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Where women rule the field


WELLINGTON, Fla. -- It is 7:15 a.m. and even the sun seems sluggish as it struggles to rise. However, the day already resounds with the sound of swarms of people living the strenuous life, a sound that suggests the shape of America's future.

Like the clackety-clack of hundreds of castanets, the sound reverberates from hard plastic balls hit hard by curved sticks. The sticks are where America soon will be -- in the hands of field hockey players. These young women will use those sticks -- actually, they will use attributes honed while wielding the sticks -- to smash to smithereens whatever remains of the "glass ceiling" limiting the rise of women in the professions.

The annual field hockey festival drew 165 teams of 16 players, 127 of the teams composed of young women under age 19. So for four days this town had the world's highest concentration of ponytails and a maddeningly incessant use of the word "like." As in this ecstatic exclamation overheard in a vendor's tent: "Oh like wow here's a pair of like shorts from Ireland, which is like my favorite place!"

Young women outgrow that inexplicable, insufferable verbal tic, but they forever have what field hockey gives: confidence, discipline, controlled aggression. Which are all they need to consolidate their supremacy.

High school games of 25-minute halves are played by teams of 11 (wearing mouth and shin guards; this is not for shrinking violets) on fields 100 yards long and 60 yards wide. The object is to hit the ball into a net. The rules are not recondite, but in enforcement they are -- perhaps this is what deep thinkers at serious quarterlies call a "gender difference" -- inscrutable. For example, how do you determine -- and why is it wrong -- when "a player moves or interposes herself or her stick, keeping an opponent from attempting to play the ball"?

However, the rules are enforced by referees who brook no demurrals, and hence receive none. Besides, young women -- this is a gender difference -- have a sense of honor and proportion, so they play on where young men would protest or pout.

In the 1972-73 school year, 3,770,621 boys and 817,073 girls participated in interscholastic sports. In 1996-97: boys, 3,706,225; girls, 2,472,043. Women now are 37 percent of college athletes and women's participation in intercollegiate sports is increasing much faster than men's. It is difficult to prove but as difficult to doubt a connection between those numbers and this fact: More than half the students in law and medical schools may soon be women.

Washington, which thinks it hung the moon and causes social as well as oceanic tides, believes it authored women's athletic progress -- that Title IX (1972) did it. That rule, forbidding sex discrimination by federally assisted educational institutions, did indeed help ignite the explosive growth of women's sports opportunities (and the contraction of men's, as many schools have canceled some men's programs to produce numerical equality of participation). However, Title IX reflected as well as influenced the emancipation of women.

The book that got Western philosophy going is basically about education, and in "The Republic" Plato had much to say about athletics ("gymnastics") as a means of stimulating the spirited side of human nature while bringing it under the sway of reason in the form of rules. He was not altogether sound on the question of the equality of women, but he got right the social utility of sports.

Concerning which, the Duke of Wellington never said the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, but something of the sort could be said about the advancing ascendancy of American women. It is being won on places like the 22 hockey fields recently laid out here on polo fields.

Team sports are not quite (as many Pattonesque football coaches imagine) the moral equivalent of war. However, they are artfully contrived challenges that administer stress, demand both collective efforts and individual strivings for distinction, and reward grace under pressure. Add those social virtues to women's intrinsic superiority (a big topic; suffice it to say they have a higher ratio of philosophical inclinations to animal propensities) and men will live at the mercy of women's magnanimity.

After a game when Victoria Will, now 18, was 15, she clattered into the house like Achilles in cleats. To the question "How did the game go?" she replied jauntily, "We kicked butt." Such spiritedness, which presumably will undergo refinement, gives some older women the vapors. But where the vapors are concerned, her stick-wielding generation believes it is better to give than receive.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/06/98

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