Rah, rah, ree

Prepare to feel as though you’ve been hit in the knee. The very first cheerleaders, explains Michael Kaplan, were men:

These are liberal German nationalists of the 1830s, dreaming of a time when the repressive petty monarchies imposed on a great people by the cynical Congress of Vienna would be swept away in a surge of popular vigor and national virility, creating a single, democratic Germany under the red, black and gold. In preparation — realizing that, say, “Revolutionary Training Clubs” might attract official attention — they formed indoor sporting groups to strengthen mind and body for the struggle, practicing unarmed exercises to which they gave the classical name of gymnastik (though they stopped short of doing what the Greek word actually means: “that which is performed nude”).

When their glorious moment arrived in 1848, the revolutionary gymnasts bounded out of hiding — and were utterly defeated. Faced with certain death or prison, many chose emigration to America, where, as university graduates already knowing a foreign language, they quickly got jobs in the forest of new colleges springing up in the Midwest. Their indoor gymnastik seemed an ideal sport for institutions battling hard winters and tight budgets — and thereafter, who could be better to lead the new fad of massed cheering then men trained for rhythmic movement in a somewhat Germanic atmosphere?

And it took rather a long time for them to be replaced by women, unlike the case with, for instance, telephone operators:

When telephone companies began hiring operators, they chose teenage boys for the job. But the companies soon regretted their decision. Boys had done a great job working in telegraph offices. And they worked for low wages. But being a telephone operator was a tough job that required lots of patience — something the boys didn’t have. The boy operators quickly turned telephone offices upside down. They wrestled instead of worked. They pulled pranks on callers, and even cursed at them.

In 1878, the Boston Telephone Despatch company began hiring women operators instead. Women, the companies thought, would behave better than boys. Women had pleasant voices that customers — most of whom were men — would like. And because society did not treat women equally, they could be paid less and supervised more strictly than men.

The difference today, of course, is that former operators are still considered to be actual Serious People, while former cheerleaders, regardless of their credentials, are hardly ever taken seriously.

1 comment

  1. McGehee »

    7 November 2011 · 4:51 pm

    In five years all telephone operators will be Siri. Which I suspect may be the proper plural of Siren.

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