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What's with the name?

Allow us to explain.

Our Adorable Past

Ye Olden Tymes: When Cheerleading Was an Exclusively Men’s Sport


Back when it first originated in the 19th century, the sport of cheerleading was a veritable sausage fest. Meaning, only men were allowed to be cheerleaders. In fact, it took a World War to finally allow women into the sport, and only because there were less men to join the squads. Wow — if we had never gone to war, men would be wearing all those skimpy little hot shorts at NFL game now instead of women! Can you even imagine?

Indeed, cheerleading — back then known as “cheer-leading” — was more about leadership and athleticism than just cheering on a sports team (which was also made up of men). And becoming a cheer-leader was seen as “equivalent in prestige to an American flagship of masculinity, football,” according to Sociological Images. It was almost on par with the quarterback himself. It was almost like being a Boy Scout, but just slightly older and louder! Not only that, it was seen as a very important extra-curricular activity in college.

Then, when all those “valiant,” talented young men had to leave the country to fight in World War I, women took their places on the squads, many finding their niche in the sport. When the soldiers returned after the war, it was actually a fight for women to stay on cheerleading squads. Some had even thought that women got too involved in it — even too masculine:

[Women cheerleaders] frequently became too masculine for their own good… we find the development of loud, raucous voices… and the consequent development of slang and profanity by their necessary association with [male] squad members…

But, as we know, there was another World War not long after the first one was over, and female cheerleaders were given a good reason to stick around. However, now that women were a fixture in the sport, it started to become less of a sport and more of a tea party. That’s right — the people in charge started to “chick” it all up.

Instead of a pursuit that “ranks hardly second” to quarterbacking, cheerleading’s association with women led to its trivialization. By the 1950s, the ideal cheerleader was no longer a strong athlete with leadership skills, it was someone with “manners, cheerfulness, and good disposition.” In response, boys pretty much bowed out of cheerleading altogether.

But not before such notable male cheerleaders like Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Stewart, Franklin Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower got their ra-ras in. Cheerleading used to be seen as a way to rally the troops — once women were doing the cheering, it turned into something more like standing on the sidelines, looking pretty and being supportive of the men while they do the dirty work.

Cheerleading is, of course, very much a sport nowadays, though still female-dominated. If it were not female-dominated, the uniforms probably wouldn’t have, ahem, changed so much. But I think it’s fair to say that now, for the most part, it’s not about being cute — it’s about being impressive. Though maybe not as much a part of the team for whom they’re cheering as the boys were.

Either way: It makes you look at Will Ferrell‘s Spartan cheerleader character just a little differently now, doesn’t it?

(via Sociological Images)

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  • Francesca M

    You can look at the Texas Aggies for an example of this still. A girl was in the election for one of the recent yell leader spots but unfortuntely I think she didn’t get voted in. Its an election by the student body.

  • http://twitter.com/zaewen Zaewen

    The main campus has never elected a woman, but the Galveston campus did back in 2005. That was my freshman year and I remember it causing a bit of a stir in College Station.

  • http://profiles.google.com/gnomer.denois Jill Oliver

    There are frequently women that are in the elections at main campus as well. When I graduated they were having a debate about whether having a competition cheer squad would undermine the yell leader tradition. And they are yell leaders, not cheer leaders. I believe the biggest sticking point is the tradition of having 5 yell leaders rather than a squad of cheer leaders. The tradition of them being male persists, but I think female Aggies are stubborn enough that it is only a matter of time. It seems to me that it’s more of a fear of the yell leaders becoming more like cheer leaders, just like the historical cheer leaders got “chicked up” than not wanting women as yell leaders.

  • http://twitter.com/zaewen Zaewen

    Yea, when I was there a couple of women campaigned for the Jr Yell Leaders, but never got elected.

    I think a big part of the Yell Leader tradition is underlined by a fear of feminization. Thus why cheerleadering groups are usually shunned from campus, why women have yet to be elected to the positions, and the insistence that the Yell Leaders are leading *yells* not *cheers* when in reality they’re basically the same thing.

  • Anne Kelley

    I wouldn’t mind a female Yell Leader, but I do like the old-school type of cheering system TAMU has.  It’s cooler than scantily-clad girls bouncing around and waving pom-poms, I think :-)