Women, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century have faced difficulties in their right of passage into the world of physical activity. In the face of political repression, medical myths, poor funding, and media coverage; women have battled to make their place in modern day athletics. Despite the diversity and pressures presented in the male dominated societies throughout history, women have adapted and evolved into multi-talented athletes whose skill levels equal or even surpass those of their male counterparts.
The segregation of women in athletics dates back to 1000 BC where the Herean Games, a women only version of the Olympic games took place in Ancient Greece. The first ever official banishment of women from competing with men on an athletic level occurred in 440 BC where men devised the first sex test to keep women out of the games (Milestones in Women’s Sport, 1999, p.2). Women were excluded from Olympic participation from ancient times through the advent of the modern day Olympics in 1896 (International Olympic Committee, 2000, p.2). The discouragement of female participation in athletics combined with the society instilled male dominance, deeply effected the “ideal” image of a modern day athlete. In the 1900 Paris games, women were allowed to compete in sports such as golf, tennis, and yahting, but most didn’t even realize their events were considered an official part of the Olympic schedule (International Olympic Committee, 2000, p.1).
The types of physical activity women were permitted to participate in were confined to non-strenuous, non-competitive contests. “When women did participate, they did so in the main for social reasons and seldom in competition (Hargreaves, 1994, p.89).” This is opposed to masculine building violence and tests of strength such as football, and boxing; which were seen as socially unacceptable for female participation. Movements in women’s liberation and the battle for equal rights in athletic participation have often gone hand in hand. Each victory has been deemed to be another step forward for womankind. These victories, ranging from the introduction of cycling, to women only leagues in various sports, and equal opportunities within the Olympics, are proof of the struggle against the resistance imposed on their freedom to participate in athletics.
In addition to the male imposed restrictions of female physical activity, many myths concerning a female’s ability to participate in strenuous activities arose. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, women’s health issues relating to their participation in physical activities became the forefront of many heated debates. Though women were held to be victims of their reproductive apparatus in general, the onset of menstruation and its recurring cycle were believed to be the cause of a particular handicap. An example of one of these myths is in the case of the early cyclist’s saddles, which “were said to induce menstruation and cause contracted vaginas and collapsed uteri (Nelson, 1994, p.16)”. Ironically, there was never a link placed between frequent symptoms of (Nelson, 1994) “testicular tenderness, constipation, bladder troubles, and difficulty discharging urine (p.16)” amongst male cyclists of the same time period. These types of myths were imposed to discourage female participation in physical activity, and in certain cases frighten women from ever having the thought. The evidence of medical myths and female physical participation is still apparent in the twenty-first century. In a recent publication, the American Academy of Pediatrics Journal linked associations between disordered eating and other ailments to female participation in physical activities:
“Exercise is good for female children and adolescents. Special medical concerns should be considered however, when caring for young female athletes. Athletes can develop abnormal eating patterns (termed disordered eating), which can be associated with menstrual dysfunction (amenorrhea or oligomenorrhea) and subsequent decreased bone mineral density (BMD), or osteoperosis. These 3 conditions-disordered eating, amenorrhea, and osteoperosis- often occur together and have been termed the female athlete triad (Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness, 2000, p.610).”
Male physical ailments, are not discussed as frequently as female concerns. Also, this report does not explore the incidence of abnormal eating and menstruation patterns amongst non-physically active females of the same age group. Even in today’s society, medical myths are present to frighten women from participation in physical activity.
Apart from sociological and medical restrictions placed on women who participated in physical activities, other aspects affected their progression to excellence in this field. Access to facilities, design of clothing, and coverage in the media, have all affected participation levels amongst females in athletic participation. As the women’s liberation movement progressed, there was a realization that men could not stop the female progression forward, but could do all that they could to take away it’s credit.
At organized professional female events such as tennis, focus is often concentrated on what the women are wearing, and not their level of play and skill. In the early nineteenth brought on restrictions to men placed by men that “public female sweat was deemed indelicate, men were not allowed to watch female sports (Nelson, 1998, p.196 )”. Both female athletes and reporters have yet to achieve parity with men in the media. In today’s times, women athletes are almost invisible. In 1993 (Empowering women and Sports, 1995). “Only 5% of televised sports news covered women’s sports- virtually the same percentage as in 1989 (p.1).” The excuse in the case of media and reporting on female athletics is the access to female locker rooms. A possible solution to this problem may be to hire more female sports reporters, but that might be a little to advanced for this point and time.
For many, athletics and physical activity has been a life long dream and aspiration. For men, it can lead to a very prosperous career. This is not the case when dealing with women. Women are often discouraged from not only participating in physical activity, but also from entering into it as a career. Salaries for men in the field of athletics are considerably higher than their female counterparts. A study (Empowering Women in Sports, 1995), focusing on coaching in Division I NCAA teams concluded:
Coaches of women’s teams are still paid less than coaches of men’s teams. Out of 14 sports that have men’s and women’s teams, the Division I men’s head and assistant coaches’ combined average base salaries were more that the women’s in all sports – sometimes a lot more. In basketball, men’s head coaches were paid an average of $39,177. Even in female dominated sports like gymnastics, the men’s coaches were paid more on average. And because most schools offer more sports for men than women, the average combined spending for men’s coaches salaries was $625,396 for Division I schools, but only $227, 871 for women’s teams (p.2)
Obviously, if it isn’t possible to make a decent salary in the field of their choice, women will be discouraged from making the decision of pursuing a career in athletics, thus restricting their career choices to more “female ” traditional jobs.
The issue of homophobia is another major issue discouraging women from becoming involved in physical activity. Throughout history, masculinity has been defined as brute strength and power. The definition for femininity is based on the exact opposite of masculinity. Anything outside of this norm is deemed to be different and socially unacceptable. Homophobia in women’s athletics is widespread. More than half of female administrators surveyed said their involvement in sports often led others to assume they were lesbian (Empowering women in sports, 1995, p.1). Nelson (1998) suggests “Homophobia in sports serves as a way to control women, both gay and straight (p.196)”. Whether a woman is a lesbian or straight, homophobia in sports and the society at large tends to discourage girls and women from pursuing traditionally “masculine” activities such as contact sports and team sports for fear of being labeled homosexual. Focusing on sexual orientation unfairly denies women opportunities in sports on the basis of personal preferences irrelevant to athletic abilities.
The evolution of the “tomboy” has been a long and bumpy road. Women fought
To overcome every obstacle that history and society has placed in their way that have restricted their participation in physical activity. Although many accomplishments have been made, there are still many more waiting in the wings in order to achieve equality and physical activity without gender bias. The benefits of physical activity should be shared by all; not just those that traditional, and historical male dominated societies see fit.
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Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness. (2000). Medical concerns in the female athlete (RE0003). American Academy of Pediatrics, 106, 610-613.
Empowering Women in Sports: Women athletes in the media. (1995). The Feminist
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Empowering Women in Sports: Women still on the sidelines. (1995). The Feminist
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