Penny Hopkins reflects on the development of women’s sports to contextualize the modern era and prove that today’s sportswomen deserve professionalism and recognition
To paraphrase Jane Austen; it is a truth universally acknowledged that until the nineteenth century women did not engage in anything more athletic than needlepoint. Although it is true that the physical education aspect to women’s lives did not come to the fore until the nineteenth century, certain women practiced exercise and sport a long time before that.
We have to go back as far as the 6th Century, BC. to the Heraen Games, (dedicated to the goddess Hera) to find the first example of women taking part in competitive sporting races. Although women were not allowed to compete in the Olympic Games, the Heraen Games also took place every four years. Race winners were awarded olive crowns and the meat from the animal sacrifices to Hera that took place before the games began. The women competed in three age groups around the same track as the men but at 5/6 distance. They also wore chitons (tunics) whereas men competed naked.
In Rome, women were taking part in races from the 1st Century BC and also competing in ball games and throwing events. In addition to this they participated in dancing, swimming and hunting as well as gladiatorial contests against other women.
All well and good for a small number of women in ancient Greece and Rome. But we have learned how individual sports and women’s participation developed at different speeds.
In the early days, golf was considered a suitable sport for a lady, ironic really when you realize that today there are still golf clubs that do not allow women members. Mary, Queen of Scots is recorded playing golf in Scotland in 1567. The first women’s golf tournament was also held in Scotland, in Musselburgh in 1811.
Cricket too made an early appearance with the first match recorded in Surrey, England in 1745, but the first women’s cricket club was not formed until 1887 in Yorkshire. In the modern era, cricket has undergone a transformation as what was once the most traditionally run sport but in the 10th Century has realized and embraced the potential of the women’s game. The viewing public is also beginning to appreciate the improvement in skill levels, competitiveness and excitement of women’s cricket. The players today seem to be very much aware that as well as their athletic role, they also need to be ambassadors for the sport.
Women have had a long association with horses and equestrian sports. From the female warriors, “Amazons”, of antiquity to Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and beyond, women always rode astride. The sidesaddle only became known in England in 1382 when the prospective bride of Richard II, Princess Anne of Bohemia, was transported across Europe to her wedding on a rudimentary version of the sidesaddle—a move to prevent the accidental loss of the Princess’s virginity before her marriage. By 1600 it was considered that no respectable woman would ride anything other than sidesaddle.
By the nineteenth century there were female “long riders”— women who rode immense distances, mostly sidesaddle. They faced many dangers on their journeys but most injuries came from the sidesaddle itself. Alice Hayes, British author and proponent of the sidesaddle, called the women who dared to ride astride “female desperados”, but it eventually became clear that riding astride was going to win out. In fact the history of women in equestrianism has been shown to be inextricably linked to women’s rights in general, and more specifically the campaign for women’s suffrage.
Association football has also had an interesting history. By the 1790s there was an annual football competition in Scotland, and there is evidence of women playing earlier versions of the game as far back as the first century AD in China. It comes as no surprise that women taking part in the sport were considered a threat to the “masculinity” of the game. The Dick, Kerr Ladies was the most famous and popular team in England in the 1920s and regularly drew crowds between 25,000 and 50,000. In 1920 the team played what was recorded as the first women’s international match, in front of a crowd of 25,000 against France. Alas, the Football Association (FA) was unhappy. In 1921, it banned women from using its member’s grounds—in effect banning women’s football. The ban was only lifted in 1971. Now it is the most widely played team sport for women with 176 national sides taking part in international matches.
Tennis is one sport that has always been regarded as an appropriate sport for women. It often features in novels from the Edwardian period onward when the upper classes held their tennis parties which combined with cocktails was considered the social norm. However, the most significant event in women’s tennis history didn’t occur until 1973 when tennis legend and women’s rights advocate Billie Jean King formed the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). While women’s tournaments took place long before that, the first women’s Wimbledon final was in 1884, the French National Championships and the U.S. National Championships in 1897 with the move to the Open era in 1968. Prior to 1973 women’s tennis was largely disorganized and disrespected.
Many of women’s opportunities depended on her station in life and thus class played an important part in the development of women’s sport. During the industrial era when women worked in a factory for twelve hours a day, six days a week, cared for younger siblings and were responsible for housekeeping, they were less likely to find the time and energy for sporting pursuits. At best, a girl or woman in service would only have a half-day off and Sundays to attend church.
