Right To Ride, Presented By The Kentucky Derby Museum: 1960s Set The Stage For Women To Enter The Jocks’ Room

This is the first in a four-part series examining the arrival of female jockeys in American horse racing – why and how they broke in to the sport when they did, and how racing has reacted. In this first installment, we’ll learn about the historical context for the start of Kathy Kusner’s legal fight to be allowed to ride races.

This series is sponsored by the Kentucky Derby Museum, which will open its Right To Ride exhibit on Oct. 16. The exhibit marks the 50th anniversary of Diane Crump’s historic ride in the Kentucky Derby in 1970, when she became the first female jockey in the race. You can learn more about the exhibit and access current COVID-19 safety protocols for Museum visitors here.

In 1967 she was arguably one of the finest members, male or female, of the show jumping profession. Her impressive resume already included a gold medal at the 1963 Pan American Games in Brazil, the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo and a silver medal at the 1967 Pan American Games in Canada. Her future plans included representing the United States in Mexico City at the 1968 Olympic Games. She had been racing in unrecognized flat and timber races since she was 16 years old. Prior to joining the United States Equestrian Team, she had been named Horsewoman of the Year by the American Horse Shows Association — at age 21. Three of her most famous horses, Untouchable, Aberali, and Unusual, were Thoroughbreds.

And yet, in 1967 the Maryland Racing Commission repeatedly denied her application for a jockey’s license, ultimately forcing her to take her case to court. The commission’s primary objection: that Kathy Kusner was incapable of safely and effectively riding a Thoroughbred racehorse.

Today, we can comfortably look back through time and feel some level of shock at such a turn of events. How, we ask ourselves, could such a thing have happened? What was the Maryland Racing Commission thinking, and why did they believe that, in a nation where federal anti-discrimination laws had existed since 1964, they were right in their decision? How did their decision impact the opportunities of female jockeys and, more globally, the world of horse racing today?

As noted by Steven Reiss in The Cyclical History of Horse Racing, by the 1950s and 1960s horse racing had become the leading spectator sport in America. Racing was still controlled by the super-wealthy owners of the top stables, Calumet Farm being the most dominant among them. By 1969 racing was still the leading spectator sport, with auto racing second and college and pro football third. Equine stars of the era were hard-knocking and developed their own intense fan followings – Carry Back, Kelso, Dr. Fager, Damascus, and Round Table among them.

The men on their backs also garnered attention. Racing routinely commanded the front page of sports sections, and top jockeys were as recognized as top athletes in other sports. Johnny Longden appeared on the television show “I Love Lucy” in 1957; Eddie Arcaro became the spokesman for Buick after his retirement; Bill Hartack graced the cover of Time magazine in 1958 and Sports Illustrated twice (in 1956 and 1964). Jockeys were as well-recognized and adored by the public for their athleticism as any other professional sports figures.

It was into this highly visible sporting world controlled by wealthy farms that Kathy Kusner planned her entry.

Kusner’s pursuit of a license began in the 1960s, a time when our beliefs in the role of women in the family had a profound impact on the opportunities for women in horse racing. Because events — great and small — rarely exist in a vacuum, there is an interplay back and forth between culture, society, and history. The laws of the United States arose out of our beliefs and goals, and society and popular culture responds to those laws in varying degrees.

During the 1950s America and Russia were at the height of the Cold War. Both nations engaged daily in a deadly game of rhetoric and brinkmanship. The too-familiar presence of a nuclear threat added fear and uncertainty to our lives. As a result, Americans responded by creating a home life intended to create a sense of security against our perceived dangers from the Russians.

The American family evolved into a microcosm of our expectations of society — stable, safe, and above all, predictable. Everyone had their role; the men assumed responsibility for the stability of women’s roles in the home. In fact, in the famous Nixon-Khrushchev kitchen debate in Russia in July 1959, Richard Nixon pointed to a dishwasher and said, “In America, we like to make life easier for women.” America was supposedly safe and superior in part because we kept our women happy at home.

By the early 1960s, our nation was basking in the security created by the Eisenhower administration. Hollywood and the mainstream media contributed to that perceived ideal of the post-war modern family. We created homes that were safe little cocoons. Families moved to the suburbs. Men were the breadwinners while safe and happy homes were piloted by women overseeing their 3.5 children. They most certainly could not be found atop a Thoroughbred racing at close to 40 miles an hour.

