Historical Social Research

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Marjet Derks: Sportlife. Medals, Media and Life Courses of Female Dutch Olympic Champions, 1928-1940 [Abstract]

Starting from the assumption that cultural historical analyses can help our understanding of changes in life cycles and life courses, this article explores the way in which a specific socio-cultural phenomenon, sport, changed and defined the life courses of women in pre-war Netherlands. While similar questions are often being researched from a psychological or sociological and hence short-term perspective, here a long term and biographical analysis is being applied. Focusing on a group of medal winning participants in the Olympic Games, the leading question is whether their physical talent allowed these women to pursue a different life course. A second question is how their international careers matched with dominant cultural life scripts, which stated that young women should prepare to become wives, mothers and homemakers. It can be concluded that the presented biographies reveal an ambiguous reality. On the one hand, sporting successes opened up several possibilities for the women concerned, who became public figures and their country’s first national female sport heroes. Thus, they embodied the beginning of a new cultural feminine ideal that opened up existing scripts. Their personal life course underwent profound changes as well, albeit of a confusing nature. All coming from lower class families, they saw their social careers set off because of their swimming, but also getting disrupted because of it. Sport-related disagreeing life scripts were tensional rather than advantageous. At least in hindsight, the women blamed their sporting career for the strenuous course their lives took.

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