The struggle for women to acquire sports equality has been a long and incomplete battle. The first time women participated in high-performance sports was in 1900 during the Olympic Games in Paris, France. Even then they were limited to sports that were considered to be less physically demanding such as golf and tennis. (1)
The idea that sports are exclusive to men emerged as a result of society’s view of what the ideal woman should be. During the Victorian time, women were considered and expected to be gentle, submissive, and essentially the weaker sex. (2) Encouraging and allowing women to be involved in exercise and sports undermined the concept of femininity because it opposed this ideal. This had deep and long-lasting implications in women’s involvement in sports. Until recently the rhetoric of women being muscular and exercising has been linked to manliness instead of acknowledging that women can take on rigorous physical activities while also preserving their identities.
The physical differences also played a role in limiting sports to men. A woman’s body can carry and nurture for an unborn child and instead of appreciating it, society puts barriers on its capabilities. Women are also considered to be fragile beings that think with their ovaries and are overly emotional as a result. The historian Kathleen E. McCrone states that “on the basis of no scientific evidence whatsoever, [society] related biology to behavior.” (3) This view and criticism not only hindered women from participating in sports on a societal level but it also resulted in them internalizing this rhetoric. This society also wanted to make sure that women were allocating their time and effort in their reproductive abilities instead of partaking in sports.
A combination of factors contributed to challenging the idea that modern sports were exclusively for men. Historically prior to Title IX, college sports for women were unestablished and ignored. Colleges allowed women to partake in sports for educational rather than competitive purposes. Equal opportunities were not presented to women in intercollegiate sports until basketball was introduced in Smith college in 1892. (4) This jump-started a ripple effect and women’s basketball not only spread to other institutes but encouraged students to advocate for women’s intercollegiate sports. However, this was opposed by many physical educators because they wanted to gatekeep competitive sports. The first intercollegiate competition amongst women was between the University of California, Berkeley vs. Stanford University and Washington vs. Ellen Normal School, both of which occurred in 1896. (5) This paved the way for women in sports to get the representation and acknowledgment they needed and deserved. Once Title IX was introduced in 1972 women were able to infiltrate the sports sector. Title IX states “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” (6) Title IX was essential for women in sports as it was a nondiscrimination policy that forced educational institutes to give women equal opportunities as men.
The women’s suffrage movement also contributed immensely to the efforts of women in sport. In 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment was adopted and women were allowed to vote. The Nineteenth Amendment states that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by ant State on account of sex.” (7) The right to vote put emphasis on women’s freedom and it gave them further encouragement to fight for equality in sports.
The Second World War (WWII) also further challenged the roles of women. Many men joined the military and this left a gaping hole in the industrial sector and efforts in the home and war fronts. This created an opportunity for women to step up to the task and demonstrate their abilities in partaking in physically rigorous work. This not only changed how women are perceived globally but also gave women the confidence to further challenge the gender-stereotypes that existed at the time. After WWII there was a renewed sense of empowerment amongst women and this contributed immensely to the involvement of women in sports.
It is to reinforce the gender binaries and maintain male domination. We have seen time and again that women face barriers to sport mobility. And this is because society struggles to grasp what is considered to be uncommon. Sports were used to contribute to the toxic masculinity of men as Karin A. E. Volkwein-Caplan states “physical activity was a good way to maintain one’s virility and athletic manhood.” (8) Allowing women to get involved in sports not only undermined the values of women’s femininity but also disturbed the maintenance of masculine hegemony.
The pressure that women applied in demanding better representation and equality in the sports sector was successful to an extent. As a result of all the hard work women did in the past we now see women participate in world sports. However, when you compare the representation that men get versus women, it becomes evident that there are clear disparities and that further strides need to be made. For example, on March 8, 2019, “the U.S. women’s soccer team filed a gender discrimination suit against the U.S. Soccer Federation.” Although the women’s soccer team has been more successful than the men’s, the women are experiencing institutionalized gender discrimination in regards to their pay, support and working conditions. (9) Furthermore, the fact that society considers physical masculine attributes to be superior can be seen through the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) implementation of testing for women with high testosterone levels in 2011. Although there was no real scientific backing at the time, women athletes with high testosterone levels had to either get medical treatment to lower their testosterone levels or dropout. (10) Research done recently at the University of Colorado Boulder showed that high testosterone levels in women don’t give them a comparative advantage. (11) This shows that women are still expected to abide by the frigid binaries set forth by society. Although there remains room for improvement it is important to acknowledge the work that women have done in the past and continue to do now in surpassing society’s expectations and fighting for equality.