Sara Gross, PhD takes the long view on what it will take to create true gender equality in sport.
Dubbed “the first feminist,” English writer Mary Wollstonecraft is best-known for her 1792 work “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” In it, she argues that women are not inherently inferior to men but only appear so due to lack of education. On physical activity she writes:
Let us then, by being allowed to take the same exercise as boys, not only during infancy, but youth, arrive at perfection of body, that we may know how far the natural superiority of man extends. (Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 138)
| “Would the current state of play for women in sport make women like Wollstonecraft and Susan B. Anthony proud or are they rolling in their graves?”
Haru Nomura [LPGA]
So how far have we come in the last 200 years? Would the current state of play for women in sport make women like Wollstonecraft, and Susan B. Anthony proud or are they rolling in their graves? Feminism has rarely turned its attention to sport. Are we failing our daughters and granddaughters? What does true gender equality mean in the sporting arena and how do we get there?
In other realms, such as education and job opportunities, gender equality is more easily defined because the argument that women are of equal intellectual ability has, at least in the modern West, been fought and won. But when it comes to sport, do we believe that women are as physically capable as men? Do we want to watch more women play professional sport? Do female athletes want to take on the men in head-to-head battles across all sports or will separate women’s divisions continue to be the way forward for women’s sport internationally?
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In the West, sport and physical education for girls and women was established in the late 19th century and tended to revolve around traditional biological assumptions about men and women. While women played many sports from croquet to boxing, the most popular were softball, golf and tennis.
Separate women’s organizations gave women access to men’s sport and gave women the ability to control their activities, both then and now. The downside is that separating women into a “class” serves to underline and reinforce whatever the current definition of “male” and “female” happens to be, when in reality these categories are far from binary.
| “There is nothing less passive than women playing full contact rugby or Holly Holm taking down Ronda Rousey in the ring.”
Separating men’s and women’s sporting categories can underscore and reinforce the characterization of men as aggressive, competitive and clever and women as emotional, co-operative and passive.
Conversely, women’s sporting achievements, and the valourization of these achievements hold the power to turn these gendered caricatures on their heads. There is nothing less passive than women playing full contact rugby or Holly Holm taking down Ronda Rousey in the ring. Increasingly, sport is offering images of strong, powerful women, and these images slowly chip away at dominant cultural strongholds.
So is the solution to continue to glamourize macho images of women, all the while underscoring and reinforcing the dominant cultural assumption that brute strength and a ripped, lean physique are somehow superior? Change is required on multiple levels.
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One suggestion from the feminist camp has been to recognize that most sports are firmly rooted in patriarchal culture and that acknowledging this and creating new sports in which value is placed on a wider range of physical abilities is the way forward. A more well-rounded sport might include a greater focus on balance, flexibility and timing, like gymnastics.
| Sailing, for example, has been a gender-independant sport since its inclusion in the Olympic Games in 1900.
But is it really possible to reinvent the wheel and create new sports in which men and women can compete on equal terms? Maybe. But not in the short term.
There are some sports in which women and men currently compete together such as sailing, horse racing and equestrian. We love to cheer when women win outright against the men like Michelle Payne’s recent victory at the Melbourne Cup (in particular when doubters are told to “get stuffed.”) But truth be told, neither horse racing nor sailing provide equal opportunities for women.
Sailing, for example, has been a gender-independant sport since its inclusion in the Olympic Games in 1900. That year, Hélène de Pourtalès, a member of the Swiss boat Lérina, won the gold medal in the 2-3 ton class. Yet in 1988, exclusive women’s sailing events were introduced to provide more opportunities for women to sail. In professional sailing, opportunities for women still lag behind those for men and creating a separate women’s professional circuit is part of the solution to the pay gap.
Further, niche sports such as ultra-distance running and ultra distance triathlon enjoy a certain degree of gender blindness, partially because it in not uncommon for women to win outright and also because the struggle for publicity and money is fought over small amounts when compared with main stream sports like football, soccer and basketball.
Equestrian sport may be the one sphere in which men and women ultimately compete as equals. Even a cursory glance at Olympic medal tables and results lists tell us that women are just as likely as men to win, in particular those from modern western countries where opportunities are not limited by other factors. It is not surprising that a sport that requires good horsemanship, patience, sensitivity and the ability to develop a winning relationship with an animal is a non-gendered activity.
Also worthy of note, gender is not the only category that requires analysis when it comes to power-relations and sport. Age, class, disability, ethnicity, marital status, occupation and sexual orientation all come with barriers of their own.
