Friday, March 6, 2015

Roller Derby Rebels, Then and Now

March 6 - Today's post contributed by Sue Macy

Roller Derby Rebels, Then and Now

Independent women did not have an easy time in the United States in the years directly following World War II. Those who had tasted economic freedom filling in for men in wartime industries found themselves summarily dismissed when Johnny came marching home. America’s focus turned inward, from defending liberty on a global scale to creating families and strong local communities. In this new world order, women were expected to find fulfillment cooking, cleaning, and nurturing their children.

Gerry Murray
But Gerry Murray and Midge “Toughie” Brasuhn never got that memo. Gerry and Toughie spent the late 1940s careening around Roller Derby tracks at breakneck speed, deliberately knocking opponents off their feet. And their actions made them wildly popular. Toughie and Gerry gained more newspaper ink and attracted more fan fervor than their male teammates as they helped make Roller Derby a bona fide cultural phenomenon.

Midge Brasuhn

My fascination with Roller Derby in the 1940s led me to write Roller Derby Rivals, a nonfiction picture book, illustrated by Matt Collins, about Toughie and Gerry during a memorable New York City series in 1948. I had touched on the Derby years before in my book, Winning Ways, but now I dug deeper. I read every article I could find in the half dozen New York dailies that covered the bouts, along with lots of background material on Derby history, Toughie and Gerry, and the development of television. (The Derby and TV had a symbiotic relationship, each feeding interest in the other.)

I also did research on the rebirth of Roller Derby. Early in the 21st century, the sport saw a groundswell of grassroots participation, driven, appropriately, by women. In 2005, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association was formed to set standards for leagues around the world, and in 2011, teams from 13 nations competed in the first women’s Roller Derby World Cup. A check of statistics at the end of last month found 3,139 women’s flat track teams and 246 men’s flat track teams worldwide.

Of course, there are differences between the Derby as played by Toughie and Gerry and the current generation of skaters. Toughie and Gerry were professionals, while today most skaters pay to play. The early Derby stars competed on a banked track, shaped like the top of an inverted cone, which allowed them to create more speed and more dramatic moves. Most teams now skate on flat tracks. And skaters in Toughie’s and Gerry’s day exaggerated the drama and the violence in order to build audiences and satisfy the fans. Today’s game is still fast and exciting, but the emphasis is on safety. Skaters usually are required, or at least strongly advised, to purchase personal accident and liability insurance.

Even today, though, Roller Derby seems to attract rebels, channeling the spirit of Toughie and Gerry and their compatriots. At the first match I attended, featuring New Jersey’s Ironbound Maidens, the clear standout was an elegant-skating, tattoo-covered powerhouse aptly named Jenna von Fury. I once wrote that in the 1940s, Roller Derby was “the most liberating women’s sport of its time.” One could argue that it still is.

Sue Macy has written more than a dozen nonfiction books about sports and women’s history. Although she prefers to have her feet planted firmly on the ground, she can imagine another life where her Roller Derby name would be Bodoni Bold, after the typeface she used when she was editor of her junior high school newspaper.

One More Thing: Check out for a fun listing of Roller Derby names with a literary bent. Some of the best names are in the comments section.

Photos courtesy of the National Roller Derby Hall of Fame & Museum

Editors Note:
Holiday House has prepared an Educator's Guide for Roller Derby Rivals.

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