Cheney Free Press -

By SHANNEN TALBOT
Staff Reporter 

Getting to know the history of powderpuff football

 

November 8, 2018



With Cheney High School’s annual powderpuff football game drawing near, it makes you wonder — how did this become a thing? Who had the idea to give the women the pigskin and shoulder pads and make the men shake the pom-poms?

The game is a custom all its own, with unique historical roots that can be traced back nearly a century.

“Powderpuff football” is a long-standing fall tradition at high schools all over the nation, and is traditionally a touch- or flag-football game played by teenaged girls, often while boys dress up as cheerleaders to encourage them from the sidelines. Occasionally schools also pair these with “Buff Puff” volleyball games played by boys.

The teams are usually comprised of juniors and seniors from rival high schools, and the distinctive name of the game is taken from the powder puff, a soft material sometimes used to apply cosmetics.

Exactly when this role reversal began is a little hazy. Photographs from Western State College of Colorado (now Western State Colorado University) suggest that it may have been played as early as 1931, but it’s first definitive, recorded appearance is at Eastern State Teachers College in Madison, South Dakota, in 1945.

The end of World War II was so recent that few men had enrolled in the fall semester — only three, in fact. The school was set to cancel all Homecoming sporting events due to the lack of male players, but a group of female students stepped in to suggest they play instead.

“A bunch of us were sitting around after gym class and we thought, if we’re going to have Homecoming, we’ve got to have a football game,” Susie Lowry, a freshman at Eastern in 1945, is quoted as saying. “We decided we should have a game of our own.”

The backlash was instant. According to research from The State-Journal Register in Springfield, Illinois, one young man wrote in the school newspaper, “The very idea of women playing football is enough to curl your teeth.”

Nonetheless, the Homecoming committee approved the girls’ request, and 23 volunteers were split into two teams. The teams were informally called “Townies,” who lived in towns surrounding the college, and “Dormies,” who lived in the dorms. Officially, the teams were given colors to distinguish them — Eastern’s school colors, blue and gold.

Lowry said the team tried to implement official football traditions like the huddle, but also kept the game entertaining and tongue-in-cheek. At halftime, the players even went out on the field and applied a fresh face of makeup.

A local paper wrote about the game the next day, titling their story, “The Powderpuff and Rogue Elevens.”

Throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s, references to powderpuff games are sporadic at best, but the game came back with a vengeance in the 70s at the high school level. Since then, powderpuff football has been played all over the country, both as a Homecoming ritual and as a charity event.

The game has not come without its controversies, with some viewers and parents criticizing the game as violent or dangerous. In 2016, the nation’s last tackle powderpuff football game was canceled, with school officials citing safety concerns. Other opponents have called the game sexist, claiming it demeans women’s athletic ability and promotes gender stereotypes and homophobia.

Regardless of its critics, powderpuff football has been a hallmark of high school spirit weeks for generations and shows no sign of disappearing. In fact, it’s been discontinued and brought back multiple times at several schools in the region.

Cheney’s game

Cheney High School’s Powderpuff football game will be on Thursday, Nov. 8, from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the high school’s Tom Oswald Field.

Shannen Talbot can be reached at shannen@cheneyfreepress.com.

 

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