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The photo of Little League pitcher Mo’ne Davis on the cover of Sports Illustrated last week has caused quite a stir. The thirteen-year-old made history as the first ever little leaguer of any gender or race to appear on the magazine’s cover. Davis, who can pitch a seventy mph fastball, is helping to change how we view women who are professional athletes.

More than one journalist has noticed the difference between Davis’s photograph and the sexual representations of women who usually grace the cover of Sports Illustrated. But buried in all of the debates about women and sport lie biological arguments about women as “the weaker sex.” It is an idea  rooted in the 18th and 19th centuries when middle- and upper-class girls and women were taught to refrain from physical activity, thought to be a hindrance to reproduction. During an age when land, money, and titles were handed down though male heirs, primogeniture was an important part of the maintenance of the power and values of the upper classes. Motherhood was viewed as a woman’s highest calling and any activity that might disrupt her “natural” reproductive function was viewed as dangerous and foolhardy.

This belief carried over into the twentieth century. The idea of women as the weaker sex was reinforced in 1966 by Erwin Strauss, a respected neurologist whose research helped to pioneer anthropological medicine and psychiatry. Strauss noticed that the posture of young boys and girls differed when they threw a ball. He concluded that the weaker muscle power of girls accounted for this difference. But he also explained it in gendered terms, as being the result of their “feminine attitude” toward the world and the space around them. As political scientist Iris Young noted in her study of Strauss and his work, girls were thought to throw differently from boys simply because they were feminine. 

In this century, the phrase “throwing like a girl” continues to be used as an insult. But it has also morphed into an urban myth of sorts, at least according to the hosts of the Discovery Channel’s popular television show, Mythbusters (discover.com/tv-shows/mythbusters). In a segment titled “Throws Like a Girl,” hosts Adam and Jamie tackle the “cultural generality” that men throw better than women. Their experiment used eight men, women, boys, and girls, who were requested to throw a fastball at a target first with their right arm and then with their left. The result was that there was no measurable difference between the way men and women threw the ball when using their left arm, proving that the ability to throw a fastball comes down to practice and training, not physiology.

But of course, Mo’ne Davis knows that. The trouble is that many watching her career don’t, which is why she has garnered so much attention for her talent and surprise at her achievements. It is a very good thing that she doesn’t throw like a girl.