The upper classes had more leisure time, but were constrained by what was considered “seemly”. A degree of walking was popular and from the mid eighteenth century upper-class women also took up archery. Clubs began to admit women early on in their history.
And of course we couldn’t have any history of women’s sport without talking about the assumed weakness of the female body and women’s relentless handicap—menstruation. While there are those who still dismiss the monthly visitor as an impediment there is no denying that women and sport have largely been perceived as impossible bedfellows in history because of the so-called dangers of females taking part in anything vigorous. Setting aside any misguided notions of “femininity” and “seemliness” let’s concentrate on what were, at one time, considered to be cold hard facts.
In the nineteenth century it was generally thought, and confirmed by the scientific community, that if women indulged in vigorous activity, their wombs would, in all likelihood, drop out. Obviously to any woman who has suffered a prolapsed womb this is no laughing matter, but it’s safe to say the cause wasn’t too much exercise.
In 1898, an article by Dr Gerson in the German Journal of Physical Education stated that “violent movements of the body can cause a shift in the position and a loosening of the uterus as well as prolapse and bleeding, with resulting sterility, thus defeating a woman’s true purpose in life, i.e., the bringing forth of strong children.” But, of course, the Victorian era was rife with the idea that women were supposed to be pale, fainting flowers whose reproductive organs were responsible for everything from intellect to aggression. The hysteria to which women were apparently prone and the promulgation of the myths surrounding the womb’s propensity to fall out persisted for a long time.
Marathon runner Katherine Switzer recalled in her memoir that her (female) high school basketball coach told her that women would never be able to play the men’s version of basketball because the “excessive number of jump balls could displace the uterus.” That was in the 1960s.
Of course Switzer went on to dispel myths of all kinds in the world of running. Any distance over 800m was for a long time considered not only deleterious to a woman’s health but may result in her growing hair on her chest.
It wasn’t until 2005 that women finally began to compete in international ski-jumping competition, the president of the International Ski Federation (FIS) Gian-Franco Kasper, commented that he thought the sport: “not appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.” He was still echoing the same message in 2010 when he said that he thought a woman’s uterus might burst during a ski jump landing.
More recently the effect of menstruation upon sportswomen has again become a hot topic. Chinese swimmer, Fu Yuanhui made the news cycle when she blamed what she considered a poor performance in the 4x 100m relay at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games on her period. “It’s because my period came yesterday, so I felt particularly tired but this isn’t an excuse, I still didn’t swim well enough,” she said. Happily Fu is now somewhat of a heroine in her own country for speaking out.
British tennis player Heather Watson made similar claims when she exited the 2015 Australian Open in the first round. She was slightly more coy in her description, but there was no doubting what she meant when she said, “I think it’s just one of these things that I have; girl things.”
Scientists are still testing and analyzing just how a woman’s menstrual cycle may affect her sporting performance. It’s not clear whether we moved on from Dr Edward Clarke’s view, published in 1874, in a work entitled “Sex in Education; A Fair Chance for Girls” in which he asserts that “both muscular and brain labour must be reduced at the onset of menstruation.”
In America, the sea change for women’s opportunities in sport came with Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments Act which stated that: “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.” Women in the United States are still fighting discrimination in sport today and still cite Title IX in their arguments. Moreover the current administration is threatening to challenge Title IX and rescind those rights which would have damaging implications for girls and young women.
It is important to note that women have made great strides in all aspects of sport. Women now compete at amateur and professional levels in so many sports around the world; they govern sports; they officiate at sport, they coach and they have developed a voice in the media.
But there is no getting away from the fact that athletic women—or even women just exercising at home—still face barriers to recognition and success, or even the right to take part. Sexism and misogyny are rife throughout the sports world. Women playing sport to the highest standard are still often disregarded, insulted and treated as second-class citizens.
Women’s sport still accounts for only 7% of sports media in the UK and 4% in the US. Corporate sponsorship and investment is also at 4% in the UK and lower still at 0.5% in the US. There are an increasing number of teams and sports governing bodies that are being challenged on their inequality both on and off the field of play. USA Ice Hockey, USA Soccer and Football Ireland are recent examples of how collectively women’s voices can be heard and effect change for better remuneration and improved conditions both for themselves and generations to come.
More women have opportunities now to play professional sports and some can make a livelihood but there is still much work to be done and we must not be complacent if we are to maintain progress in the name of women’s sports across countries and cultures.