No girls allowed!
It took more than 30 years for the glass ceiling to shatter at the All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron. From the 1930s through 1960s, girls were prohibited from competing at Derby Downs.
That didn’t stop some girls from pointing out the unfairness of it all.
In July 1937, a New York girl pleaded for a chance to race in the Soap Box Derby in Akron.
June Gavin, 11, of Flushing, N.Y., sent a polite letter to legendary Beacon Journal Sports Editor Jim Schlemmer, asking that the All-American derby bend its boys-only rule.
Schlemmer gently but firmly rejected the idea in a July 26, 1937, column titled “Why Girls Can’t Build Racers.”
The tone of the sports editor’s reply is lighthearted, but the cavalier, sexist attitudes of the era might make some readers wince today. Unperturbed, June followed up with a note published July 31, 1937, in which she got the last laugh.
Strap on your helmet. Here is that memorable exchange from 80 years ago:
Dear Sir: I am a girl 11 years old and I would like to enter your race. I know the rules say it is open to boys only, but I thought you might change them this year. After all, we have both men and women in public office, in the professions, in politics and in the air races — so why can’t girls get into the Soap Box Derby?
I can ride a horse, I’m a champion roller skater and I can ride a bicycle better than a lot of boys. I believe I could build a Soap Box racer, too, that would beat a lot of boys’ cars. Please say I can get in the Derby.
My Dear June: I haven’t a doubt in the world but that you are right in believing you could build a winning Derby car. But you will never get the chance to prove it in an official race.
The Soap Box Derby is exclusively a boys’ event. That is one thing which makes it different. It’s about all we boys have left to ourselves any more.
You girls have cut in on everything else. Jackie Mitchell, a Chattanooga girl, is pitching for men’s baseball teams. Babe Didrickson, a Texas girl, is chiseling into men’s golf tournaments (and doing quite well, too). Clara Mortenson, a coast girl, is wrestling on the big time circuit, and packing ’em in.
And every now and then you read about a girl jockey, and you see pictures of Mrs. Harold Vanderbilt at the wheel of the Ranger, America’s cup defender, and just the other night Shirley Fry beat the stuffings out of her brother, Byron, in the McQueeney Junior tennis tournament.
Don’t you see, June, it would be a dangerous move to let girls into the Soap Box Derby? The first thing a fellow would know, you or one of your sisters through the country would be waltzing away with the championship … and 100,000 or more boys would be humiliated to no end.
Nope, Miss Gavin. It isn’t safe. You gals told us that if we’d let you patronize our barbershops you’d go during the morning hours and you wouldn’t interfere with our pleasures the least bit.
And you told us if we’d recognize such a person as a business woman golfer you’d only invade the links game deep enough to sell the latest things in golf clothes in the department stores.
And you said if we’d accept you as tennis players you’d only enter the mixed doubles. Not that we don’t trust you, or anything like that, but you know how it is; give you the right to enter this last strictly stag affair and blooey, out the window it goes.
Then the only thing left for the American boy would be for him to take up a cake baking contest or embroidery competition. No, my dear June, the answer is a thousand times NO … But you can help design something different in upholstering for your brother’s car … if he’ll let you.
— Jim Schlemmer
Dear Jim: I read with regret in Monday’s Beacon Journal that girls will not be officially recognized in the Soap Box Derby. However, I want to inform you that on July 17, 1937, I raced in Port Washington, N.Y. (unofficially, of course) by permission of the Long Island Daily Press and I won the heat, beating two boys in the same heat by a city block.
The Chevrolet dealers of Nassau County gave me a cup, same as other heat winners, and I am going to race last year’s Long Island champion, Bob Mahoney, Saturday, July 31, in a special feature race sponsored by the Gertz department store of Jamaica, Long Island.
Now, friend Jim, I just know you are kind of jealous because us girls are getting somewhere in the sportslight, ain’t you? But anyhow I forgive you and the very next time I am in Akron I’ll go to O’Neil’s and buy you a nice big hammer to knock with, or maybe I’ll buy it in New York and bring it to your office some day soon.
If I could get in that race in Akron I would be down there sooner than you could say Jack Robinson. Why not invite me down and I’ll show you what us girls have got and what it takes to put over a stunt in a Soap Box Derby. What do you say … or don’t you?
— June Gavin, 7925 152nd St., Flushing, N.Y.
Nope … You can sit in the stands or stand behind the fence, but you can’t be on the track. But if you are serious about that hammer, please buy in Akron.
— Jim Schlemmer
Dear June Gavin: It’s been 80 years since your first letter was published in the Beacon Journal.
We’ve tried to track you down with the aid of ancestry and marriage records, but we haven’t been able to find you.
We hope you’re enjoying life at age 91.
We hope you took notice in 1971 when girls were allowed to race in the Soap Box Derby for the first time. We hope you were proud in 1975 when Karren Stead, age 11, of Lower Bucks County, Pa., became the first girl to win the All-American Soap Box Derby.
Your old friend Jim Schlemmer lived to see both milestones, passing away in 1977 at age 77.
If you still are interested in riding down the hill at Derby Downs in Akron, please contact us. We’ll see what we can do.
You won’t need a hammer this time.
— Mark J. Price
Mark J. Price can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Local history: Boys only?!? Girl pleaded to race in Soap Box Derby in 1937