Saturday, January 19, 2008

Cheating, Gender Roles, and the Nineteenth-Century Croquet Craze

This article provides a brief history on croquet and examines the widespread cheating in addition to the roles that gender played in this game in the 19th century. Generally, when considering croquet, a very refined and somewhat graceful image of the elite social class comes to mind; something considered more of a recreational activity than a sport. Historically, however, the game was much more competitive than its stereotypes allow one to imagine.

At the peak of its popularity, croquet was a sport dominated by women. The majority of the players were women, and they usually were more successful at the game than their male opponents. In fact, women were encouraged to participate in this activity because of the delicate skill needed to play, the flattering physical appearance it created and the flirtatious opportunities it provided. Women were also featured in most of the media surrounding croquet, including rule books and magazines.

At the same time, the disposition of the game was turning sour. Many games would end in chaos, similar to the well-known Queen of Hearts' croquet game in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Cheating occurred almost as regularly as the accusations of it, including claims that the players were playing out of turn, moving the ball on purpose, and making arguments as to whether the ball even moved. Many of the conflicts involved the women, and they developed quite a reputation for deceitful croquet playing. They would be accused of covering the ball with their full skirts while moving it underneath, among other no-nos.

As a woman, I may not be completely objective, but my first reaction to this article is that at a time when society was teaching and encouraging women to be passive and let the man dominate, women found a sport that they were more successful at than men. The article even describes that the sport was appealing to women because great strength was not necessary to compete, but delicate skill was, which most of these ladies possessed. It seems that the men, who were used to being the dominating force, especially in sport, felt threatened by this power that the women had on the croquet course and looked for any excuse to justify the women's wins. The article tells of a shot that was popular among the women, where they "castrated" the men by sending a man's ball flying. Apparently, the man could do nothing but watch, then further humiliate himself by, out of social courtesy, setting the balls in place for the shot. In a culture where the man is used to being the overpowering force, it must be difficult to be resigned to such a submissive position at the hands of a woman. It could very well follow that in order for a man who has just lost to a woman in any sport to redeem himself by proclaiming that the woman only won because she cheated.

Another point the article brings up is that if women were admitting to cheating at croquet, they may have only been doing it to raise their male counterpart's ego. On the same level as mentioned above, it's probably much more satisfying for a man to hear a woman claim that the only way she could win against him is to cheat. Perhaps this was a mutually acceptable excuse for the woman to beat the man at any sport, regardless of whether she actually did cheat.

I believe that we have come a long way since those times, in many respects. Women have proved themselves worthy in the world of sport. Although many professional sports do not have men competing against women, and many female sports are just now starting to get the recognition they deserve, women at least are able to compete freely at any sport. Impartial judges and extremely detailed rulebooks help reduce cheating and accusations thereof in today's world of sport. In terms of croquet, I am not familiar enough with the sport in today's world to know if matches still end in chaos on a regular basis or if people (women) are still finding ways to cheat at it.

Sterngass, J. (1998) Cheating, Gender Roles, and the Nineteenth-Century Croquet Craze Journal of Sport History, 25(3), 398-418.

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