sports have never received equal media or historical coverage, and the minimal coverage they have received has not always been preserved because of the marginalization of women’s sports, and of roller derby as a whole.”
The sport itself mirrors the sort of rat race that working-and-middle-class women endure daily. The push and shove to get out in front, to break free of all patriarchal BS that holds people back. That moment of skating out ahead, picking up points, hearing fans cheer—that’s strength, that’s freedom, that hard-won athletic skill on wheels. Marino’s “Roller Derby” is a triumphant take on a slice of Americana that makes for an exhilarating read.
‘Roller Derby: The History of an American Sport’
By Michella M. Marino
UT Press, $35