However, there was trouble brewing in paradise. Even with modern kitchens and household conveniences, women found themselves spending more time than ever before on household labor. More to the point, their role as happy and content members of a stylized family unit began to show cracks around the edges. As noted by Stephanie Coontz in her book The Way We Never Were, in 1956 the Ladies Home Journal devoted an entire issue to “The Plight of the Young Mother.” When McCall’s Magazine ran an article titled “The Mother Who Ran Away,” it sold more copies than ever before. It seemed that women may not have been as happy as we thought. Perhaps they wanted to expand the possibilities, both personally as well as professionally, that existed outside the home.

How do we get from a supposedly safe and secure family environment to women launching legal battles in order to risk their lives on racehorses? Although it is both naive as well as short-sighted to search for one or two events that prompted women to consider professional race riding as a career, we can safely mention two specific incidents that must be included in anyone’s list of contributing factors.

Kathy Kusner, shown in 1966 aboard Teana after winning the Rose Tree Ladies Plate

The first was the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The Civil Rights Act encompassed multiple aspects of potential discrimination, such as housing and public segregation, but it also contained a section called Title VII, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” Except for certain narrow exceptions, women could not be discriminated against in the workplace.

One of those exceptions would rear its head when women applied to be jockeys. Discrimination on the basis of sex is permitted on the basis of a “bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) reasonably necessary to the normal operation of that particular business or enterprise.” One example of a BFOQ would be the use of male models to model men’s clothing. While Title VII gave Kusner a legal basis to insist she had a right to a jockey’s license, the BFOQ gave Maryland Racing Commission a legal avenue to assert that only men possessed the ability to handle racing Thoroughbreds. (Spoiler alert – it didn’t work.)

Another event we can look to as influencing women’s increasing desire to find gainful employment (and, dare we say, happiness) outside the home, was the publishing of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” in 1964. Friedan initially began writing her book as an article reporting her interviews with fellow Smith College alumni. As she interviewed friends from college, she learned of a surprising level of dissatisfaction, even unhappiness, by women who supposedly led lives of security and comfort.

Friedan’s influence was noted by Kate Chenery Tweedy in her book, “Secretariat’s Meadow.” Her mother, Penny Tweedy, had read Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” and “identified with its revolutionary ideas.” Kate noted that, years before the birth of Secretariat, “the more (Penny) struggled to fit the wife/mother mold, the more she felt like a failure.” We can easily misconstrue the evidence of this changing attitude from women in the household. The statements of Betty Friedan and Penny Tweedy were most certainly not a universal condemnation of the role of women in the family — they were evidence of women’s growing interest in having a choice for their future.

One of the issues facing women in sport is that athletics often serve as a substitute for combat or battle — historically an arena limited to men. We have also used sports to provide a national cultural identity. The rise of gender-separated sports did not threaten that concept. Women’s tennis and golf have existed for decades, enjoying a popularity that has ebbed and flowed along with other sports. Horse racing is unique in that men and women compete directly against each other. In the Olympics, only two sports threaten the male-dominated status quo: sailing (the Nacra 17 boat – a high performance catamaran), and equestrian sports.

In 2012, researcher Helena Tolvhed, wrote in International Journal of the History of Sport, a paper rich in both historical and cultural observations, that “Physical activity, strength and assertiveness have generally not been regarded as either commendable or suitable for women, since the possession of such qualities has gone against traditional definitions of womanhood.”

Those arguments will mirror those used against women wanting to be professional jockeys. Tolvhed further notes that competitive sports rose in popularity in the late 1800s, and at that time the “feminine ideal dictated a slender, passive and physically weak body, and this ideal has continued to make women’s sport problematic.” Later, during the Cold War, popular culture in Sweden emphasized the differences between the feminine Swedish girls and the muscular communist women.

“Social change was coming to America in the 1960s because of strong men and women of conviction fighting for what they knew was right,” said Jessica Whitehead, curator of exhibits like Right to Ride at the Kentucky Derby Museum. “Women had begun to enter public life in some professions — and even some sports — but horse racing remained a challenge. The force of will the first generation of female riders would bring to the sport eventually ensured their rights, but actually exercising that right…that was a whole other battle.”

David Beecher has a master’s degree from Shippensburg University and a PhD from Penn State, where he is currently a lecturer. Dr. Beecher’s research and teaching interests are American history with an emphasis on Early American and Civil War History. His dissertation explained the role of Thoroughbred racing in the Antebellum South.

The post Right To Ride, Presented By The Kentucky Derby Museum: 1960s Set The Stage For Women To Enter The Jocks’ Room appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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