In order to create equal opportunity in sport we must consider three options:
1. Continue to support and develop separate men’s and women’s divisions which allow women to control their sporting environments.
2. Increase participation alongside the men in order to break new ground in performance levels.
3. Provide qualitative new models of sport (ie. creating new sports) in which differences in sex are less important.
The solution, ultimately, must lie in all three. The female body has been the locus of struggle for control and resistance to the dominant images of femininity since the nineteenth century and beyond. Sport, and female athletes of any ilk carry the power to help create change for all women simply by doing what we love. In the process, athletes are creating a mosaic of images of femininity that include everything from powerful Olympic lifter, to lean runner, to graceful synchronized swimmer. With them lies the power for cultural change.
| “And the message to female athletes must be to foster and go after one’s dreams. Be whatever version of womanhood you want to be. Be a ballerina, a sumo wrestler or MMA fighter. Commit to your sport and move forward bravely.”
Luckily, many international sporting federations, not least the IOC, consider gender equality to be one of their key missions as they strive for fairness and equity. For example, the IOC’s mission to have at least one woman from every country represented at the Games came to fruition in 2012 and almost led to sanctions for Saudi Arabia. That same year, women’s boxing was introduced and the US Olympic team included more women than men.
In the case of the US, women’s sport got a huge boost in recent decades, as the outcomes of Title IX – a law that precludes state-funded educational institutions from funding biases, in all programs, including sports – are coming to fruition.
While the IOC and other federations have made equality part of their mandate, and in the US unequal opportunities are flat out illegal for boys and girls in education, there is still a long way to go if our goal is to reach the summit of equality mountain.
Just look at the super media spectacle that is the Superbowl. As long as football continues to be male-only at the Superbowl level, and women are relegated to supporting roles like cheerleading, the cultural message is still firmly planted in the idea that being male in our culture confers a certain degree of privilege and access to sporting success that excludes women.
Sport is like a microcosm of gender values in any culture, so the same could be said of any mass media sporting extravaganza that excludes women; World Cup Soccer, Rugby, Tour de France Cycling and NBA Basketball are all examples of this.
According to a recent Vice News article, it’s not just sports coverage that is lacking in women’s voices: ”Scholars posit that the overwhelmingly male composition of the profession has led to the masculine values that have come to define news value — the criteria used to determine what is ‘news’ — and that the socialization process in the newsroom further reproduces these values.” Likewise with sport.
So how do we create change? The answer lies in Policy, Money and Media.
| “And if we can do all these things, we can look back and say to Susan B. Anthony and her cohorts, ‘It’s ok. We got this.’”
Policy. We have already seen how IOC policy has led to constructive change for women in sport. More federations and sporting organizations at every level of play need to make gender equality and equal access part of their mandate.
Money. Money is a huge factor. Investors in sport need to see the need for social responsibility. Not only that, but the demand to watch women play professional sport is growing. And access to viewing, listening and reading creates and encourages further demand.
Media. “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” How many American girls are sitting in their living rooms thinking “I want to be a football player when i grow up?” There will be some, but not many. If an all-female Super Bowl was played each year with all the fanfare of the men’s game, you can imagine how many girls might rise to that challenge.
It is the responsibility of the media to not only reproduce, but challenge and change culture. And the demand for women’s sport viewing is real and growing. Support can be shown by watching, clicking, liking and sharing.
And the message to female athletes must be to foster and go after one’s dreams. Be whatever version of womanhood you want to be. Be a ballerina, a sumo wrestler or MMA fighter. Commit to your sport and move forward bravely.
And if we can do all these things, we can look back and say to Susan B. Anthony and her cohorts, “It’s ok. We got this.”
Sara Gross is a two-time Ironman winner, a former North American Ironman Champion and European Long Course Triathlon Champion. Sara holds a PhD in World Religions from The University of Edinburgh and a BA and MA from Queens University in Canada. In 2007 Sara co-founded a coaching company Mercury Rising Triathlon, which offers triathlon coaching to athletes in Canada and world-wide. In 2015, Sara and twelve others founded the not-for-profit organization TriEqual with the goal of increasing opportunities for under-represented groups in the sport of triathlon.
Sara is a Writer, Presenter and Producer at WISP Sports. She also works with Bahrain Endurance helping promote sport and health in the Middle East and improve the intercultural East/West dialogue through Triathlon. Sara lives in Victoria, BC and is the proud mom to daughter Rosalee.