In honor of our current exhibit Empire Skate: The Birthplace of Roller Disco, I decided to look into some older roller skating history in Brooklyn. The sport of roller derby has seen a surge of women's teams and leagues emerge nationwide since its 21st-century revival in Austin, Texas in 2001. It was introduced to a wider audience with the release in 2009 of the feature film Whip It, which starred Ellen Page and was Drew Barrymore's directorial debut. What contemporary fans of the sport may not know is that its first heyday of mainstream popularity started in New York City in 1948, and Brooklyn's team was one of the fiercest.
Roller skating became popular in the United States in the 19th century, and that popularity soon led to the organization of speed and endurance races on skates. By 1922, such races were called derbys. In the mid-1930s, promoter Leo Seltzer started a touring road race between two teams, which eventually became the contact sport we know today as roller derby. In 1948, the show Roller Derby, broadcasting live matches, debuted on New York television, and attendance at in-person matches grew as a result. In response, Seltzer formed the National Roller Derby League (NRDL) for the 1949-50 season. One of the league's teams was the Brooklyn Red Devils.
Roller derby was regularly covered in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The Red Devils (sometimes known as "the Brooks") went up against the New York City Chiefs (nicknamed the "Gothams"), the Jersey Jolters, the Philadelphia Panthers, the Washington Jets, and the Windy City Aces from Chicago. Each of these teams had both male and female squads, and they got equal play in the Eagle's coverage of the sport. One of Brooklyn's most famous players was Midge "Toughie" Brasuhn.
Toughie (sometimes spelled Toughy or Tuffy) was first mentioned by the Eagle as the leader of the Brooklyn team in 1946, along with Elmer "Elbows" Anderson leading the men's team (also a hallmark of contemporary roller derby, player nicknames were alive and well in the midcentury version of the sport). Toughie was described as a "villain of the track" and as the Eagle reported in November 1950, "according to a nation-wide poll...one of the ten best-known woman athletes today...She's known as a pugnacious lady with a powerful right. Her fame has spread as a scrapper from coast to coast."
But Brasuhn was also, apparently, "a soft-spoken mother, a charming wife [to fellow roller derby player Ken Monte] and a good neighbor."
Here she is pictured with her son Billy, age 5, in 1949. The accompanying article stated, "Write a story about her, and it's hard to know whether to stress that she would as soon bash in a rival's head with a left shoe skate or that she is probably the most devoted mother this side of Duluth." The same article noted, "Toughie acts so darn mean that two grandmothers jumped over the barriers to jab knitting needles into her impregnable hide" (!).
Toughie also had a rivalry with her counterpart on the New York team, Gerry Murray. They were rival team captains as early as 1946, facing off in the "age-old battle of New York against Brooklyn."
The two teams came up against each other in the Roller Derby National Championship in 1949. 9,000 fans watched the match at Madison Square Garden, and both Murray and Brasuhn scored five points apiece, tying for highest individual score. It was Murray, however, who was described as "the game's fastest skater."
But Murray herself actually named Brasuhn as "the greatest girl derbyist going" in a 1950 interview, in which she also acknowledged a real-life friendship with another rival, Annabelle "Slugger" Kealey.
That same article, however, displays another unfortunately common theme in news coverage of female roller derby players: rampant sexism. Murray is described as "a red-headed cutie who looks as if she should be hustling across the campus to a history lecture." In one article, female spectators are referred to as "the weaker sex." And more than one article refers to the woman's teams as "the distaffs," which I learned refers to a tool used in spinning wool and flax. Since those domestic tasks are traditionally associated with women, the term distaff came to refer to anything "of or concerning women." Ugh.
Players were also sexualized in images, as in the glamour shot of Murray above, or this image of skater Gladys Sneath in a tight swimsuit instead of her derby gear.
Even when pictured in their gear, the players were often shown in pinup-type poses that were clearly designed to entice:
Nonetheless, the coverage also does not shy away from the unabashed aggression and athleticism of these women, describing fights, physical injuries, and penalty time with breathless excitement. One photo spread of Toughie even showed "before and after" images that made clear just how physical the sport could be. In the middle image, she is being bodily restrained by a referee!
Given this coverage and what the fans must have witnessed at the matches, it's no surprise that the modern roller derby leagues that have emerged from this history have taken on a decidedly feminist and punk agenda, with women joining to feel empowered and strong. They have strong historic role models in women like Toughie, Murray, and the other Brooklyn and New York players who captured the imaginations of thousands of spectators decades ago.
Edit: Midge "Toughie" Brasuhn starred in the Academy Award-nominated 1949 short film Roller Derby Girl. If you'd like to see her in action, the film is on YouTube.